I grew up thinking I was shy. It was an easy conclusion to draw because whenever I’d be in a situation where I felt uncomfortable — particularly when I was expected to interact with someone I hardly knew — someone inevitably would say, “Ohhhh, she’s shy.” Or, worse, they’d directly ask me, “Are you shy??”
(Pro-tip: Asking someone who is feeling shy whether or not they’re shy makes the person feel less comfortable, not more.)
Being the shy person that I was, it made very little sense why I would go to college to study journalism, a profession in which I literally had to talk to multiple strangers a day, often about difficult or controversial topics. Until I realised that I’m not “shy,” I’m just introverted. To be around a lot of people for a long time drains me, but I do actually like meeting and interacting with new people.
That’s because, like writer Bob Riley says on his blog, shyness is a feeling, not a trait.
Saying someone is shy implies that being shy is part of an individual’s being, rather than a temporary state of feeling discomfort when talking to people or participating in an activity in front of others.
It’s not that I discount that feeling — I’ve had it in spades for much of my life, but at the end of the day, it’s just an uncomfortable feeling.
The problem with kids identifying themselves as “shy” is that it transforms shyness from being a feeling to something that is part of their identity. And when a negative trait becomes part of a kid’s identity it can be very hard to escape it.
You may feel shy; that does not mean you are shy. And yet when a kid is hiding behind her mother’s legs at the family reunion, we all can’t seem to help ourselves. We simply MUST say SOMETHING about the kid who should be running around and gleefully greeting all of these extended family members (strangers) like the other kids.
It’s OK, you can say something. You can say, “Oh, she must be feeling quiet right now.” If you want to take your kindness one step further, you might add, “I understand; I feel quiet sometimes, too.”
Because at some point, we all feel shy and the best thing to help us overcome that shyness is for the people around us to meet us where we’re at, not call us out and label us in a way that could prove hard to shake.