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.
- Is Shyness an Evolutionary Tactic? – NYTimes.com (policyabcs.wordpress.com)