Back in the days when I used to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, I never thought I was shy. Shyness was for other people, for sissies, for wimps, for people who couldn’t cope, not for tough guys like me. But after I stopped smoking and drinking, I suddenly discovered that I was a shy person. Beneath all my boozy bravado, I had always been shy. Without the old props I was lost. I was painfully self-conscious, timid, anxious, and scared.
That was a few years ago. With a bit of practice, I’ve learned to approach strangers boldly if a situation calls for it, to ask questions, to make cheerful, interested conversation. I’ve learned to ask for what I need. I’ve learned not to be invisible. I’ve learned that making a fool of myself in front of others is okay. I still have trouble talking easily about money and about my increasingly important “inner life” — the words always seem to stop, strangled and trapped, in my throat — but I’m certainly improving.
All this has felt a bit like overcoming a handicap. Now I can deal adequately — not brilliantly or comfortably, but adequately — with others.
However, I’ve discovered another kind of shyness, as unexpected as the first. I’m shy with myself. I can sit and talk with just about anyone about almost anything, but heaven forbid that I should try sitting with myself for a while. I just want to run, and I do. Anyone who’s ever tried to meditate will know what I mean. There’s something scary about allowing those feelings free rein. I’ll seek any distraction to avoid spending time alone — shopping, watching television, flipping through magazines, chatting with friends on the phone, worrying about my mounting debts, checking whether the little hair on my chin needs to be plucked yet again.
Shyness seems to be about fear — fear of being thought less of, fear of being seen in a bad light, fear of not appearing as one wants to appear, fear of having one’s precious and painstakingly constructed self-image cracked or shattered, fear of feeling uncomfortable, fear of feeling.
Now I worry less about what other people think, and more about how I see myself. And I run a huge risk of finding myself to be less than I pretend I am. Other people are not nearly as cruel as my own inner voices; others don’t judge me as harshly as I judge myself, and they have far more compassion for mistakes and folly.
I’m hoping to conquer this new shyness with myself. I know I won’t be happy till I do, and I also know that what I’ll find isn’t nearly as bad as what my fears suggest. In fact, it’s probably something worth waiting for.
New York, New York
Many people who meet my five-year-old daughter Sarah think she is shy. She often dissolves into a loose part of my clothing, or becomes so absorbed inspecting the ground that it is nearly impossible to get her to make eye contact with a stranger.
There are a handful of people who understand how to invite Sarah to meet them. They’ve been the quiet, respectful types who didn’t demand her attention.
I don’t think Sarah is shy, if shy means scared, retiring, or lacking personal power. With respect to strange adults, I think Sarah is often wise. I think she has an intuitive clarity about the true motives of many adults who seek her attention. She’s been able to retain that clarity because I have rarely urged her to respond to someone until she wanted to. (Those few times I have pushed, I’ve always felt sick afterward, as if I had betrayed a sacred trust.) Many adults go away disappointed with the response they get from Sarah and confused about my unwillingness to support their attempts to win her instant respect and attention. The disappointment and confusion is their problem. My job is to trust and support Sarah’s inner sense of who she wants to be with.
Like Sarah, I am an introvert. Casual conversation meant only to fill the silence, rather than to bridge it, drains me. I act shy because I sometimes lack the guts to speak my mind and heart — or to simply maintain silence, like Sarah, waiting for the other to speak his or her own truth and so inviting me to respond with mine.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
Last January, I stopped being shy, started having orgasms like crazy, and gave up on Catholicism. This all happened because I stopped feeling guilty and started loving myself.
I untied a knot in my heart and the whole ball unraveled. Spurred by my jealousy of a brief but meaningful flirtation on the part of my husband, I probed my pain and found its source in my own lack of self-love, not in his action. In the truth-telling that followed, I realized not only was I loved, but I was lovable. It’s nice to be loved, but it’s even nicer to be free of another’s judgment. Only when I started loving myself could I look my husband directly in the eye. After ten years of marriage, I realized with horror how shy I had been with him.
My shyness, I realized, was based on a sense of inferiority. I was clumsy and didn’t know how to act. What are people thinking of me? I always wondered. The futility and stupidity of that finally sank in. Despite what many said, the problem was not too much self-consciousness, but too little. When alone, I found meaning, but with others I lost it, adrift in a sea of otherness I couldn’t understand. Now I find I can move with more grace when I start to consult myself — my needs, my desires, my purposes — rather than wondering how I appear to others.
Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself; do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He stressed “your neighbor,” and “others,” but maybe he should have spent more time on the “yourself” part. Growing up with these and other Christian messages, I had skipped loving myself while trying to love others and God. It didn’t work.
Anne Marie Whelan
Ithaca, New York
Tears glisten in my daughter’s eyes as we speak. She is seven years old. Tomorrow she begins her first day in second grade at public school. For three years we have had the luxury of sheltering her in a small one-room “free school.” Now, for many reasons, this is no longer an option. “But Daddy,” she wails, “what if nobody likes me?”
Two friends, well-meaning adults, have recently made comments about her shyness that suggest it is either an unnecessary indulgence or a character disorder that needs to be cured. She is not convinced. “But I am shy,” she insists.
I ache for her. Like the children she will meet tomorrow, my daughter craves relationships that will bridge the gulf between souls. To the degree that she fails, her capacity for true relationship will slowly die. I cannot tell her, “Don’t be afraid.”
Do any of us fully survive? Do any of us emerge from childhood without greatly limiting our capacity for openness, without setting conditions on our willingness to risk? How cleverly we have learned to mask our needs, to hide the fear of exposing who we truly are.
As I gaze into my daughter’s questioning eyes, her shyness appears most precious. Shyness, it seems, is nothing more or less than the authentic expression of awe at the power and enormity of human relationships. Do we not dishonor ourselves when we deny this?
Grass Valley, California
When I was in grade school, the most traumatic day of each school year was picture day, when the professional photographers came. They set up their equipment while we stood in line nervously fingering our new plastic combs. I’d joke with my classmates, but when it was my turn to step forward, to perch on that odd little seat, to look at the stranger beside the camera, I was terrified. The photographer was always in a hurry, saying, “Turn your head this way. Tilt your chin. Look here. Smile.” Smiling was the last thing I wanted to do. I was sure there was a right way to do this, and I knew I wasn’t even close. All my fears about being wrong, failing, looking foolish, being stupid, would rush together in that moment. I pointed my face in the direction of the voice and tried to smile.
Weeks later, when the pictures arrived at the school, I was always relieved to find that mine had turned out okay. The expression was a little frozen, a bit distorted, but the image did not betray the terror.
In the thirty years since, I’ve learned a lot about performing. I can appear confident and poised. But inside, I’m still that child, caught sometimes when the instructions come too fast, when I know I can’t do it “right,” when the people I’m with are strangers, when the lights are too bright, when what is being recorded and measured is my picture, not my reality — when what is being seen is my image, not my heart.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
It has taken me all my life to accept the fact that I am shy. As a child, I thought that there was something wrong with me because I felt ill at ease around people and had few friends. I used to view my shyness as a curse that kept people out of my life and closed certain doors to me.
As a result, I have spent a great deal of time alone. I have sought out beautiful and isolated places to live and visit. I skied to remote cabins some winters, and spent my summers on fire lookouts. In recent years I have lived in small towns. I spend my weekends camping alone on high mountain ridges or paddling to uninhabited islands. I find myself reading or working with my hands in the evenings.
Increasingly, I see my shyness as a gift, which has led me to experiences I would not have had otherwise. The natural beauty I have seen has enriched my life; solitude has forced me to look honestly at myself and the world. Now, as I work with the elderly and the sick, the loneliness I have experienced allows me to reach out to them with compassion.
I remember the first time I was called shy: it was in church and I was five years old. I was wearing my favorite dress — black and white taffeta — over starched petticoats, rustling noisily as I marched down the aisle between my parents. I knew that I was “being good” when I was perfectly silent. I occupied myself by gazing at the stained-glass windows (all reds and purples), or at the hats of the women in front of me (all pinks and blues), or finally, staring into the dull eyes of the dead fox on Mrs. Pinckney’s fur stole. I remained still throughout the preacher’s tired speech. He shouted at us, then pleaded with us. He was a mystery to me. I couldn’t decide whether he loved us or was disappointed in us. (I often felt this way about grown-ups.)
My only act of rebellion came when we recited the Lord’s Prayer. I kept my eyes wide, just like Mrs. Pinckney’s fox. When the service ended, we filed out. Some people spoke to my parents. They called me “pretty” or “sweet.” I kept my eyes on my patent-leather shoes. I didn’t trust grown-ups. That’s why I didn’t talk. You never knew what a grown-up might do.
The preacher waited outside, his robe standing out like a sail. His face was nice, like Captain Kangaroo’s. “Hello, Noisy,” he boomed, winking at my father. I smiled but I couldn’t speak. What would I have said? “She’s shy, isn’t she?” he asked, as we walked into the churchyard.
Greensboro, North Carolina
It’s one of my few vivid childhood memories. I’m sitting somewhere in the middle of an old classroom, the ceilings too high, one entire wall covered with huge windows that remain open in summer. It’s the beginning of my third-grade year and somehow I’ve managed to stay invisible, perhaps by hiding behind Denny Stancavage. Then I hear my name, like God’s voice in a storm. “You’re the new boy aren’t you?” asks Mrs. Sibert. “No,” I manage, “I’ve been here from the beginning.” “Oh, I didn’t notice you before,” she apologizes. I turn bright red, stop breathing, and retreat into a fantasy land of anywhere but here.
In a few years I develop a classic case of acne. Greasy Italian food from Dad’s side, supplemented by frequent snacks of American cheese on white bread with bags of chips, help me to become embarrassingly chubby. The teachers tell Mom I am shy and smart, but I don’t try.
In high school the windows get smaller. I lose some weight, battle the acne, and talk just enough to let people know I am not mentally handicapped. I am remembered by my last name. I am one of those picked for basketball when there are only three kids left.
After many years and many jobs — washing cars, spot-welding metal cabinets, working construction — I find a place where it is okay, even desirable, to be quiet. In the ashram I learn about karma, become friendly with the Hindu gods, get the nickname “Silent Sage,” and learn how good I can look and feel living on brown rice, vegetables, hard work, sunshine, and discipline. Slowly, painfully, I learn how to listen, then how to talk, and finally how to enjoy being with people.
I find a church that lets me keep the Hindu gods and has a lot of members who eat at salad bars. To avoid socializing, I arrive late to church, and leave early. I notice that M does the same. She is older, cute. We spend hours talking in my little pickup truck, then walking along the river. We watch videos; we eat many salads. There are trips to the ocean, hours of holding each other on the couch, finally stroking each other softly in bed. We let each other know it is okay to be shy or quiet. We dream and plan how to become functional adults in a dysfunctional world. We both take evening college classes, go back to the dreaded schoolroom. I focus poorly, but dream well — enough for good grades on creative projects. I watch the shy, young students, and wonder what secret shame they carry, what secret dreams they hold.
Lambertville, New Jersey
When I was thirteen, Saturday afternoon meant the movies. The twenty-five-cent ticket included the main feature (usually a western), a serial, and a couple of cartoons. On this particular Saturday I went to the men’s room about halfway through the movie. When I came out, I paused for a moment at the back of the theatre. As I stood there watching the movie, I felt someone come up behind me. She was older, fifteen at least. She leaned into me and rested her arms on my shoulders. Her breasts pressed gently into my back as she whispered, “Hi, how ya doing?” Her warm breath caressed my neck as she spoke. I could feel the rough fiber of her wool sweater through my shirt. Although I vibrated with sexual energy, I was powerless to speak. Her hair brushed against my neck as she said, “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?” After a few moments of my paralyzed silence, she said, “You’re too shy,” and walked away.
I returned to my seat filled with regret. Too late, I thought of numerous clever replies. In the months that followed I relived that scene hundreds of times. I vowed that next time I would be prepared. Of course, there was no next time; there never is.