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Sociability • Confidence

The Origins of Shyness

A lack of confidence is often put down to something we call shyness. But beneath shyness, there may lie something more surprising, pernicious and poignant. We suffer from a suspicion of ourselves that gives us a sense that other people will always have good reasons to dislike us, to think ill of us, to question our motives and to mock us. We then become scared of the world, speak in a small voice, don’t dare to show our face at gatherings and are frightened of social occasions because we fear that we are ideal targets for ridicule and disdain. Our shy manner is the pre-emptive stance we adopt in the face of the blows we feel that other people want to land on us. Our shyness is rooted in a sense of unworthiness.

Photo by Patrick Pierre on Unsplash

As shy people, when we find ourselves in a foreign city in which we know no one, we can be thrown into panic at the prospect of having to enter a busy restaurant and order a meal on our own. Dogged by a feeling that no one especially wants to know us, that we are outside the charmed circle of the popular and the desirable, we are sure that our leprous condition will be noticed by others and that we will be the target of sneering and viciousness. We unknowingly impute to strangers the nasty comments that we are experts at making to ourselves; our self-image returns to haunt us in the assumed views of others. We imagine that groups of friends will take mean delight in our solitary state and read into it appalling conclusions about our nature. They will see right through our veneer of competence and adulthood and detect the deformed and unfinished creature we have felt like since the start. They will know how desperate we have been to win friends and how pitiful and isolated we are. Even the waiter will fight to restrain their desire to giggle at our expense in the kitchen.

A comparable fear haunts us at the idea of going into a clothes shop. The sales attendant will surely immediately sense how unfit we are to lay claim to the stylishness on offer. They may suspect we lack the money; they will be appalled by our physique. We lack the right to pamper our own bodies.

It can be as much of a hurdle to attend a party. Here too our fundamental imagined awfulness is perpetually at risk of being noticed and exploited by others. As we try to join a group of people chatting animatedly, we dread that that they will swiftly realise how unfunny we are, how craven our nature is and how peculiar and damned we are at our core.

The novelist Franz Kafka, who hated himself with rare energy, famously imagined himself into the role of a cockroach. This move of the imagination will feel familiar to anyone sick with self-disdain. We, the self-hating ones, spontaneously identify with all the stranger, less photogenic animals: rhinoceroses, blobfish, spiders, warthogs, elephant seals… We skulk in corners, we run away from our shadow, we live in fear of being swatted away and killed.It is no surprise if, against such an internal background, we end up ‘shy’. The solution is not to urge us blithely to be more ‘confident’. It is to help us to take stock of our feelings about ourselves that we have ascribed to an audience, that is, in reality, far more innocent and unconcerned than we ever imagine. We need to trace our self-hatred back to its origins, repatriate and localise it, and drain it of its power to infect our views of those we encounter. Everyone else isn’t jeering, or bored or convinced of our revoltingness; these are our certainties, not theirs. We don’t have to whisper in a circumspect manner and enter each new conversation, restaurant or shop with a sheepish air of apology. We can cast aside our introverted circumspection once we realise the distortions of our self-perception, and can come to believe in a world that has far better things to do than to despise us.

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