What I, A Painfully Shy Adult, Will Never Tell You

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shy anxious woman

I never understood the phrase "painfully shy" until I reached my mid-twenties. Before then, I could awkwardly fumble through a social interaction without too many inhibitions. An inner social butterfly would flit through social situations with ease. 

As I turned the corner on 25, though, something changed. I ran out of flying figs for how others perceived me. What's more, I burnt out several times in a row. Then, a global pandemic zapped my social life. After two years of isolation, even the chattiest Cathies in my circle had rusty vocal cords. Mine never stood a chance.

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In short, I lost the tiny toolbox of social skills I once had and struggled to muster the motivation to rebuild it.

Nowadays, it hurts me to socialize. Making small talk physically pains me. Looking strangers or even acquaintances in the eyes takes extra effort. Unless the conversation turns to something of substance that intrigues me, I'd prefer to enjoy blessed silence. 

I tend to listen more than I speak. When I unhinge my lips, my voice catches between my teeth; a stutter sputters under my tongue. Some amateur internet would-be psychologists might try to label me "autistic" or "neurodivergent." I won't disagree with their armchair assessments, but I will say that clinically, I have not been diagnosed with anything related to these. 

Part of this may be the mental health system's failure to identify autistic traits in AFAB and feminine-presenting folks. Still, I don't have a diagnosis to justify these characteristics. For now, I am just called "bashful," "quiet," or "shy."

Being shy doesn't make me a good or bad person.

While shyness can masquerade as respect for others, politeness, or even piety in some cultures, the truth is that shy people come from all backgrounds and experiences. Some of us have larger-than-life personalities tucked beneath a stoic surface. Others have sweet, smooshy dispositions to match our soft-spoken nature. Others still are seething with deeply buried rage. We shy folks come in a range of flavors and varieties.

Taking an involuntary vow of silence does not make us saints. On the flip side, while the phrase "it's always the quiet ones" gets hurdled as a joke towards most shy folks, the truth is that the majority of us are not plotting to do others harm, either. 

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Like most people, we fall somewhere between sinners and saints, heroes and villains. We run the gambit of morality and personality like everyone else.

Shy people have opinions, too.

In the past, people have taken my shyness as a sign of mildness or insecurity. They figured that if I were sure of my ideas, I'd speak them out as they would. They never saw my internal calculations for jumping into the conversation like a double-dutch novice struggling to duck between the spinning ropes.

Sometimes, I say nothing because I enjoy the silence or have nothing to contribute. In the middle of a heated discussion, though, I am a strong-willed person brimming with opinions. For days when hot takes sizzle in my mind as my mouth glues itself shut, the written word steps in as my best friend.

When talkative people try to be good allies to shy ones, magic happens.

When I say "good ally," I mean one with our best interests and desires at heart. While it may be well-intentioned, putting shy people on the spot or forcing us into crowded social situations for unwanted "exposure therapy" hurts more than it helps.

If you have a rapport with us, it can help to pull us aside or email us to see how you can include us more in the conversation if you are our teacher or supervisor. 

In general, if you're on our side, there are plenty of ways to amplify quieter voices. Make space in a conversation for us. Designate a specific order of speaking in groups. Follow up on our points. Provide alternative forms of sharing--enable chat functions on video calls or offer emailed comments as a substitute for in-class/meeting participation. 

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Any of these moves can be a game changer for the shy folks in your life.

Shyness doesn't make me broken, so you don't need to try to fix it.

If I had a dollar for every time someone offered unsolicited advice on "curing" my shyness, I'd be unbothered by the current inflation trends. For some reason, our society sees shyness as a dysfunction. Even when we lack neurodiverse labels, our peers try to find ways to "other" us or explain why we can stop talking when they never seem to shut up. 

Even when extreme shyness gets in the way of work, school, or daily functioning, it's still important to consider how the shy person feels. If they're happy as a clam with their lifestyle, there's no need to change it if it isn't hurting them or others.

Most of us would rarely approach a loud person and give them pointers on reducing their rude behaviors. So why do talkative folks try to take shy ones on as charity projects and mold us into the social butterflies we never wanted to be?

What makes shyness so painful is not my internal experience of it. It's the underlying attitude that I'm failing to meet the standards of those around me. 

Every community needs speakers, thinkers, listeners, doers, and shriekers. It takes all kinds to compose the proverbial symphony of life. The more we can appreciate these differences as complementary strengths, the better life will be for shy folks and our opposites.

To all the painfully shy folks out there, you don't have to change for the world. Stand silent as a pillar if you wish and let the world talk itself out until it becomes willing to listen to a softer voice. Or watch as the world burns with mindless chatter and enjoy the show–the choice is ours.

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Maya Strong is a professional writer who has spent the last six years blogging about relationships, LGBTQIA+, mental health, lifestyle, and cultural commentary online.