I grew up extremely shy. I think it’s party due to my natural personality, but it’s probably also influenced by my being the oldest and the only child for four years. As a child I preferred being with the adults – that’s what I had gotten used to. I didn’t interrupt or try to monopolize the conversation – I grew up in the “Children should be seen and not heard” era and was taught to sit quietly. But my mom would often “make” me go play so the adults could talk. Once when another mom with kids about the age of my brother and myself came over, my mom, an extrovert who never knew a stranger, told us to take them into the bedroom and play. We all just looked at each other for a long moment before finally venturing off to the toys, where eventually the ice broke. Even as a young adult I was content to listen to others talk and would almost panic if someone tried to draw me into the conversation. I did have friends growing up, but often it was just one or two very close friends.
I say all that to convey that I understand what it is to be painfully shy. But I want my shy friends to consider something for a moment.
Picture this scenario: you’re about to come down a sidewalk or aisle at church, and you see someone you know coming toward you from the other direction. So you begin to consider when and at what point to make eye contact and say something, try to think of what to say, etc. (This probably sounds totally insane to non-shy people, but it’s a very real process!) So just when you’re about to come up even with the person, you look toward them, open your mouth to say hello, and….find them looking in the complete opposite direction as they pass you in silence. That feels like a slap in the face or a deliberate snub. It’s not, and the people that this has happened with all have a reputation for being shy, but even though I understand, it hurts, especially when it happens at church, and I have to remind myself that it probably wasn’t meant to be personal. It happened so often with a few people that it was obviously more than that they had just been deep in thought and hadn’t noticed me.
I was surprised more than once in college when someone would tell me, after they got to know me, that they had originally thought I was “stuck up.” They took my natural quietness as snobbishness. And who knows how many people’s feelings I may have hurt or how many beneficial conversations and potential friendships I missed out on because I didn’t want to engage people.
I can’t say I have truly overcome shyness; it’s still my default mode. But I have grown to the point that I can usually have (and even start!) a conversation with most people without going into a panic attack. One thing that helped me personally was that I attended a small Christian school for my last two years of high school. I had come from a big high school where it was easy to be a wallflower, but in the smaller group setting I was able to get involved in a number of areas I never would have dreamed of in my former school. Plus, in a smaller group, it was obvious that one was the “new kid,” and it was easier for people to talk with and welcome me in that setting. College was an adjustment, but it did improve my “people skills.” Then the man God directed me to marry was much more relaxed that I was and had no trouble talking to people, though he would describe himself as an introvert. But besides those factors, here are some general principles I learned:
- Relax! If you work yourself into a tizzy over interacting with people, it’s very hard to overcome that.
- Think of the other person. Once when I was an officer in a ladies’ group at one church, at an officer’s meeting the pastor’s wife was admonishing all of us to speak up when addressing the group so we could be heard. She was a no-nonsense older lady and went on to say, firmly but not unkindly, that if we felt self-conscious, as Christians we were supposed to forget self. Putting it that way helped me a lot, because often the tension comes in focusing on myself and how the other person might react, etc. But if I think of them instead, that takes the focus off myself. Greeting new people at church is still something that does not come naturally to me, but one thing that motivates me is the thought of how they’ll feel if no one speaks to them, or if I am sitting right by them but don’t extend myself. And in situations like passing another person I know but not well, one thing that motivates me to speak to them is remembering the feeling of being snubbed when someone else looks away instead of speaking to me.
- Remember an acronym to aid conversation.The husband of a couple that have been our friends for 35+ years once said that his mom taught him as a boy the acronym for what she called the conversation ball: ALC for ask, listen, and comment. That’s really what conversation boils down to, but remembering that helps if it doesn’t come naturally. I wished I had known this years before.
- Practice. You may feel stiff and stilted and awkward at first, but interacting with people is a skill that improves with use. Even making mistakes and experiencing conversational flubs happens to everyone.
- Accept that you’re probably not going to be the life-of-the-party type. Big, crowded, noisy events are not my favorite thing, but I can usually find a quiet spot with one or two people to talk to.
- Pray. This is really the first principle. Even though God made you more quiet and probably introverted (though introversion and shyness are not exactly the same thing), there are times He wants you to step out of your comfort zone and interact with people. You may not feel comfortable being the church greeter and glad-handing everyone in the lobby, but look for people you can say a few words of greeting to. Ask Him for what to say and for help with nerves and for the grace to focus on the other person’s needs.
A couple of thoughts for parents: if you have a child who is painfully shy, I think the “sink or swim” method of leaving them in a large social setting like nursery or preschool to “cry it out” might be more traumatic than helpful, especially if they panic. It’s helpful to introduce them to social settings on a smaller scale, having one other couple or mom over with their kids. Instead of shooing them off to play, suggest things they might do (“Mary, Susie might be interested in your paper doll collection,”) or start the “conversation ball” rolling yourself (“Stevie, I heard you’re learning to ride horses. That sounds like fun – how did you get started?”)
Do you have any other tips for overcoming your own shyness or helping shy children?
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