Conquering Your Social Fears
M. Blaine Smith ~ SilverCrest Books ~ 2011
A Common Experience
It was the most terrifying experience of my life. It took most of the school year to get up my resolve to do it. Finally, on a Sunday evening in February, I sat down by the phone, an older friend at my side coaxing me on. My friend gave me many convincing reasons why I should make the call, and I agreed with them all. I simply could not do it.
I actually picked up the phone. I began to dial the number . . . then quickly hung up. I tried again. "Go ahead!" my friend said. I tried again.
As the evening wore on, it became evident that my fingers simply lacked the capacity to dial this number. Besides, it was too late now. I gave up, both discouraged and relieved.
For the next two evenings I was back repeating the ritual. For several hours I tried--and occasionally succeeded in dialing the entire number. But the receiver button still won out before the first ring. I was finding that it can be a long way from the intellect to the emotions and will.
Wednesday night had a sense of now or never. If I waited any longer it would be too late in the week. With all my heart and soul I wanted to make the call. Finally after numerous aborted tries, I completed the number. Before I could stop it, the call connected and the first ring sounded. I held on. The second came. The third was abruptly halted as someone picked up the receiver. Her father answered, and I asked if she were home. Now I was fully committed. I wondered if I would faint.
After a thirty-second eternity she picked up the phone, and I managed to identify myself.
"Blaine!" she exclaimed with the exhilaration of a mother finding a lost child. I could scarcely believe that she was this happy to hear from me.
Timidly I let out the long-rehearsed question, "Would you, uh, like to go to the movies with me Saturday night?"
"Really?" she shouted back with even greater excitement. The ice was now well broken.
A Real Battle
As I reflect on my experience of first asking a girl out for a date as a young teenager, I'm struck by how many of the thoughts that accompanied my shyness were utterly irrational. For months I had been plagued with fears that she would reject me, belittle me, laugh at me if I broached the question of getting together. Yet if I had never taken that painful step of phoning her, these fears would never have been shown to be the straw men which they were. No amount of philosophizing, no amount of encouragement from someone else could substitute for that existential moment of breaking the ice.
The experience in many ways is a parable to my life. Until my early twenties I fought with shyness, and at times it immobilized me. To this day it bothers me at times. But when I have taken decided action to break out of its inertia, the results have usually been wonderfully surprising. Not that I've always received the kind of response I did on this occasion, and not that I haven't experienced hurt at times. But the results of conquering shyness have usually been far superior to being paralyzed by it.
Yet I remember too well how I came within a hair's breadth of not making the call. Were it not for the encouragement of my older friend, I seriously doubt I'd have done it. For so many shy persons the step is never taken. The receiver button forever wins. And with each thwarted attempt fears are magnified and the barrier of shyness becomes greater to cross.
Widespread and Universal
Whether or not you consider yourself to be a shy person, you may be surprised to know how many in our society actually do. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, as part of a monumental study of shyness, surveyed nearly 5,000 people. He reports his results:
|The most basic finding of our research establishes that shyness is common, widespread, and universal. More than 80 percent of those questioned reported that they were shy at some point in their lives, either now, in the past, or always. Of these, over 40 percent considered themselves presently shy--that means four out of every ten people you meet, or 84 million Americans!...To say shyness is a universal experience is a rather broad generalization, but one with a solid basis. Only about 7 percent of all Americans sampled reported that they have never, ever experienced feelings of shyness. Similarly, in other cultures, only a small minority of people claim to have never personally experienced shyness.|
We may define shyness as an exaggerated fear of rejection or negative response from others. Usually, too, it is a fear which is inhibiting in its effect--it holds us back from doing things we want to do. This does not mean that all who are shy are fearful in every type of social encounter. Many people experience shyness in some areas but not others. There are many who find it perfectly natural to make friends--even with members of the opposite sex--yet are traumatized at broaching any sort of dating relationship. Others are uncomfortable initiating any opposite- sex friendship.
Well before my unnerving episode of making the phone call I had learned to be quite comfortable performing music before an audience. For some reason stage-fright was not a problem for me when performing. I felt at home standing in front of several hundred people with the guitar but panic-stricken at the thought of striking up a relationship with just one person.
I have known others who suffer from the opposite extreme. Kathy, a college friend, is quite at ease in personal relationships and goes out of her way in church fellowship meetings to help others feel welcome. But she is terrified to sing even one song in front of a small audience, in spite of her exceptional vocal talent. (Again I confess the irony in my own life, for while I am not usually prone to stage fright in musical performing, I am in public speaking).
For some the greatest problem with shyness comes in seeking a job or advancement within their profession. There is great embarrassment in speaking to others about their gifts and potential. They feel morbidly self-seeking to raise the question of salary or job benefits. It can be especially difficult for women seeking opportunities in professional areas dominated by men. And in spite of the advances of the last several decades, women still have to contend with the stereotype that being assertive is not compatible with being feminine. Not a few women feel uncomfortable seeking any career improvement.
Yet men, too, often feel awkward speaking up about their qualifications or salary needs. If women do have a greater struggle in this area than men, there is no evidence that women in general are more inclined to be shy. In fact Zimbardo notes that the evidence suggests just the opposite: In a survey of college students, more men than women reported being shy.
When Fear Paralyzes
Some apprehension in beginning a friendship or coming into a new situation is normal. Indeed, to experience some anxiety at such times can be healthy, for it makes us more alert, more responsive to other's needs, more effective in our work. But for shy persons the anxiety is excessive, fears are greatly exaggerated, to the point that they immobilize us. Shy people are often intelligent, creative individuals, with highly active imaginations. Their minds work overtime manufacturing imagined catastrophes which seldom occur.
When a person comes to faith in Christ, this same capacity for mental depth can lend itself to a vibrant faith which is a great antidote to shyness. But shyness can also pose a barrier to faith. God has promised indescribable blessings to the Christian. There are relationships, opportunities for investing our gifts, and experiences of growth for each of us which are nothing short of extraordinary. Yet it takes steps of faith to come into these blessings, and a step of faith means going forward in spite of less than perfect certainty about the outcome. Shy people are so prone to imagine disaster that they may be frightened to take an important step of faith--and even convince themselves that God doesn't want them to.
When I look honestly at my own experience as a shy teenager, I think that my greatest fears were not over the other person's reaction but over my own. Will I make an idiot of myself if I strike up the conversation? Will I clam up and not be able to speak? Will I pass out? Very often this is the essence of the problem for the shy person. Again Philip Zimbardo comments:
Most of us have occasion to blush, feel our hearts pounding, or find 'butterflies' in our stomachs. Not-shy people accept these reactions as mild discomfort and look to the positive aspects of what might happen later--having a good conversation with the minister at the church social, getting the right directions from a French gendarme, learning the latest dance step. Shy people, however, tend to concentrate on these physical symptoms. In fact, sometimes they don't even wait to get into a situation that might make them feel shy. They experience the symptoms in advance, and thinking only of disaster, decide to avoid the church social or the tour to Paris or the dance.
In noting what shyness is, we also need to point out what it is not. Many assume that being shy is the same as being introverted. While introverts are sometimes shy, shyness and introversion are not the same, nor do they always occur together. Introverts are people who, to put it simply, enjoy being alone. They treasure time alone above time with people. They may be very good in relating with people; they may be lots of fun. But too much time socializing can exhaust them, not because they are frightened of people but because of their inherent need for solitude.
A friend of mine, Sylvia, a thirty-nine-year old homemaker, explains it this way: "I need time alone or I get frazzled: I have a 'privacy tank' that has to be watched."
Larry, a forty-five-year-old year-old pastor friend, describes his introversion: "My world is within me. I derive energy from within. People drain me, though I enjoy people. My best work is done through reflection rather than action. I think first and may act later."
Sylvia and Larry are both energized by being alone, and this is characteristic of the introvert. Their need for solitude is healthy, for it is part of the personality mix God has given them. Because introverts are not as motivated to seek out people as extroverts are, though, they typically have less social experience while growing up. The result is that many introverts do become shy. Their lack of involvement with people keeps them from the sort of experience needed to gain social confidence, and their time alone gives more opportunity for a fear of people to fester.
It does not have to work this way, though. Introverts who have the good fortune of being raised in an affirming atmosphere where others are outgoing toward them may develop strong social confidence. There is nothing about the personality trait of introversion which requires one become shy.
While Moses is a classic example in Scripture of a shy introvert, Jacob appears to be an introvert who was not shy. That he was an introvert seems clear enough--Genesis describes him as "a quiet man" (Gen 25:27). But when we study Jacob's life, we find no evidence he was shy. When he fell in love with Rachel, for instance, he was highly assertive about his desire to marry her. He was even crafty and aggressive and did whatever it took to accomplish his goals.
While it is true that the introvert is not always shy, it is just as true that the extrovert is not always as brimming over with social confidence as we might suppose. Extroverts are energized by being with people. They become listless, bored or tired if isolated from social contact for very long. But the fact that they are motivated to socialize does not mean they are necessarily comfortable doing so. If while growing up they do not have positive experiences with people to build their confidence, they may develop the fears typical of shyness.
A thirty-five-year old friend of mine, Dessia, was excessively shy until her late-twenties. Her parents were so verbally abusive of her that she kept quiet most of the time growing up to keep from inflaming them. She was sick for much of her childhood, so she had little interaction with her peers and became chronically fearful of initiating contact with others. She describes her life as "filled with shyness, fear and sadness."
At age twenty-nine, though, she began seeing a Christian counselor who helped her considerably. The self-understanding which emerged was intriguing. "I actually found out that my basic personality is very extroverted," she comments. "I get my energy from people. Before I thought I was introverted--but after seeing that my shyness was just a tool to protect myself from being hurt, I was able to learn new skills and let my real personality out. I always felt there was this really neat person trapped inside of me, inside bars of fear and pain. I still have a lot of work to do on these fears, but I feel like the 'real me' is expressing itself and I feel so much happier."
Dessia's experience illustrates how one can be an extrovert by nature yet--for any of a number of reasons--still be shy. This pattern is actually quite common. I suspect, in fact, that there are as many extroverts in the body of Christ who are shy as there are introverts.
One of these is Dr. Steve Hayner. Dr. Hayner, who is President of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, publicly describes himself as a "shy extrovert." In an interview for this book he told me, "I am energized by interaction with people far more than by time alone." Yet he also spoke of a lifelong battle with shyness and graphically described different situations which have been difficult for him. One of these is shopping:
"Until five years ago, I never liked to do any shopping at all. I didn't want to deal with store clerks if I didn't know them. When I would need to buy clothes I would usually do so in my home town where I grew up, even though I hadn't lived there for years. There was one store where I knew the owners. So I'd wait to shop until I was home visiting my parents! And until recent years it just about paralyzed me to ask a stranger for directions or for any advice at all. So there's been a lot of fear associated with these things."
Heyner went on to say that his uneasiness approaching strangers extended to Christian fellowship situations as well:
"At the University Presbyterian Church in Seattle where I first served as a pastor, the ministers made a practice before the Sunday service of walking up and down the isles shaking hands. Most people absolutely loved it. But for me it was just horrible--the worst part of my week. The idea of taking the initiative with people I didn't know in that kind of context was very, very difficult. This despite the fact that I was interacting with students and people throughout the week."
Heyner's gracious honesty in sharing his experience brings out just how strongly someone in leadership can suffer from shyness fears which we might assume only trouble the socially isolated. His testimony is especially interesting, for he is greatly loved and respected by many as he directs a large para-church ministry. Being an extrovert--even a very successful one--does not shield one from the possibility of being shy. Nor does shyness have to be allowed to control one's life and prevent successful relationships.
A number of biblical characters appear to me to be shy extroverts, including the apostle Peter, Esther, King Saul, and Mary, Jesus' mother. Saul, for instance, sometimes demonstrated the extreme fears which are typical of chronic shyness. When Samuel was to present him to the Israelites as king, Saul hid himself among the baggage (1 Sam 10:22). Yet in the company of outgoing people he rallied and came alive. Thus, on occasions when he met a band of prophets, he quickly joined in their exuberant activity (1 Sam 10:10-12; 19-23-24).
Shyness and Phobias
It becomes easier to understand how someone unlikely can be shy, when we realize that shyness in its extreme form is actually a phobia. A phobia by definition is an illogical fear that is way out of line with any true risks involved. It does not disappear simply because we recognize it is irrational. Others may give us a mountain of evidence that our fear is unfounded--and we may agree. Still, we are afraid. Understanding shyness as a phobia helps us appreciate why it can be so intractable.
Phobia is also the best word we have to underscore the debilitating nature of serious shyness. When we listen to the testimonies of chronically shy people, it becomes clear that no other word adequately depicts their plight. Here is how some shy Christians have described their ordeals to me:
"I can't look people in the eye. I get sick inside, even have pain. I can't enjoy the company of others, or gain from their experiences. I feel like there is a tight band around my brain, like it cuts all the blood off when I am with people, and reason goes out the window. My mind knows I am in no danger but my heart will not believe. It makes me regret being alive."
"My shyness is a definite hindrance--especially as I pursue a career in ministry! I find myself often to be intimidated and fearful in group situations. Public speaking is at times very painful--but I push myself and do it anyway."
"Shyness to me feels like being put in an airtight glass container. I feel isolated, yet people can look at me. At times I feel as if I'm smothering. I feel sometimes as if I'm missing out on a lot because of the fear of others."
"Shyness can be frightening--it makes me feel very self-conscious and alone and isolated. It also makes me feel very awkward and ill-at-ease. Even when I manage to cover up the external shyness, on the inside I am very nervous."
"My shyness inhibits me to the extreme at times. I find myself wanting to talk with people, to get to know people, but my mind goes blank. I can't think of things to talk about or ask, and I'm unable to start a conversation even if I do have something to say. The silence becomes overwhelming. It's devastating!"
"Shyness has caused many, many moments of pain and anxiety in my life. For the most part it can hold you prisoner to things you want to do and say but are afraid to do."
These individuals are speaking of a level of shyness that is clearly phobic in nature. It robs them of joy and hinders them from taking many steps they would like to take. This is not to suggest that shyness is always this paralyzing for everyone. Many who call themselves shy are only mildly nervous about certain social situations and usually manage to get beyond their inhibitions. But for countless people, shyness is a chronic problem and a constant drag upon their lives. Phobia is not too strong a word to describe it.
A Reason for Hope
If terming shyness a phobia highlights how debilitating it can be, it also gives us a reason for hope, for phobias can always be overcome. There are steps which are always effective in lessening the grip of phobic fear, and there's and much that can be done to conquer the inhibitions of shyness itself. I know many Christians who have made considerable strides in overcoming shyness, and I write this book with the strong conviction that each of us can gain greater confidence and effectiveness with people. With this as a goal, let's move ahead.
Excerpt taken from Overcoming Shyness: Conquering Your Social Fears by M. Blaine Smith. Copyright 1993, 2011 by M. Blaine Smith (Damascus, Maryland: SilverCrest Books 2011).
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