Around half of adults in the UK would describe themselves as shy and Sas says that she’s not surprised by that statistic. “That bears true across most western cultures, so it’s an interesting thing because in some eastern cultures shyness has a different connotation.”
She explains that in Japan shyness is seen as a sign of humility: “It’s seen as a very positive thing. It’s just how we interpret shyness culturally as to whether we see it as a positive or perhaps something that we need to work on.”
So why do we so often see it as a negative? Sas thinks it’s because in western culture we compare it to confidence and extroversion. “That is seen as a trait that is to be admired,” she says. “It’s often seen as a kind of leadership quality. […] To be quite socially confident, to be able to talk to anyone, to not have any fear of what you might say, you just kind of wing it! That is seen as something to be lauded.”
Do we treat shy people more harshly because of our preconceptions? Sas agrees, but she believes that British people are generally quite reserved. She comes from New Zealand, so is able to view British culture as a slight outsider even though she’s lived here for almost 20 years.
“In the UK there is a sort of reservedness in some quarters. I hate to generalise, but I think the English reserve and the tendency to contemplate before speaking is also something to be admired, but in lots of quarters it’s seen as perhaps holding yourself back. I guess in all of that, we can say that shyness is a problem if it feels like one to each individual,” says Sas.
According to Sas, there is a distinction between shyness and introversion: “They are quite different and they’re treated quite differently in the research. And how we make that distinction is that shyness is seen as a response to or reflection of awkwardness. Apprehension that people feel when talking to others and engaging with others, so there’s a sense of holding yourself back and that’s very consistent with self-doubt.
“Introversion is just a preference, so introverts tend to be quite energised by time alone, whereas shy people often really want to connect, but for whatever reason hold themselves back. So that holding yourself back is very much a trait of self-doubt.”
If you were shy as a child, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be a shy adult. It depends on the experiences you have along the way to adulthood. Sas says that shyness often develops in childhood as a way to protect ourselves from feeling exposed or feeling judged. “We hold back so that we can’t really be judged or criticised in any way. Sometimes it’s a way of protecting ourselves from getting too close to people who might discover things that we don’t like about ourselves, so in that sense it can be linked to self-esteem.
“But as we develop and grow, we can develop our resilience and ways of experimenting out in the world and we get to see that, actually, the worst thing that we think is going to happen often doesn’t happen. And that all gets lodged into our memory banks and we start to understand that maybe we don’t need to be shy in every situation. So you start to bring a bit more discernment into the situations that just feel a little edgy or exposing and those situations where you do feel comfortable speaking up and engaging and perhaps being more yourself.
“And so I think for shy children, if they are given opportunities to experiment and see and encouraged try things out, then they will often find that they don’t need to be shy in every situation and that just compounds over time.”
What tools can shy people to use to cope in the work place? Sas explains that we often experience self-doubt because it’s how we try to protect ourselves from psychological risk – all the things that we think might go wrong. These include situations where we think we might be criticised or might fail, or get into conflict with our colleagues. “We often have a built in protection mechanism whenever we’re in a context that feels a little risky psychologically. In a workplace, there are lots of opportunities for you to feel that risk, but there are also opportunities to experiment just to see: ‘Is it true that every time I put my hand up in a meeting someone shoots me down?’ Because we often play those events out: what would the risk be? What might happen if I speak up or take this chance?
“We develop then these beliefs that say: don’t do that, because this might happen. But often those beliefs are developed out of a kind of worst case scenario and they may be based on past experiences. If, for example, when you were starting out in the workplace or perhaps in school when you put your hand up, you felt shamed or in some way embarrassed by the person in authority, that experience could stay with you. So as an adult you find never put your hand up in a meeting or contribute in a way that feels good to you.”
The way to overcome these feelings is to experiment: “Is it always true that when you contribute someone criticises you or makes you feel bad? And you start to build an evidence base as to whether or not this belief is actually true. And this can really help to start to update your view of what’s probable.”
Listen to the rest of the podcast to find out how to manage and overcome shyness.
Photography by Katrina Bartlam.