About eight years ago, I agreed to write an article for Rebecca Clark's Once Written, Twice Shy blog, for shy writers.
I intended to share some of my own experiences learning to overcome shyness and being in the public eye. But after reading the blog, and others dealing with shy writers and shyness in general, I was surprised at how much there is out there on the topic, I was also struck by how many writers made statements like J.A.Saare on June 25, 2010 when she wrote, “The truth is, as often as I think of myself as shy, I’ve been told I’m quite the opposite.”
While researching the topic, I decided many of us may suffer from confusion in terminology. I’m not sure that makes a difference in how one handles marketing, selling yourself to editors and agents, making public presentations, handling book signings, and the like. But I do believe the more we understands about ourselves, the easier it is to address our problems and make informed choices. Besides, as authors, we are word crafters and should be masters of that craft. Words do make a difference.
So here goes! Instead of being shy, you may be an extrovert who is shy. Well, that’s crazy. Shy people are introverts. The words mean the same thing. Everyone knows that. I thought so, too, but not according to many of the psychologists and experts in the field.
Shyness can be defined as feelings of apprehension, discomfort, anxiety, dread, lack of confidence, or awkwardness experienced when a person is in proximity to, approaching, or being approached by other people, particularly in new situations or with unfamiliar people. In biology, the word “shy” generally means "tends to avoid human beings."
While most experts generally agree on the definition, I found in my research numerous opinions about the reasons for shyness. Most sources indicated shyness as a learned behavior which can occur in certain stages of development in children, is learned in a certain cultural environments, or is a cultural norm. Not only that, but it’s a learned behavior which is fueled by a concern that one will be (or is being) judged negatively by other people, regardless of whether this is actually the case.
As a result, many shy people never overcome this feeling of discomfort in social situations because they limit social interactions to reduce their anxiety.
But, hey! If it’s learned behavior, it can be “unlearned,” right? Yes, it can.
Introversion is another matter. Introvert and Extrovert are defined as personality types and all people seem to be categorized as being one or the other, although a few experts acknowledged there are people in the middle although they may have a tendency toward one type or the other. Not one article I read stated or implied that this is learned behavior.
Introversion doesn’t mean social discomfort but rather social preference. An introvert may not be shy at all but may merely prefer non social or less social activities. Another expert described introverts as needing more down time. This natural preference is found in the animal kingdom where some species prefer to live and travel in groups or herds and others tend to be solitary.
Sophia Dembling, in her post “Introversion vs. Shyness” on her Psychology Today blog The Introvert’s Corner, draws the distinction clearly:
▪ Shy is the fear of socializing.
▪ Introversion is a lack of interest in socializing.
She also writes, “Someone who is introverted and shy will behave differently from someone who is introverted and not shy, who will behave differently from someone who is extroverted and shy, who will behave differently from someone who is extroverted and not shy.” And, by the way, this is good information for developing fictional characters.
The bottom line: Both introverts and extroverts may suffer anxiety in social situations. Presumably, based on Dembling’s statement, they would handle it quite differently.
Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., a researcher, educator, author, psychotherapist and authority on introversion, compares introverts and extroverts on her site The Introvert Advantage:
▪ Enjoy time alone
▪ Are good listeners
▪ Appear calm and self-contained
▪ Consider only deep relationships as friends
▪ Feel drained after outside activities, even if they were fun
▪ Think, then speaks or act.
▪ Like to be in the thick of things
▪ Relish variety
▪ Know lots of people, considers lots of people friends
▪ Enjoy chit-chatting, even to strangers
▪ Feel stoked after activity
▪ Speak or act then think or think while speaking
According to several articles, people who are in between who don't mind being in a big crowd or alone. These people may have a large group of friends but don't mind spending time alone. One expert wrote, “Being an introvert doesn't necessarily mean shy. It means your energy drains when you're in group situations while extroverts baths in the energy.”
According to the article “Introversion: The Often Forgotten Factor Impacting the Gifted,” by Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig, introverts belong to two distinct groups:
▪ “Group A: Self-sufficient, confident, hardworking, with firm goals, self-actualizing, reserved, preferring activities that involve inner experience and introspection; and
▪ “Group B: Shy, timid, withdrawn with low self-concept, lacking in communication skills, demonstrating fear of people, dread of doing things in front of others, who prefer being left alone.
HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSONS (HSP)
To complicate things, throw into the mix the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) who has often been labeled as shy or introverted but isn’t necessarily. I’d heard the term but never read up on it.
A highly sensitive person is a one who is very easily affected by external things. They are said to have a “high sensitivity,” but this isn’t learned behavior or personality type. People falling into this category, which represents about a fifth of the population, are biologically wired so they process sensory data much more deeply and thoroughly due to a biological difference in their nervous systems.
People who are HSP are more aware of and responsive to other people's moods and judgments, and to their own inner feelings. They can be either introverts or extroverts, shy or not shy.
The key point: In the past, HSP was often confused with innate shyness, inhibitedness, innate fearfulness, introversion, and so on. People who think of themselves as shy may actually be HSP.
WHICH ARE YOU?
Knowing who you are and why you react the way you do makes a difference when you’re trying to find your personal path in the world of writing and publishing. There are many choices to make. Some may be right for you, others wrong. You may be willing to work at overcoming your shyness, you may not. That’s a decision the individual has to make. Behavior modification is possible, but it’s hard work and requires commitment. Some writers may choose to work around shyness rather than attempt to overcome it.
I overcame shyness in relation to making public presentations before large audiences, TV cameras, and political bodies (such as City Councils) simply because I had to. It was a requirement of my job as a Planning Director, and the more experience I had under my belt, the less anxious I became.
I also found that I was less nervous when I knew my topic cold. In some positions, I had to present the work and reports prepared by my staff, and that was much more difficult for me. But I’m still shy about talking to strangers and meeting new people.
After doing this research, I thought about all the writers who I, personally, have heard say, “I’m shy.” Not necessarily as an excuse, but an explanation…even a confession. Then I thought about what my editor would say if I wrote, “She was shy.” She would tag me with the note “Lazy. How does she feel? What is she thinking? How is she reacting? Show it.”
If we, as writers, take apart our own feelings and reactions in the same way as we deal with our fictional characters, perhaps it will be easier to find what works best for each of us. Be true to yourself.