In Defense of Shyness

Let me start with some quotes on shyness, which give a bit of a historical and cross-cultural perspective. The first is from the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer:

“I don’t think people should get over being shy. It is a blessing in disguise. The shy person is the opposite of the aggressive person. Shy people are seldom the great sinners. They allow society to remain in peace.”

The second is by the British psychologist F. A. Hampton, writing in the 1920s:

“Shyness is so common, at least in this country [meaning the UK], that we tend to accept it as something inborn, as a characteristic part of the charm of youth, and as evidence, when it persists into later years, of a certain fineness of character; it seems even to be a trait, perhaps not wholly to be deplored, in the national temperament.”

The third needs no introduction:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Not the kingdom of heaven – that’s for the poor in spirit – but the big, solid earth itself, the here-and-now planet we share, meek and non-meek alike. To many of us today it seems counter-intuitive, at least in terms of the gospel of Dale Carnegie. But there it is.

With such a roster of distinguished advocates already solidly behind it, why does shyness need defending now? After all, shyness, also known as “interactive inhibition,” is felt at least in some situations by 93 percent of the population, according to researchers. Not 92 or 94, but 93 – the shyness experts are very precise. Who, I wonder, are the 7 percent who have neverfelt that tickle in the stomach, the prickly warmth creeping up the face?

I suspect I know: They are the ones who write the self-help books, attempting to “cure” the common experience of nine-tenths of the human race. They are the research psychologists and psychiatrists who have labored mightily over the decades to stigmatize and pathologize the basic attitude of introversion, thus rendering much or most of the population abnormal and needful of their care.

Thus has shyness evolved from a blessing 2,000 years ago to an official, diagnostically numbered, medicable, Blue Cross-reimbursable disease today. As a semi-shy person myself, and one who has always felt some degree of embarrassment about the trait, I’m interested in the politics and sociology of shyness, the path by which natural reticence and tenderness of feeling and a tendency toward solitude became, in the words of shyness guru Philip Zimbardo, “a public health danger that appears to be heading toward epidemic proportions.” Why did Psychology Today dub shyness “the disorder of the decade,” up there with alcoholism and depression? And why does the National Institute of Mental Health refer to social discomfiture – rather than, say, avarice or racism or militarism or ignorance or moral indifference – as “one of the worst neglected disorders of our time”?

According to Christopher Lane, author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, shyness as certified pathology began only about 30 years ago, when “social phobia” and “avoidant personality disorder” were inserted into the then-current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as DSM-III. As Lane puts it, “In this 500-page volume, the bible of psychiatrists the world over, the introverted individual morphed into the mildly psychotic person whose symptoms included being aloof, being dull and simply ‘being alone.’”

“Gone are the days,” says Lane, “when we could value exuberance and shyness, as well as a vast repertoire of similar moods. Today many psychiatrists and doctors assert that those who aren’t sufficiently outgoing may be mentally ill.”

This suggestion by the mental health experts has caught on. The nation that once left Thoreau and Dickinson to their own devices now supports a cottage industry of Shy-No-More self-help books, with titles like Triumph over Shyness: Conquering Shyness and Social AnxietyThe Hidden Face of Shyness: Understanding and Overcoming Social AnxietyGoodbye to Shy: 85 Shybusters That Work! and The Shy Child: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Overcoming Shyness from Infancy to Adulthood. Just reading the titles induces that hysteria we know from certain TV commercials, the ones that suggest that choosing the wrong brand of diluted beer raises very deep and Darwinian questions about one’s manhood and genetic destiny.

Particularly irksome is the lack of balance. Here are some titles that do not appear on the shelves of Barnes & Noble: Jerk No More: Overcoming the Need to Dominate Social SituationsStop Thinking About Yourself So Much: Daily Affirmations That You’re Not the Center of the UniverseThe Aggressive Extroverted Personality: Its Cause and CureConquering Solitary Anxiety Syndrome, and Looking out for Number Two.

Things just get worse when one dips into these anti-shyness books. The preface to Triumph over Shyness, by Murray Stein and John Walker, begins gently, almost shyly: “There’s nothing wrong with being shy. The world needs some quiet, thoughtful, introspective people. People who don’t shoot (off their mouths) first and ask questions later (or never). People who are reluctant to intrude and careful not to offend.”

But then the authors begin to bare their teeth: “So if you’re shy and proud of it, read something else. Buy this book if you want to … and give it to someone who is bothered by social anxiety. Because there’s the rub. Many people aren’t happy about being shy. They find it prevents them from expressing themselves, from making friends, and from enjoying life to its fullest. For some people, shyness is a cocoon. It’s safe and warm and quiet. But it can also be confining, dark and lonely. If you choose to triumph over shyness, this book will help you break free.”

Is it just remotely possible that what makes people “unhappy about being shy” is the existence of books like this and the cultural presuppositions behind them, suggesting shyness is not a personality trait, not one mode of being among others in the spectrum of human possibility, but rather somewhere between a crippling disability and a moral failing? What is it about shyness – a condition that does not generate wars, mortgage bubbles, budgetary brinksmanship, globalism, nuclear proliferation, climate change or Fox TV commentary – that inspires reams of frenzied self-help prose?

The shyness discourse is, like most popular psychologies, a conformity and adjustment mechanism, a perspective that sees individuation and authenticity and critical distance as problems rather than goals. Jonathan Berent, author of Beyond Shyness: How to Conquer Social Anxieties, goes so far as to tell us that “there’s really no such thing as shyness … just social anxiety, a psychophysiological response you can learn to control.” B. F. Skinner couldn’t have put it better: There are no shy rats, just badly conditioned ones. There’s a totalitarian impulse behind such pronouncements, like the Turkish government explaining to the world that there’s no such thing as a Kurd, only “mountain Turks” who have “forgotten their language.” Therefore to oppress them is to help them recover their true selves, using a logic that Stalin and Pol Pot would understand.

To understand what it is we need to conform to and react against, let’s see what shyness is associated with – first in the gospels, then in Roget’s Thesaurus. In the New Testament, the “meek” are grouped with themerciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the salt of the earth. In the thesaurus, shy is listed next to cowardlyunheroicspunklessafraid of one’s shadowfaintheartedhenheartedlily-liveredunmanlyunwarlike,unsoldierlike, etc. – also shrinkingcoyshamefaced … in a word,effeminate.

There has been a shift over time in the idea of the acceptable personality, from the bible’s spiritually open and humble model, with its still, small voices and broken and contrite hearts, to the attention-seeking and opportunistic ideal of the modern age. Says Berent: “If you sit there waiting passively for the day when your ‘shyness’ will disappear, you will miss out on all the things that, deep down, you really want. And I am not just talking about having fun. In our ever-changing economic climate, your job security and career growth depend on your ability to interact productively, to initiate dialogue, stand up for your ideas and negotiate compromise. Your ability to evaluate the social chemistry of the workplace and to establish and maintain your position on the team may well determine your career success … . Most people must work with others, and cooperation demands social skills and confidence.”

Tremble, ye timid, tremble. If you’re not a good office politician, you might as well call it quits now. The message is that shyness creates misfits, threatening the ruination of America and the corporate-military-industrial complex upon which it and we stand.

Of course, social paralysis and acute agoraphobia are real problems, albeit rare ones. These are neuroses, toxic mixtures of innate anxiety and inflicted shame, pointing to inner wounds and conflicts that go deeper and require more insight and support than a self-help book can possibly provide. But to treat garden-variety shyness – which is simply sensitivity in action – as a pathology is to transform psychology from a healing profession into an engineering one, an attempt to flatten and squeeze the human personality into socially acceptable shapes, as though it were so much Silly Putty.

And the squeezing always goes in one direction, a ratchet-like movement toward a rigid me-ism and a forced and constant gregariousness. Triumph Over Shyness does ask, rather grudgingly, “Is there such a thing as not having enough shyness? This has not been studied, to the best of our knowledge. But we might speculate, for example, that someone who isn’t ‘shy enough’ might be oblivious to the feelings of others and come across as insensitive or callous. At its extreme, might some people with very low shyness become criminals because of their fearlessness of others? Nobody knows.”

So until NIMH funds a longitudinal, double-bind, placeboized experiment on the social inhibition levels of mafia hit men and bank robbers, we just won’t know whether aggressive people are more prone to crime and violence than are wallflowers.

But why hasn’t such a study been conducted? After all, even more absurd research projects have been blessed with grants over the years. The reason, of course, is that psychologists study deviations and exceptions and problems, not social norms and ideals, which are “natural” and hence invisible. An advertising-driven business culture needs aggressive extroverts to function, although it will call them “self-starters” rather than “pushy egotists” or “quasi-psychopaths.” Those prone to reflection, introspection, empathy and awareness of complexity are road bumps in a system based on self-aggrandizement and quarterly profits rather than compassion and communal harmony. Mainstream culture sees as perfectly normal the accumulation of 3,000 Facebook friends, collected like boxtops to be redeemed later for vague social prizes. It has less use for the creative and open-ended self-exploration that is the specialty of introverted people, or for the forging of real and tight and personal bonds, which can distract from the trivial pursuits of a treadmill consumer/entertainment economy.

It’s no surprise that the pop psychologists of industrial society see as the enemy any flavor of humanity that doesn’t embody the assembly-line virtues of speed, power and efficiency. Going a little deeper, and remembering what Roget said about the connection between “shy” and “effeminate,” we see the emotional roots of this hostility to shyness: it is a reflection of the culture’s aversion to the feminine. A society defined by universal competition requires a generic, unisex worker/consumer, and has only contempt for the intricate balance of yin and yang, the dance of complementary differences, that drive nature and art alike. Shyness is a marker of the feminine side of the self, the less direct and more emotional and inward-turned and mystical and embodied aspect, just as aggressiveness is the emblem of the warrior male – which we all must aspire to be, what with an “ever-changing economic climate” that always seems to “change” toward grimmer struggle and away from cooperation and altruism and nurturance.

Until relatively recently, shyness and the ability to blush were seen as no liability in girls, but rather as a sign of innocence and hidden emotional riches, of still waters running deep. No more – over the past century, we have gone from Garbo to Gaga, and exhibitionism is what moves product, especially the product that is ourselves. Writing 60 years ago, Marshall McLuhan focused on the crucial role of the fashion industry in this gradual transformation: “The visual and not particularly voluptuous character of commercially sponsored glamour is perhaps what gives it so heavy a narcissistic quality. The brittle, self-conscious pose of the mannequin suggests the activities of competitive display rather than spontaneous sensuality. And the smartly turned-out girl walks and behaves like a being who sees herself as a slick object rather than is aware of herself as a person.”

McLuhan is on to something here. When I see a title like “Triumph over Shyness,” it registers more like “Triumph of Cultural Narcissism.” The dynamic, ever-enthused, hyper-extroverted winner character endemic to commercial enterprise is a performative and presentational personality, a constructed and constricted set of expressions and attitudes designed for outward consumption and admiration. It is ambition dressed for success, a synthetic image suited to a system that objectifies and commodifies everything it touches, including the soul.

In such a context, shyness becomes an unconscious gesture of resistance, suggesting that the highly sensitive, introverted person isn’t playing quite the same game as the success-driven corporate climber – that this isn’t the only game in town. In a society based on acquisitive individualism, that makes heroes of the rich and powerful and losers of the rest, such a position, however shyly advanced, amounts to heresy, and must be challenged and condemned by the inquisitors of the mass media and therapeutic establishment.

I once had the misfortune to know a woman who was never shy, always on – and never, ever real. The type is not uncommon. The confidence-brimming, beaming backslapper or party girl is a persona, a mask, covering a calculating intention. The shy person may be awkward, but it is awkwardness without an agenda, born of a painfully intense consciousness of the other person, an awareness quite the opposite of the narcissist’s insatiable demand for approval and adulation. There is a connection between shyness and sincerity: shyness may be a persona, but more often it is a glimpse of the real self – if for no other reason than nobody wants to be perceived as shy in a culture that tends to view shyness as inferiority, as a failure of character and will.

It is not so everywhere. In China, the Mandarin word for “shy” or “quiet” can be translated as “good” or “well-behaved.” The word “sensitive” also signifies “having understanding” and is considered a praiseworthy trait in a densely populated land. In China, it’s the shy and sensitive kids who are picked first and are most popular, according to research. In equally crowded India, shyness or diffidence – known as leyja – also has cultural value; it is seen not as a weakness but as part of the social compact.

It is only in our society – or certain segments of it – that shyness is viewed in starkly negative terms, reflecting an unbalanced and blinkered approach to life. It is a perspective based upon the dictates of production and consumption, and on the embedded idea that happiness is a prey to pursue, rather than a freedom and grace that, properly cultivated, unfold naturally from within.

I suspect that underneath the hatred of shyness within self-help circles is something else – something closer to shyness envy. For in general it is easier for introverts to attune to the demands of the outer world than it is for extroverts to turn their attention away from it, and to fully experience and express their own multifaceted subjectivity. Carl Jung said of the introverted attitude – which, according to Christopher Lane, came within a hair’s-breadth of inclusion in DSM-III as “Introverted Personality Disorder” – that it is “living evidence that this rich and varied world with its overflowing and intoxicating life is not purely external, but also exists within … [introverts’] lives teach the other possibility, the interior life which is so painfully wanting in our civilization.”

One way to begin recovering that interior life, which gives our existence dimension and meaning, is to open ourselves to the full range of temperaments and to the universal need – so often suppressed – for at least a modicum of solitude and space. There is a shy and sensitive element within even the most extroverted character, but misplaced shame drives this aspect deeper into the shadows, producing a reaction formation of exaggerated aggressiveness and narcissism. This is our culture today.

The inner life is the zone of consciousness and conscience, and it is introverts who have the most direct access to this non-mechanical, impractical, genuinely individual and therefore disturbing realm. This is why they are genuinely needed, but not appreciated, even by themselves. The deeper and more human part of ourselves can inherit the earth only when we lose our shame, and that means moving from the debilitating bromides of self-help toward the higher truth of self-acceptance.

Hugh Iglarsh is a reasonably introverted writer and editor. This essay is based on a soapbox oration he gave at the annual Bughouse Square Debates, sponsored by Chicago’s Newberry Library. He can be reached


Hugh Iglarsh is a Chicago-based writer, editor, critic and satirist. He can be reached at