Shyness, Social Anxiety, and The Diane Rehm Show

Latent-variable model relating type of self-di...

Image via Wikipedia

We put our under-cupboard radio/CD player up on Sunday. I finally turned it on for my own use on Tuesday when I flipped on NPR while I did the dishes.

Lo and behold! Here was Susan Cain, author of one of the few blogs that I follow and the forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, on The Diane Rehm Show! (For her blog post and a link to the show, visit here: The Diane Rehm Show (NPR) Takes On Shyness and Social Anxiety….)

Susan was joined by three professors (of Biology and Anthropology, Psychiatry, and Psychology) who were all discussing shyness, introversion, and social anxiety.

In the comments on Susan’s blog post about the show, several people expressed dismay at Todd Kashdan’s comments about social anxiety and self-centeredness. The ideas he presents are difficult to accept, but I can see their validity. In the course of his research, he has observed how those suffering from social anxiety are so concerned with themselves and their own emotional and bodily reactions that they have difficulty connecting with others. Self-centeredness is not something many of us want to own up to. This is not one of the qualities that are lauded in our culture. But I do, reluctantly, see these tendencies in myself. (I’m not sure you can be a blogger and not be self-centered.)

In social situations, I always have the critical inner voice questioning everything I say and do, wondering how I appear to others, if they think I’m funny and/or attractive (and worrying that they think I’m boring and hideous), what effect my words might be having, what an appropriate response might be to what they’re saying. This is heightened when I’m in a particularly uncomfortable situation, like when I’m in a large group of strangers with whom I’m expected to interact. When I talk, I find myself talking a lot about myself, even though I know I would be more likely to make a positive impression by focussing the conversation on others. I just can’t think of anything to ask other people because I’m too busy wishing I weren’t there.

Another piece I found interesting was Todd Kashdan’s description of the different coping mechanisms employed by shy people. While some shy people react to the discomfort and overwhelming sensations of social situations by simply stepping away and removing themselves from the situation, others exhibit very bold behavior. Some shy or socially anxious people, Kashdan says, are quite aggressive when dealing with others. It’s like they anticipate that they’re going to feel discomfort in social situations and they choose to jump right in and have at least a little bit of control of the situation.

When I heard this, I thought about how I deal with moving. I’m the person who hates calling to order pizza and who would rather overpay for home repair projects because getting three bids is too emotionally taxing. When I have to go to the restroom in a public place, I have to be absolutely desperate before I’m willing to ask an employee to tell me where the restroom is. I break into a sweat when I pick up a prescription.

It’s not really consistent with my personality and my preferences to take on leading a hiking group in an area I’ve never been to with people I’ve never met. Nor am I within my comfort zone when I speak in front of a group of strangers in something like Toastmasters or a large book club.

Yet when I’m settling into a new area, I do all of these things and more. I meet as many people as I can, hoping to find the one or two people with whom I have a comfortable connection.

I know that any interaction will be fraught with emotional and physical discomfort, so I figure I might as well go all out. With any luck, it will have an effect similar to jumping into a cool swimming pool. I know that the water will be uncomfortably cold, but I also know that I will adjust faster if I just jump in and gasp and start treading water than if I ease my way in slowly, letting the line of chill water move slowly, slowly up my body and causing my muscles to contract painfully in anticipation of the cold. (I avoid swimming, too, though, just for the record.)

I’m always worried that I’m a fake introvert when I act boldly. I find it reassuring that research supports the idea that I can jump in boldly and still be introverted.

I’m so glad Susan Cain was on the show, though. Not only was it exciting to hear her speak (and, by the way, it rekindled my interest in going back to Toastmasters. I know she’s quite active in that organization, and I figured if she could sound so eloquent and on-topic on the show, perhaps Toastmasters is a good thing to pursue), but she expressed a viewpoint the others kept moving away from.

The other guests were clinicians and researchers. They were focussed, it seemed, on pathologizing behaviors and pointing out the challenges and negatives of shyness or social anxiety. Susan was the only voice (with the exception of David Sloan Wilson when he spoke about the relative evolutionary benefits and risks of both sitting things out and taking bold action) talking up the positives of shyness and social anxiety. Susan worked hard to get the point across that there really are powerful benefits to being introverted, and even to being shy, within our culture.

I loved the point she made that many people who are described as “shy” are often very sensitive to their surroundings. They are shy in part because they take in so many details that others let slide that they become overwhelmed by these stimuli and need to pull back. She describes the child in the Mommy and Me music class who sits on her mother’s lap the entire time and doesn’t participate in class. Later, however, perhaps when they’re at home in a safe and comfortable environment, they sing and dance and show that they were paying close attention during class.

This is exactly the experience I have had with both of my children. It was interesting realizing how embarrassed I was about this behavior, and how worried I was about how other people viewed me and my children when they held back like they did even as I recognized that this is exactly how I’d prefer to deal with the situation if I didn’t feel compelled by social expectations to participate. (Yet another example of how my anxiety makes me self-centered, come to think of it.)

Susan did a good job of explaining the differences between shyness and introversion, although her differentiation was largely discounted by psychiatrist Liza Gold who moments later turned the conversation back to a discussion of the extremes. I wish that Susan had been given a little more time and that there had been a clearer delineation in the conversation between the debilitating social anxiety that a very small number of people feel and the shyness that a relatively large portion of the population live with quite successfully every day.


  1. Melanie Meadors · August 13, 2011

    I am definitely going to check this out. It’s funny, I feel like you have described ME in this post… The other thing, too, is that often I feel like I HAVE to talk in order to make another person comfortable (especially in the car… I’m very distractible and get caught in thought quite often. This quietness seems to freak some people out and they end up asking me, “Are you OK?” every two minutes), which leads to some rather stilted and artificial conversation. LOL i hate trying to explain to people, “I’m just thinking.” I end up being weird because I don’t really believe that silence has to be filled, I guess.

    I had never thought of the self-centered aspect of it, but it seems right. I guess I do feel worried about how *I* look in situations, how silly something *I* say is, if this person or that will think I’m a dope, if I’m going to mess up, or if I’m good enough. When I’m listening to that self-critical voice, it means that I’m not really open to really HEARING the people I am with; I am so consumed with myself and how I look. I hadn’t actually thought about that before.

    And of course, I just filled this message with things about myself…. When really, all I wanted to say is that I’m glad I’m not alone in this.


    • CJ · August 13, 2011

      What I think is interesting is that you and I have been getting together in person about once a week (for, what, like a month?), and we have our best conversations (in my opinion) online.

      This is a situation I think I’m frequently in. I’d like to be friends with introverts (I love my extrovert friends, but since I do better with a couple of very close friends, I often feel a little, well, jealous when I hear that my friends are hanging out with lots of other people), but when I get together with them in person, we’re both inclined to stay quiet. It can take quite a while to build rapport in that situation. If I can find a way to connect with another introvert, it’s generally a great relationship/conversation. I mean, we’ve both been sitting there thinking for so long, the conversation ends up much deeper than many “small talk” kinds of conversations. I have the same thing with my dad, actually. I’m comfortable with silences in conversation, but he’s comfortable with even longer silences than I am. But when we can get to talking, we have some really awesome conversations.


Your turn! What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s