The problem of crippling shyness and how the church can help

Morrissey famously sang, ‘shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to’. Less famously, my Dad once opined that whilst ‘confidence is a good trait; shyness never did anything for anyone’. I think I probably agree with both sentiments, more or less.

Like Morrissey, I have bouts of crippling shyness. Also like Morrissey, I can shoot my mouth off. Stood in a pulpit, at the front of a meeting or in some conference or other, I can do a good line in sounding and appearing pretty confident and self-assured. There is a helpful distance between the lectern and your audience. I can happily sound off in a blog post from the relative safety of my office and at a comfortable distance from anyone reading. Sat in a room full of people I know a bit but not well, all the worst introverted and shy traits descend upon me and I become crippled with fear at the thought of speaking to people.

I’m alright if someone speaks to me first, greasing the wheels of our interaction. But expect me to make the first move and, no matter how much I try and gear myself up to do it, I am paralysed. It is worst when you see people you half know, and who half know you, finding yourself caught in a quandary between speaking to them and staying where you are because you suspect they wouldn’t want you to bother them. It gets to its most excruciatingly awkward when you know they have clocked you and you find yourself there, staring at them, desperately trying to summon the ability to do or say anything at all. You end up locked in this vicious circle of staring one another out whilst doing your level best to nonchalantly pretend that you, honestly, didn’t catch their eye.

As you sit there, feeling like a total lemon whilst your throat closes and that conversation starter you had thought about using deserts you completely, you desperately try to muster the saliva to moisten the now Saharan-levels of dryness in your mouth merely so you can give a nod of acknowledgement and spit out an utterly feeble, ‘alright’. Such efforts to lessen the unbearable awkwardness of it all are usually interpreted as terse and rude, typically assumed to mean that you hope they will just go away. Whilst that would resolve the immediate cause of anxiety, settling into a meaningful discussion would also release the tension with the added benefit of no further problems.

When a conversation doesn’t manifest itself and the moment passes, the awkwardness subsides and in flood feelings of guilt, shame, paranoia and frustration. First comes guilt and the sense that one should have manned-up and said something. Next comes shame, berating oneself as to why you are like this and the lameness of struggling to open your mouth and introduce yourself. Then paranoia rears its head and one begins replaying all the things that the other person – based on scant evidence – is now thinking about you. Finally, frustration sets in over all the missed opportunities to speak to people that went by the wayside because it was just too awkward or difficult.

It is for this reason that I find conferences and the like painful. This sort of thing doesn’t just happen once but is potentially reenacted hundreds of times, depending how many people are there and the level of expectation there is to actively pursue ongoing relationships with people in the room. It’s alright if you’re going to be speaking a bunch of times from the front; that (usually wrongly) implies to people that you’re important and worth approaching. They engage you and grease the wheels of your interaction. At the very least, it usually means a bunch of people seek you out to take issue with some minutiae in your talk. As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine because it takes all the awkward small-talk out of the interaction.

Don’t get me wrong. In my church, where I know everyone and we are the hosts, its fine. It strikes me as entirely right that those who are most well-known, who are in a majority group or who are organising a thing in whatever setting should be the ones to make the first move. We cannot, and should not, expect visitors to approach our church members if they are to have a conversation. Only the most confident of the confident will even countenance coming again and, even then, will usually presume the church was really unfriendly because I had to go and make myself known before anyone spoke to me. Even if your church is full of shy introverts, it is incumbent on you to welcome visitors into your congregation.

One of the problems is that many churches – and particularly conferences and things like these – are set up by extroverts for extroverts. Even where this is not the case, they are usually set up by those who are well known and thus the problems of being shy in that environment are lost on them. It’s not that they’ve necessarily forgotten what it is like to be shy, it’s that, because they are well known and people regularly approach them, they mistakenly believe they have cracked the problem for all the anonymous, obscure shy people whom nobody would typically bother with.

I was at a conference a while ago and got separated from the person I was with. I looked around for them and couldn’t find them. It transpired that when we got separated they couldn’t bear to go into wherever we were due next by themselves so they skipped out altogether and returned to their hotel. I can sympathise because find these feelings reach their zenith (or, nadir, depending on how you look at it) when I am in a room surrounded by other people and yet have nobody with whom I can speak. I immediately feel – almost certainly wrongly – that everyone is looking at the loser on their own with no one to speak to. The old aphorism that people can feel the loneliest in a crowd was coined for people like me.

I think this is a problem we have yet to truly grasp in the church. Even if our churches are not run by extroverts in a way that suits extroverts, there is often an implicit message that extroversion is next to godliness. It is those who push themselves forward for whom we can find works of service and, similarly, can raise up to positions of leadership. Even as a shy introvert, I know I find these people easier too. They will approach you, making themselves available to serve and telling you all about their background and previous ministries. What leader wouldn’t want that? It makes my life easier (and, let’s be honest, how much of our ministry – though we wouldn’t care to admit it – is driven by this beguiling idol).

All the while, we send the implicit message that the introverted shy folk don’t serve any great purpose or, at least, that their introversion is a problem to be solved. We can allow them to languish in the pews because they find it too jolly awkward to push themselves forward and our leadership teams don’t fare much better in engaging in that initial conversation either. Introverts are much harder to engage than the extroverted guys and so we focus our time and energy on the low-hanging fruit.

There is certainly a case to be made for helping shy Christians get over their shyness. It is true that it can amount to little more than idolatry. It is essentially fearing what people think of us when we should be more concerned about what the Lord thinks of us to the point where we are crippled by it in social situations. The question is not whether we should help people overcome their shyness, but how do we help them? I sense this is what we have yet to grasp. Simply shouting at people to ‘get over it’ isn’t likely to help. Nor, do I suspect, will immersion therapy – shoving them into the most awkward possible situations and hoping they will learn to swim.

Perhaps the answer lies in a similar response to the Christian position on same-sex attraction. There must be an acknowledgement that few, if any, people choose to feel this way. Nonetheless, there must also be an acknowledgement that many of the symptoms of shyness lead us into unbiblical behaviours, such as refusing to welcome people because it makes us uncomfortable. Just as telling a same-sex attracted person to ‘feel less gay’ isn’t likely to help them, so insisting a shy person just stops feeling that way isn’t going to do much either. But acknowledging the struggle, and finding ways to support shy people without endorsing the behaviours that often come with shyness, might be a reasonable first step. Just as we would find ways to help a sufferer of depression through their depression, whilst not suggesting their desire to hide away and harm themselves is a good idea, so we can walk with the shy without encouraging them in the less helpful behaviours that attend their shyness.