Can you be a shy person who enjoys being in social situations? One writer reflects on her own experience and explores the idea of being a ‘shy extrovert’.
I’m a shy person. It often physically pains me to “speak up”. You’ll rarely catch me happily answering a phone call, complaining in a restaurant or talking first in a work meeting. And don’t even get me started on the hot, flustered cherry-faced mess I become in job interviews. I panic if I don’t feel comfortable in a situation.
You see, I was diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder called selective mutism in childhood, which meant my fear of speaking out loud left me feeling like I physically couldn’t open my mouth to talk. After regular sessions with a speech and language therapist, I soon broke the habit by answering the school register for the first time.
But that fear and discomfort will always linger. I tend to take a back seat in groups, my voice often trails off into a whisper when I’m not completely sure about what I’m saying, and I let other people lead conversations.
However, over the years, I’ve learned how to mask my shyness in social and professional situations. This is partly because of societal pressures to “speak up” and “be confident” if you want to be successful and happy in all walks of life. “Fake it until you make it,” is the life motto that I feel speaks to me most.
My shyness is like a dirty secret that I don’t want potential new friends and colleagues to know. That’s why you’ll often find me telling self-deprecating jokes at parties with the help of a glass of white wine, conducting phone interviews through gritted teeth and forcing myself through the pain of making small talk.
But there’s another reason I do all this, too.
I used to assume that, because I’m shy, I must be an introvert. But that doesn’t fully add up for me.
Because the truth is that I want to talk to people, make new friends, network and share my opinions. I want to have fun with others and learn interesting things about them. I like being out and about in crowds, and feel a buzz doing things with people. But, like introverts, I can feel very drained doing all this, especially with new people. The thing draining me, however, isn’t necessarily being with others: it’s my shyness – that pain that comes with trying to push past a social anxiety disorder in order to be fully comfortable around them.
The crucial point is that, unlike introverts, I do want to be out there. But why do I feel I need to put on one of my masks all the time? Why can’t I just be comfortable being my true shy self at the social events I want to be at? What’s wrong with coming off a little bit quiet and reserved in groups instead of trying to prove I’m an extrovert?
When confidence coach and founder of Shy + Mighty, Nadia Finer, talked to me about being a ‘shy extrovert’, I really related, and it gave me a much better understanding of things.
“If you think about the language around shyness, especially when we’re growing up, we’re told to ‘stop being so shy’ as though we can just switch it off,” she tells Stylist. “I’d like to reclaim the term a little bit and encourage people to take ownership of it, understanding that it’s not just a negative. You’re shy, you’re not broken.”
Although shyness can leave people feeling held-back and frustrated, Finer explains the untold positives: “I like to think that if you’re reserved, you have something in reserve and you’re not giving it all away. You’re not always speaking because you’re processing and thinking before you speak. You have something to give, you’re just choosing more carefully.”
Although Finer agrees that there are overlaps when it comes to introversion and shyness, she highlights a key difference: “It could come down to whether or not spending time alone is a choice. If you’re an introvert, you’re not held back: you just have a preference to be alone. But a shy person seeks comfort and safety in being alone.”
This really strikes a chord with me: I’m much more likely to be more confident and outgoing in social groups that I feel safe and comfortable around. And the only reason I want to leave some other situations is because, despite wanting to be there, the discomfort shyness brings makes me want to seek safety elsewhere.
So, does this make me a ‘shy extrovert’?
“A shy extrovert would be somebody who gets their energy around people. They want to be socialising at a party, working in a team, chatting with friends and having fun, and being around people. But because of their shyness, they worry about what people think of them, they might feel more self-conscious and humble, they are less likely to speak over others or interrupt. But they’re enjoying being around others, they’re just not dominating the conversation or situation. You might not hear from them but they’ll be there.”
Explaining the role of masking, she adds: “A lot of shy people pretend to be outgoing in order to get by. Instead of admitting how they feel or being authentic to themselves, they’re likely to pretend and copy how others act in situations. I, for example, have felt like a stand-up comedian before with a sort of out-of-body experience, asking: ‘Who is this person?’ You’re faking it a bit and it’s not actually that comfortable.”
So, what advice and tips does Finer have for people who, like me, identify with what she’s describing here?
“Compassion and communication are key,” she says. “Instead of thinking ‘Oh god I messed it up’ or ‘What if I say the wrong thing?’ – try and be kind to yourself. And talk to your friends to tell them if you find something awkward instead of pretending all the time. It’s OK for us to admit to: 47% of people in the UK consider themselves shy according to a YouvGov poll.
“Also, instead of feeling like the world’s not designed for you, take control of the situation and look at how you can design it so it works for you,” she says. “I often talk about ‘comfortable courage’. The thing with shyness is it’s about safety and comfort. You feel shy when you feel uncertain or something is new or out of your comfort zone. If you can find ways of being brave a little bit of a time in a comfortable way, tiny steps forward are what you’re aiming for.”
Although I’m still going to embrace my extrovert traits in friendship groups I feel comfortable in, Finer’s words are helping me to accept that I can start to enjoy social situations more by just being my shy self instead of playing a part.
Maybe I’ll even leave the mask at home next time.