If Shyness Is the Problem


Being shy isn’t easy. Every since I can remember, timidity has been disrupting my life—making my stomach churn, my heart race, and my knees shake—causing me to feel weak, alone, and afraid. But it does respond to treatment.

Some of my earliest memories include panicking at the sound of a knock on the door of our huge stone farmhouse, hiding behind mother’s gray wool coat when someone spoke to us at the store, being terrified when left among strangers at school for the first time. From elementary school I was plagued with internal questions that never seemed to go away: Did I look all right? Would I say the right thing? Would anyone like me? What if I made a mistake? Would anyone notice my clumsiness? How could I say no? Why couldn’t I be poised and outgoing like Jane or Bill?

Gradually, however, through the gospel of Jesus Christ and an intense desire to overcome my problem, some of my fears are going away. At age thirty-five, I’m able to do many things I used to think were impossible: give a talk in sacrament meeting, introduce myself to someone new at Sunday School, teach a Relief Society class, ask a friend for a favor, accept an honest compliment, invite friends over, lead the singing in Junior Sunday School, look people in the eye when I speak, and contribute more than a simple yes or no to a friendly conversation. In fact, many people might be surprised that I’ve ever had a shyness problem at all.

What has brought about this change in my life? Analyzing it, I feel five approaches have been especially helpful. (Interestingly, these same factors for overcoming timidity have emerged from research conducted by the Shyness Institute, headed by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo of Stanford University.)

1. Understanding the severity of the problem. During my childhood I usually regarded my shyness as just a minor irritation. True, I didn’t seem to have as much fun as some of my more vivacious classmates, but I enjoyed a close relationship with my family and found great pleasure in reading, writing, sewing, playing the piano, and helping on the farm. I didn’t mind being called quiet or reserved. In fact, those seemed to be almost attractive qualities; I certainly didn’t care to be considered one of those brash, loud females my father couldn’t stand.

Then all of a sudden I was a teenager, faced with my first serious choices between right and wrong. If I continued to worry so much what others might think of me, how could I possibly find courage to say no to alcohol, tobacco, cheating, or even unchastity? If I didn’t learn to open my mouth and fear God more than man (see D&C 60:2), how could I stand up for my convictions when “everyone else was doing it.”

But somehow I survived those years relatively unscarred. I graduated from high school and college, married a good man in the temple, taught school for three years, and gave birth to the first of our five children. College and teaching had helped me reach out more to others, and now preoccupation with home and family didn’t leave much time for thinking about myself.

But every now and then I began to worry that my timidity might be keeping me from achieving my full potential. I wanted to serve the Lord, but how could I warn my neighbor when I couldn’t even carry on a five-minute conversation? How could I follow the admonition to “let your light so shine” or “love thy neighbour as thyself” while spending most of my time in solitary pursuits? And how could I raise my children to be warm, outgoing individuals, with me for a model?

More and more I realized I could never hope to achieve a fulness of joy until I stopped being so bashful and self-centered.

2. Realizing no one is alone. Once I understood the seriousness of the problem, I desperately wanted to change. Believing in free agency and knowing I wasn’t alone gave me courage to try.

For years social scientists seemed to be saying that freedom of choice was an illusion and personality was largely a matter of chance—the random interaction of heredity and environment. Someone believing such concepts would probably feel quite helpless to change—at least without years of psychological counseling. But I believed as Elder Boyd K. Packer emphasized in his speech, “Self-reliance” (Ensign, Aug. 1975, p. 85), that we really are free agents, and that we can do much with inspiration from above to build happy, productive lives. With help from our Father in Heaven, we’re never really alone, and our possibilities for growth are limitless.

In another sense, too, I found I wasn’t alone. Once I began to open myself a bit more to others, I found many people, both in the Church and out, who were struggling with shyness. I even discovered that some individuals who tended to talk too loudly, too much, or too bluntly were really overcompensating for feelings of inadequacy. Still, I’d only begun to realize the full extent of the problem.

While teaching a recent Relief Society social relations class on friendshipping, I was surprised to find that about seventy-five percent of the class—including some of the most poised, attractive sisters—considered themselves shy, either now or in the past. (This figure is also consistent with research from the Stanford Shyness Institute—for men as well as women and for other cultures around the world.) Of that seventy-five percent, however, thirty-five percent felt they were no longer significantly shy.

The implications seemed obvious: First, if so many people were battling the same problem, they were probably more concerned with what I might be thinking of them rather than with me and my grammar, my nose, or my style of pantsuit.

Second, I felt more self-confident when I looked my best, and when I took the time to plan interesting questions or anecdotes for possible use in conversation. (But if even attractive, talented, knowledgeable people were sometimes timid, then the full answer to shyness must lie more in changing attitudes than in changing hair styles or fretting about the right words to say.)

Finally, if the thirty percent of those studied had overcome their shyness problem, then it must not be impossible.

3. Understanding why I was shy. Even though I wanted to be more outgoing, I wasn’t improving much at first. Could it be that my old patterns of behavior were benefitting me in some way, and that part of me, down deep inside, was fighting the change? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that labeling myself as “shy” all those years had automatically relieved me of a huge burden of responsibility! How could anyone expect such a shy person to give a talk or invite a family for home evening? Why would anyone ever pressure me to head a fund-raising project, be in a skit, or fellowship the Joneses?

I had to admit that many times I’d simply used timidity to avoid encounters with others. I had to admit too that I couldn’t just sit back and wait for timidity to go away. I had to work at it.

4. Practicing. Now came the hard part—actually putting into practice the insights I had gained. It may seem trite, but I found that acting as if I wasn’t shy really did help. An effective way to do this is to keep a list of daily practice activities. I put the hardest item at the top of my list and try to get it done before I go on to anything else. This task usually involves some kind of interaction with others such as making a telephone call, inviting someone for dinner, returning defective merchandise, or asking a favor. Once that job is done I reward myself with an orange, a magazine article, or maybe just a mental pat on the back.

Other ways to practice being more outgoing might be taking a speech class, joining a discussion group, volunteering as greeter for Relief Society, or accepting Church assignments. Whatever the methods used, the Shyness Institute recommends starting with something simple and keeping an accurate record of progress, including such things as the number of times each week you spoke to someone you didn’t know, looked people squarely in the eye, contributed to a conversation, or asked a question. Here again, self-rewards can be invaluable. Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s conference talk “Not Withstanding My Weakness” (Ensign, Nov. 1976, p. 12) regarding feelings of inadequacy could also be very helpful.

5. Forgetting self in service to others. Many shy people have the feeling that they are constantly being judged or evaluated by others. Thus, they assume they must be perfect in order to find acceptance. A friend once told me, “You know, Susan, I used to think you were so smart and good at everything that you never made a mistake or did anything wrong. Now that I know you better I realize you are human just like the rest of us! Somehow I like you better for it.”

Of course we shouldn’t stop striving for excellence, but sharing some of our little follies really can make us seem more desirable as friends, and allow us to be more helpful to our fellowmen. As we reach out more to others, we soon forget about our shyness. When we accept ourselves and others as human beings with problems, we can be more sympathetic and responsive to the needs of those around us. Then, the more effectively we serve, the less timid we become.

6. Preventing shyness before it occurs in children. Having struggled with my own shyness, I naturally hope my children will not suffer those same agonies. So I’m trying to discover the causes and preventions.

We may be born with certain personality tendencies, but undoubtedly home life and early experiences with others also play a vital part in every child’s development. A youngster who is constantly nagged and criticized (or even praised too much) by parents, teachers, or older siblings could grow up believing that others are always judging him and that he is never totally accepted for himself. Also, parents who label a son or daughter as “bashful” or “shy”—sometimes after only one or two seemingly timid incidents—shouldn’t be surprised when the child turns out to be a shy teenager or adult. It’s simply a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, avoid labels and help children develop self-esteem by accepting them as they are and encouraging them to be self-reliant. My husband and I have discovered another useful tool for preventing shyness in children: role playing. Act out different true-to-life situations in family home evening, and allow children to experiment with different ways of reacting to others. Already our five have decided how they plan to act next time they meet someone new or are called upon to perform.

We don’t have all the answers, but my husband and I feel we are making progress. With the Lord’s assistance, we feel we can give our children the support they need to grow into happy, outgoing adults.

[photo] Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten

Susan Jane McBee, homemaker and mother of five, serves as Relief Society chorister and visiting teacher in the Grand Junction Third Ward, Grand Junction Colorado Stake.