December 1, 2011
 Confronting Your Social Fears
Shyness Has
Surprising Benefits
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This article is adapted from chapter three of Blaine's Overcoming Shyness: Conquering Your Social Fears, which has just been republished.


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A friend of mine once appeared on a national television program to discuss a book she had written. As I watched the half-hour interview, I was astonished at how well she handled it. She identified personally with her topic, spoke with strong feeling and deftly fielded difficult questions.

When it was over, I sat stunned. I knew she had been remarkably effective. She had done what is so difficult to do through the medium of television--she had connected emotionally with the viewers.

Several days later I spoke with her and told her that the interview was, in a word, sensational. I didn't feel sensational, she said. What you saw wasn't empathy; I was scared to death!

She explained that she didn't know until the moment she was escorted onto the set that this program--which she assumed would be an intimate taped interview--was to be conducted live in front of a large audience. She had ninety seconds to adjust to this startling reality and to meet the host. Then came the engineer's countdown: Five seconds to air time, four, three . . .. She froze and remained panicked throughout the program.

The irony is that I'm experienced with public speaking and pride myself in detecting the nervousness that veteran speakers cover up so well. Yet I didn't pick up how truly frightened my friend was. I did sense she was slightly nervous (who wouldn't be under such circumstances?), and she was definitely emotional. Yet I assumed that her signs of emotion stemmed from her identity with her topic rather than from being panic-stricken.

Of one thing I have not the slightest question: she was effective in the interview. The display of humanity that she feared destroyed her effectiveness actually enhanced it considerably.

Where Shyness Helps Us

The question of what constitutes a personal weakness is a delicate one. Characteristics that we regard as weaknesses often have their positive side. A feature that we consider to be a glaring weakness may even be perceived by others as a significant point of strength. Others see us differently than we see ourselves.

This is especially true with the traits related to shyness. Many of us experience shyness in some area of our life. We may be uncomfortable initiating conversation with individuals, frightened of public speaking or terrified of job interviews. One monumental study found that forty percent of Americans report being shy on some level.*

If you are part of this multitude, you probably think of shyness as no more than a black scourge upon your life. Yet in fact there are benefits to shyness, even substantial ones. Indeed, when shyness traits mix with assertiveness skills that can be learned, the result is often a dynamic personality that others find attractive.

A helpful buffer. One overriding benefit to shyness is that it keeps your personality in balance as you take steps to become more outgoing. A major reason many fear becoming more outspoken and socially active is their worry that others will perceive them as aggressive or brazen. Yet if you are shy by nature, you have internal constraints that will keep you from pushing too hard. Even when you make a determined effort to be more assertive, these subconscious checks work to your benefit, keeping you from coming across to others as arrogant or self-seeking.

Others perceive you as sincere. Shy traits also contribute to the impression that you can be trusted. Others are likely to believe you are being honest and sincere in what you say.

I remember once receiving a phone call from a young man soliciting magazine subscriptions. I normally terminate such calls as swiftly as possible. But in this case I let the man continue his pitch. The reason? He stuttered. While he knew his material well, he had difficulty getting his words out. Though I didn't know him or have any real way of reading his motives, my impression was that he was genuine. He did not come across like a slick salesman. For this reason I felt comfortable staying in the conversation with him for a few minutes and hearing his proposal.

Those who are shy often worry incessantly that others will notice any physical signals of nervousness they display. Whether it is stuttering, blushing, quivering lips or hands or a shaky voice, they dread the thought that someone will take notice and judge that they are bashful or frightened. These traits can just as well imply to another that you are believable, even someone of depth. And as my friend's experience with the TV interview shows, others may not even detect the degree of your fear at all. They may simply take the physical signs as indicating that you feel strong emotions about the topic at hand.

Others relate to your humanness. A related point is that others identify with our human characteristics and feel a bond with us because of them. Those with whom we interact often feel just as insecure as we do and are relieved to see indications that we have our human side.

Remember, too, that others see you not in terms of one particular feature but as a total combination of them. Traits of shyness that might not seem appealing by themselves become attractive when combined with a friendly manner and a more confident approach to people.

The ability to listen. Those who are shy usually learn to be good listeners for a simple reason: they are comfortable being quiet. The more assertive individual is often unable to resist the temptation to break into a conversation before the other has a fair opportunity to share his thoughts. Because the shy person is more at home being quiet, she more naturally develops good listening skills.

Your ability to listen contributes to your ability to make friends. This doesn't mean you have no room for improvement. Most of us can benefit from working on our listening skills and on our ability to communicate to others that we are interested in what they have to say. But your quiet nature gives you a good starting point in this effort. It inclines you by nature to be a good listener and implies to others that you are as well.

Protection from bad company. While shyness can keep you from good relationships, it protects you from less beneficial ones. The more gregarious person is always at risk of being drawn into unhealthy associations with people. Over the years, your shyness has fine-tuned your instinctive judgment of the quality of relationships. As you develop greater confidence with people, this instinct helps to hold you back from encounters that would not be good for you. Your shyness is an observation post that enables you to survey the options before committing yourself.

The ability to focus. None of us can realize our creative or professional potential in any area without some sacrifice of social life. If I am unable to tell my college friends that I cannot get together with them the night before an exam, I'll pay the price the next day. Likewise, my employer will not be impressed if I take too long a lunch with friends or come to work fatigued from partying the night before.

Part of becoming a responsible adult is learning to put appropriate restraints on your social life. As a shy person you are able to make this tradeoff more easily and naturally than the more gregarious individual. You find it more possible to focus on the aspects of work that can be done only at the expense of time with people.

Spiritual benefits. Your shy temperament may also incline you to a deeper spiritual life and a more vibrant relationship with Christ than you would otherwise enjoy. This is not to say that the assertive person cannot enjoy an equally rich spiritual life. But shyness does make you more naturally open to developing your inner life.

It is of interest that the individual in Scripture most clearly pictured as shy--Moses--is also one of the most courageous and effective leaders in biblical history. The fears that Moses displayed when first called to deliver Egypt (Ex 3--4), and the depiction of him in the midst of his mission as meek (Num 12:3 RSV), indicate a man with a deep-seated shy temperament. Yet he commanded allegiance from the massive Israelite nation during its most tumultuous and challenging period--the transition time of uprooting from Egypt and moving toward Canaan.

Scripture also describes him as one who gave close attention to his personal walk with God. In spite of the extreme demands upon him, he set aside generous time to retreat to a mountain or secluded setting to pray, meditate and interact with God. This private time with God was clearly what energized Moses for his Herculean tasks. Here his shy temperament served him well, for it made him want to spend this time. It wasn't a sacrifice but a luxury to him. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend (Ex 33:11). Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face (Deut 34:10).

If you are shy, cherish the fact that you can handle solitude better than more socially active people usually can. This private time provides fertile ground that is needed for faith to blossom.

Valuing Your Temperament

We should remember, too, the strong emphasis in Scripture upon individual uniqueness and upon each person's personality being a gift of God (Ps 139:13-16). Sometimes the tendencies that we term shyness are actually part of the temperament God has placed within us. It can be part of our natural personality mix to be introverted or analytical; these are positive features that give us a vital indication of God's direction for our life. In every case the challenge is not to change our personality but to overcome the inhibitions that hold us back from God's best.

Here's one further benefit of shyness: it puts you in position for some extraordinary experiences of adventure. The steps which others find commonplace are wrought with the potential for adventure for you. Discovering how to manage your fears, learning how to carry on a conversation or to be assertive, gaining the courage to ask someone for a date or to speak to a crowd--as basic as these steps might be to others, they are major ones for you. With all of the challenge involved in taking them, you have great opportunity to experience a sense of purpose as you make the effort. And even small accomplishments give you something significant to celebrate.

Nothing helps more in conquering shyness than becoming more conscious of your instinct for adventure and learning to respond to it more naturally. It is in the midst of adventure that we feel most fully alive, and that sensation does wonders to annul our fears. Concentrate on that thought as you take steps to overcome the inhibiting effects of shyness. Think of these steps as a supreme opportunity for adventure. And open yourself more completely to the experience of Christ's abundant life.

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This article is adapted from chapter three of Blaine Smith's Overcoming Shyness: Conquering Your Social Fears, which has just been reissued (Damascus, Maryland.: SilverCrest Books, 2011).

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