Skip to main content

For years I’ve wished to be like women who, with warm humor and subtle approachability, have radiant command over any gathering. You know, the ones who tell stories with confident charm, who crack jokes or laugh with abandon. In a room crowded with faces, she shines. She seems to catch ears, eyes, and even hearts with instant likability.

This is not the case for me. Shyness stops me in my tracks at parties. At best, I muster the confidence to introduce myself to someone new. At worst, I shuffle into a corner and mindlessly scroll through Instagram to appear busy, or I find familiar faces to cling to, like security blankets for my small talk.

Shyness. It’s the heart wanting to be revealed but withholding itself instead. It’s palms sweating, heart fluttering, fumbling with words. Many of us struggle with shyness—whether at a party swarming with strangers, on a first date, or in the office—as certain social situations stir our nerves. Unfortunately, often with shyness comes another internal struggle: comparison.

Conscious of it or not, I think many of us set ourselves to extroverted standards—wishing we were livelier, more expressive, less inhibited. More extroverted.

Extroverts or introverts, outgoing or otherwise, we face a cultural expectation to possess a certain social confidence. This is what Susan Cain in Quiet Revolution: Unlocking the Power of Introverts calls the “extrovert ideal”—“the omnipotent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”

Western society has long favored action over contemplation. Cain says we have inherited the extrovert ideal from Greco-Roman society and its praise of the rhetorical person. In America, where extroversion reigns supreme, personality speaks volumes. It seems the bigger the personality, the better. As far back as childhood, we’re taught that social acceptance means being a “people person,” as if sociable and likable are the same thing. Today, self-promotion is the norm. People now have brands based on themselves. We live in the age of the selfie and Tinder. Everywhere you look, we’re being told to put ourselves out there. On competition shows such as American Idol and America’s Next Top Model, contestants are criticized for having “not enough personality.” Women’s magazines have also capitalized on selling us ways to sell ourselves. Cosmo’s muse is the 24/7 “party girl.”

“Our society is not only getting faster, it is getting louder and brighter. It takes an increasingly powerful personality to be recognized,” writes Bernardo Carducci of Indiana University Southeast’s Shyness Research Institute. “People have to call attention to themselves in ways that are more and more extreme just to be noticed at all. That, of course, puts the shy at a further disadvantage.”

Not all cultures share the extrovert ideal, though. Sweden, Japan, and Russia, among others, have been called “introverted” countries, meaning the culture, on the whole, tends toward introversion. But in America, a lull in conversation is largely viewed as awkward, shy as standoffish, quiet as lackluster, and introverts as antisocial. The fact is, amid all the praise for outgoing extroverts, reserved people may feel overlooked and even misunderstood.

What Shyness Is Not

The American Psychological Association defines shyness as “the tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people.” About 40 percent of Americans consider themselves shy. For some, shyness is painful, interfering with daily life and inhibiting relationships. Social anxiety, an often-debilitating psychological disorder, affects an estimated fifteen million adults. More than shyness, social anxiety is “the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Institute of America.

We all want to prove our worth, be recognized, and feel accepted as we are. But for shy people, making ourselves known is more difficult, and fear and insecurities can hold us back with a gripping intensity.

Both extroverts and introverts can be shy, meaning both can feel nervous in social situations. The distinction between the two temperaments actually has nothing to do with shyness: Introverts need alone time to recharge, whereas extroverts crave social interaction. We think of extroverts as social butterflies, but even some extroverts feel that butterflies-in-the-belly sensation when socializing. Likewise, some introverts mix and mingle with ease.

In fact, psychologists say shy people relate more to extroverts than to introverts. Like extroverts, shy people may want to socialize, but nerves and fear of judgment keep them from approaching others or sparking conversations.

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating,” Cain clarifies in Quiet Revolution. “Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

Embracing Our Differences

As a shy introvert myself, I can say that feeling uncomfortable in social situations is difficult enough; we shouldn’t beat ourselves up because we fall short of some ideal. But we can cultivate social lives and self-confidence. That doesn’t mean blossoming into an outgoing extrovert overnight, however. We’re our most captivating when we’re authentically ourselves—shyness and all.

I used to believe the “best version of myself” was synonymous with “the most outgoing version of myself.” Then I realized that my best self would not reflect an extrovert or even a wildly outgoing introvert because that’s not my nature. And that’s OK.

Comparison feeds insecurities, so it’s about time we stop comparing personality types in order to discern which one is best. Rather, we should embrace our variability and the fact that we can all complement each other. Whether introverted or extroverted, sociable or shy, we all have wonderfully unique qualities and quirks. Comparison sells ourselves short of our merits; we focus on others’ inherent gifts, forgetting to acknowledge our own.

Fellow shy women, hear me out. Let’s accept ourselves as we are. Let’s accept the times when words totally evade us or when our faces glow beet red with embarrassment. If we’re struggling with shyness, let’s learn to accept awkward moments, mistakes, and little victories.

Self-acceptance means being compassionate with ourselves, even as we stumble. If shyness spins you into frustration, know that your fears can be overcome. There’s no need to suffer through social anxiety. Learning the art of small talk, for example, helps us gain control of social situations and connect with others. Even if you’re a woman of few words, kind words speak volumes. Speak them to yourself, too.

And remember that shyness has its merits. We may hesitate to speak, but we listen. By taking quiet time to be self-aware, we think things through. When standing on the sidelines, we gain insight into people and situations that others can overlook. And with social anxiety comes empathy. We even maintain an air of mystery (an attribute that’s in short supply today). We may share ourselves selectively, but in that, we know the value of trusting and investing in others. If there’s a lesson to take from shyness, I think it’s this.

“The trees, the flowers, the plants grow in silence. The stars, the sun, the moon move in silence. Silence gives us a new perspective,” Mother Teresa once wrote. These words remind me that shyness, like silence, should not be undervalued—for what if, rather than stunting our growth, shyness expands our perspective? It’s as true for shy people as it is for everyone: We bloom most fully into ourselves not in spite of our nature but because of it.

Photo Credit: Regina Leah Photography