The Worst Possible Advice to Give a Shy Person

I am both shy and introverted.* Dreadfully shy and extremely introverted. I used to get nervous calling to order pizza. As a newspaper reporter, I would shake violently before interviews. I’ve overcome a lot of this, but I still have to fight against my own nature when dealing with social situations.

And I get a lot of advice about how to deal with my shyness, most of it unsolicited and still more of it unhelpful. But the cruelest, worst possible advice you can give to someone who is shy?

“Don’t be shy.”

People say this to introverts and shy people alike, and every time I hear it, I want to punch the person who says it in the head—but of course, I’m far too shy to either threaten to do so or to act on the threat.

Think about that piece of advice. Really think about it. When you say that to a person who is shy and can’t help it, you’re telling her to turn off one of the most powerful and crippling parts of her personality. If she could turn it off, she would.

It is NEVER that simple. Tell a person who is scared of heights to just stop being afraid. Tell an alcoholic to quit drinking. Tell anyone to stop being who they are, and you’ll get nowhere, and probably offend them in the process.

Being shy is not a choice. Being shy is part of who I am.

Over the weekend, I was at a festival all on my own. I had lots of acquaintances there, of course, as well as a few friends, but for the most part, I was attending all by my lonesome. And when I’m surrounded by people who know each other, I tend to pull deeper into my shell.

At one point, I called my husband and said, “You know, I think X-Person sees that I’m shy, and he tends to treat me like you treat Portia (our timid cat): like I’ll freak out and run away to hide at any moment. Is that how people see me? Do I really seem that scared?”

“Yes and no,” Drew said. “X-Person knows you’re an introvert, and he’s trying to make you comfortable. But you do seem nervous in crowds.”

I sighed. “I feel like Portia right now. I feel overstimulated and freaked out and I want to go sit in the corner and groom myself frantically until I feel better.”

And I did. (The sitting in the corner part, not the frantic grooming part. The frantic grooming seems to cause hairballs and vomiting. At least in cats. I haven’t really experimented much with this stress-management technique.)

But in humans, it’s a common trait of introverts that we feel drained, exhausted, and nervous in crowds: overstimulated, like we say of our cats when they start freaking out and have to hide in the closet. That’s a normal thing, and I’m not being antisocial when I have to step away from a crowd.

“Don’t go hide in the dark,” people would tell me. “Come sit with us.”

They didn’t often understand that sometimes I hide in the dark because I have to. Because I’ll start weeping with exhaustion if I have to sit in the middle of a laughing, boisterous crowd any longer. Because I just cannot handle that many people around me for long periods of time.

I write all this to tell you that it’s normal to need a break, normal for an introvert to need to step away from a crowd. I know these people meant well, but they were telling me to change a part of who I am.

So next time you’re dealing with someone shy or introverted, think about what you tell them. Appreciate their need for space. Go slowly. And take it as a compliment when they start to open up to you, because that means you’ve made them comfortable.


*I include a note here because I’ve noticed that it’s become trendy common for people to post articles about how they are introverts but not shy, and how introverts are harder to spot than you think. Every time I see someone who is the life of the party sharing one of those articles, I want to cry for those of us who identify as shy AND introverted: they’re throwing the curve off and changing expectations for the rest of us.


3 thoughts on “The Worst Possible Advice to Give a Shy Person

  1. I always had to deal with this when it came to my old coworkers. They were all extroverts and took it personally when I didn’t always fully participate in outings or just group conversations. It has always frustrated me that being an introvert just isn’t that socially acceptable even though it’s totally natural.

  2. You know, you just made me remember that I too am, by default, shy and introverted.

    But I changed that when I graduated from college. Now, very few people know the ‘real’ me. They see a confident and opinionated person. I changed that by playing a role when I am at work or out in public. I guess, sort of like acting, or maybe it is a mild form of some sort of personality disorder. Anyway, the point is that I changed how I interacted with folks, because I didn’t like feeling like I wasn’t in control. Though you wouldn’t label me as an extrovert, you definitely would not call me shy. I guess I’ve moved from a shy introvert to just an introvert, who sometimes makes horrible inappropriate remarks in public (shudder).

    The bad part about the ‘actor’ me that takes over when I’m in public is that most folks really do not know who I am, and I guess I’ve lost touch with the person I used to be. To be honest, the pre-college-me is a stranger and I’ll never really get to know that person. She was a lot smarter than me, and infinitely more patient and tolerate.

    Be proud of who you are, Kristen. There’s no reason to change unless you want to.

  3. Whew, Kristin, all of the above.

    Part of me is right there with Nila. I have to talk to strangers all day, every day, for a living. So I play a character that is Server Emmie. I’ve been at this job for almost two years, and I’ve maybe stayed after to have a beer with coworkers twice. I think for a long time, they thought I didn’t like them or didn’t care. Now we’ve all worked through enough slow days where they actually had time to talk to me to find out that I do like them — quite a lot, actually — I just desperately need to flee to a closet and frantically groom myself after 10 straight hours of Stepford Serverdom.

    Another part of me knows that the second I get into a situation like you’ve described above, specifically where I’m a lone stranger in a crowd of people who know one another, I am exactly and absolutely like you. I retreat into myself. I observe, listen, fidget maybe, don’t talk, often perspire, feel jittery and nervous and even a bit sick. Sometimes I’ll at once resent people for not talking to me and resent it when they do. It’s in those moments that the desire to be known for my personhood reacts to my shyness and my anxiety, and it’s been almost three decades of learning how to balance those things out. Even when I’m with people I know and am comfortable with, if I get overstimulated, I have to go away. That could mean leaving the room, or it could mean falling silent and tuning out.

    Brava on this post, my friend.

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