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How mindfulness can help to deal with shyness

Do you see yourself as a shy person? I certainly did – at least until recently. Although over the years I have learned to overcome it somewhat, I still feel anxious when I need to approach people I don't know. Or I feel tense and stay quiet when I'm in an unfamiliar group.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the definition of shyness is "the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people." 

Do you recognise this? I would guess that most people do, at least in some situations. It is very human to feel shy sometimes. Shyness becomes a problem, however, when it starts having a negative impact on your life, when it keeps you from interacting with others when you would like to, or when you need to.

I recently made a mental ‘click' by talking about shyness with other people at a week-long mindfulness seminar.

I talked with one person who thought of himself as extremely shy. And indeed, I noticed he always seemed to avoid eye contact and I saw him alone most of the time. I also talked with a very extraverted guy. The kind of person that immediately fills the room when he comes in and draws everyone's attention, looking very at ease, telling jokes, asking questions and making conversation very easily.

It started with the extraverted guy, with whom I had already been talking a bit. He reacted very surprised when I told him I saw myself as shy: "What, you, shy?!" Which made me think, "Hm, interesting, so people apparently don't see me as shy."

When I further explained why I thought I was shy, giving more or less the definition that I wrote earlier, he said that he felt exactly the same at times. Which made me think that if even he felt that, maybe I was exaggerating my own shyness.

Shyness is an overgeneralised label

So I decided to investigate a bit deeper. What if "shy" was just a label, a self-description that was actually not very accurate, let alone useful? Just like we teach in our mindfulness courses, it's only a thought, a belief, and thoughts are not necessarily facts. 

Your mind may be generalising things, extrapolating behaviour in specific cases to your personality as a whole. For example, when you did something silly, and your mind immediately comes up with a generalising judgment: "You're a loser". You may be led to believe these generalisations, because your mind is very good at finding extra evidence that supports its own conclusions, ignoring counter-evidence. Although in reality, you are a far more complex person than just this overgeneralised statement.

Of course, these kind of generalised beliefs about yourself do have effects. If you believe that you are shy, you will behave like it – avoiding social interaction that might be awkward. Which may then further reinforce your belief that you are shy, because after all, avoiding social interaction is what shy people do, no? So you must indeed be shy.

Shyness includes self-condemnation and shame

What I noticed for myself, and also after talking about it with others, is that shyness often includes some self-condemnation. When you are shy, you often tend to think that being shy is a bad thing.

But is it necessarily so? Shyness is often powered by a strong emotion: shame. The fear of being exposed to others as inadequate. When you look deeply, shame really is a very useful emotion, even if it feels very unpleasant. Would you like to share an office or a flat with someone who has no sense of shame at all? Probably not.

Shame is a social emotion, it regulates our social interaction and keeps us from being rejected by others. That is why most people feel it from time to time, and that is very healthy.

It is very interesting when you think of it, no? Shame leads us to think that we are isolated, while in fact it connects us all. You think there is something wrong with you of you are shy, while in fact it makes you completely normal.

When I discussed these insights with the man who thought of himself as being extremely shy, his eyes lit up and he said how profoundly liberating it was for him – just as it had been for me. A bit later, he told me he had talked with two other people he would have never talked with before, and it went very well...

What if you could try this too? Whether you are using labels for yourself such as shy, or other labels, see them as thoughts, beliefs. Just labels. Explore the underlying emotions. Can you see them as normal? Are you willing to accept them and face them? Running away from them only makes them stronger.

And talk about this with others. Shyness and shame can quickly melt way if you are open and honest about them. And maybe you will discover that you share them with many more people than you thought...