Shyness, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is “the tendency to feel awkward, worried, or tense during social encounters.”
Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it?
But it’s also not being able to say what we’re thinking or not being able to articulate it properly. It’s worrying that we might say the wrong thing and that people won’t like us. It’s not “fitting in”. It’s a struggle with our sense of self-worth. It’s self-criticism (and sometimes external judgement) of our identity and value. It’s invisibility. It’s hesitation. It’s exhaustion.
Oh god, the exhaustion.
And it’s not that we don’t have great ideas – although it’s arguably hard to think creatively when your heart is thwacking away at max BPM, and you’ve forgotten how to hold your beverage like you’ve never seen a teacup before. Put it down. Pick it back up again. Take a sip. Nod. Swallow. Smile. Take another sip. But it’s your turn to talk now, and you’ve forgotten everything they’ve just said. Did the subject change while you were trying to figure out if these people find you boring? Shit. Shiiiiiit.
Maybe it’s not quite anxiety, though – maybe it feels more like frustration. The Dance of the Socialite is a different rhythm to the one you usually march to, and you’re constantly baffled by the unspoken commandments of conversation that everyone seems hardwired with from birth. You finally think you’ve cracked the code and allow yourself to relax, and are instead met with a glassy-eyed, open-mouth nod (”uh-huh…”), a subtle check of the watch (”sorry, I have to just…”), and now they’ve wandered off and left you thumb-twiddling and trying not to ruminate on where you lost them. (You were just getting to the good bit, too!)
And in almost every instance, you’re so fucking tired. You look at your calendar with abject horror as you realise we’ve got two Zoom meetings in the same afternoon, or three social events in a row (how did you let that happen?? You hope someone else cancels so you don’t have to…), or you’ve been added to yet another group chat without so much as a “how’d-ya-do”-warning. Seeking refuge from this lightning-paced, communication-driven hellscape, you embark on a low-tech, solitude-embracing dog-walk… and then some adorable, well-meaning pensioner has the audacity to ask “Awww, how old is [insert the inevitably wrong pronoun for your dog], then?” and you suddenly feel compelled to snot-sob into the shoulder of Mrs Williams’ very reasonably-priced beige coat because. You. Just. Can’t. Anymore.
Y’know… That sort of tired.
Convenient or cold: damaging misconceptions around shyness
To someone else, it might instead look like we’re “a bit quiet”. Perhaps, “nice, but doesn’t say much”. “Keeps themselves to themselves” is an expression I’ve heard a lot, and rarely as a complaint.
And then we have all the colloquialisms for “antisocial”: “They’re not a people-person.” “A bit of a miserable bugger”, and even “they’re hard work.”
We’re either very agreeable in a “they never rock the boat” sort of way, or too distant and difficult, depending on how assertive someone else expects us to be. Because of this, it’s hard to know exactly how we’re being perceived, adding to the anxiety we experience.
I don’t doubt there are people who just prefer to avoid socialising. It’s a choice. Valid, too. But that’s not “shyness,” as we’re addressing it here.
For most of us (most I’ve spoken to, anyway), we’d opt out of being a “shy” person, if we could. We’d mingle with people who lifted our spirits – if we felt relaxed enough. We’d engage with interesting characters – if we didn’t feel ignored or judged. We’d spend more time with both loved ones and intriguing strangers – if it wasn’t so exhausting.
And if we’re running a business and have bills to pay, you can bet that we’d chase that lead and go for the close on that sale – if we felt confident enough.
The many shades of shyness: Why do we need to know what type of “shy” we are?
Anxious. Awkward. Introverted. Whatever our brand of “shy” is, we have a shared struggle, but perhaps a different path forward for each of us – and that’s why it’s so important to know what kind (or what combination) of “shy” we are.
I happen to be all three of the above – a concoction of chronic and fluctuating anxiety (since my pre-teens), suspected neurodiversity (I’m still on a looong waitlist for an assessment), and introversion. Each variation might require a slightly different approach. Different skills. Different practices. Different support.
A quick but necessary disclaimer: I’m not a psychiatrist, counsellor, or mental health professional of any kind, and I write based on my own experiences and research. If you’re experiencing mental health distress, including (but certainly not limited to) anxiety, depression, mania, PTSD symptoms, etc., please seek professional assessments and treatment through the proper channels. Resources for UK residents can be found here.
If your shyness comes from social anxiety, then you might need support, as well as appropriate opportunities to increase your comfort with social risk-taking*:
- Finding mental health support, such as counselling, to identify and address underlying negative beliefs about yourself
- Gently exposing yourself to social situations which allow you to expand the limits of your comfort zone
- Seeking out suitable environments which are less formal, lower-pressure (such as “coffee-and-a-chat” networking events, instead of larger networking organisations where you might be expected to regularly give a pitch or presentation)
If your shyness comes from social awkwardness, then you might focus on seeking inclusivity, developing skills, and adaptive practice*:
- Seeking out environments which are more inclusive, where possible
- Learning how to read behavioural cues to engage more fluidly with others
- Practising your social skills with a variety of different people
- Sharing your experiences with others to identify new strategies and opportunities
If your shyness comes from introversion, then you’ll likely need an energy-management strategy*, such as:
- Keeping a record of your energy, social commitments, and downtime so you can identify particularly draining situations (or people, if we’re honest) and which activities (or lack thereof) recharge us faster afterward.
- Spreading out social engagements (”padding”) to allow us the time to recharge, or the downtime to “precharge” as much as possible if we can’t spread them out
- Scheduling in recovery after high-energy-expenditure situations (for example, I will almost always take a nap after a networking event, so I always schedule that in!)
- Opting for lower-energy mediums for communication, such as email or instant messenger instead of Zoom 1-1s, whenever possible (you know how some meetings should just be emails? Yep, those).
*Once more, I’m not a doctor. These are a handful of strategies that I’ve tried and have found benefit from. I’m not suggesting anyone with crippling anxiety should “just get out there”, or that anyone neurodiverse should just “get some social skills”. Ew, no. Just no. We’re all complex individuals with different needs and should expect a degree of compassion and awareness from ourselves and others.
Understanding the responsibility for personal growth
With that said, we do need to take responsibility for what we can control, however minute.
Focusing on our “inadequacies” isn’t exactly pleasant, but it’s part of honest introspection. When we can figure out if we’re facing fear, unsuitable environments, lack of skills, or insufficient self-care, we can start finding the right tools for our kit, and equip ourselves with the coping strategies we need to allow us to tackle goals which demand growth.
There’s no “magic recipe” for “fixing” your shyness. What works for one person won’t always work for another – but the more we learn, the more we can experiment.
The focus here is on proactive, sustainable growth – which won’t look the same for everyone, and it sure as hell isn’t linear.
When is shyness a mental health problem?
If your shyness is affecting your ability to live well – that is, to maintain a healthy measure of self-esteem, to advocate for yourself when something is wrong, and to engage with people both personally and professionally, then it could be a sign of a more serious underlying issue.
While there’s a multibillion-dollar self-help empire out there ready to take your dough with all the marketing magic of life-changing promises and cliche anecdotes, please seek mental health support if you’re struggling. You don’t need to wait for someone else to tell you if it’s bad enough to get help.
The devastating price of shyness
It’s natural that people get defensive about being told we need to “fix” ourselves, so I’m not going to do that. Shyness isn’t a character flaw or a moral failing – there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a shy person. You are one of many wonderful shy people, and your value isn’t diminished by your struggle. But.
It kinda sucks, doesn’t it?
Personally, my shyness has cost me a lot over the years, especially in business, where self-promotion and networking (whether in-person or online) are critical for survival.
Opportunities have slipped by because I was too frightened to pick up the phone and call someone back.
I declined invitations to networking groups because “who would want to meet me, and what would I even say?” (As it turns out, there are a lot of lovely people, and I have UH-LOT to say, and sometimes I have to remind myself to STFU.)
I churned out bland little nuggets of social media content (very intermittently, I might add, because when you’re anxious, it’s bloody hard to feel like anything you say has enough value to be worth sharing), and I was too timid to put my own opinions and voice into it to make it stand out from a sea of other bland nuggets. No meaningful engagement, obviously.
I wasted hours agonising over long, detailed proposals, only for clients to agree within five minutes after barely reading, or I just never heard from them again.
I talked people TO DEATH-BY-JARGON in sales calls because I was panicking and needed to make myself seem Very Important With Lots To Say. And I wasn’t surprised at all when they ghosted me.
And one day, I’ll compile a long list of as many business f-ups as I can remember, but that probably paints enough of a picture for now. My point is…
It’s been SO much harder than it needed to be.
The momentum was slow, the panic attacks were many, and the revenue was… let’s just say it’s a good job I don’t have expensive culinary tastes and like shopping for clothes in charity shops.
Why should we talk about shyness in business?
Why is the cross-section of shyness and business important to address?
Well, this is why:
Because I needed help building a roadmap, instead of stumbling around in the dark and falling into ditches.
Because the well-meaning advice I got was that I should do more, speak louder, and act more confident – as though I’d been coyly holding back out of courtesy.
Because our self-worth is tied to the beliefs we hold about ourselves. I didn’t believe in myself, and I didn’t even know how to.
Because I needed someone to remind me that it’s perfectly sensible to take risks. To try with no guarantee of success. And to still be proud of my effort regardless of the results.
Because I needed to believe that our potential is unknowable and basically irrelevant – we can always grow to become more intelligent/confident/creative/patient/resilient/compassionate, etc.
Because business is about communication, no matter what you’re offering. If you can’t communicate well, your business is gonna be pushing up daisies. And shyness severely inhibits our ability to communicate our value.
And because I wish I’d had a resource like this when I was getting started.
That’s why shyness is a barrier in business, and why I’m here to help you smash that f*cker down.
Grab a sledgehammer and a pair of goggles.
Let’s go 😉
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