Sunday, July 16, 2006

Book Excerpt: Chapter 1: Getting to Know Yourself Better

[You can listen to Chapter 1 read by the author by clicking here]

Andy is an extremely intelligent computer programmer who considers himself shy. He likes his work but wishes he could be left alone to do it. He works in a small family-owned software development business run by an insecure boss. This boss promised Andy a bonus last year but it hasn’t been mentioned since. Andy would like to speak to his boss about the bonus but he never knows when he’ll be in a good mood and he doesn’t know how to approach it, so he hasn’t said anything in many months.

Kathy, a self employed graphic designer, cringes at the thought of approaching "strangers" at networking functions or through cold calls. She is a wonderful designer and has been lucky because most of her work has come by word of mouth. Kathy says she doesn’t have the confidence to talk to strangers. So she can’t bring herself to attend a networking meeting, even though once she’s there, she has a great time.

What does Andy mean when he says he’s “shy?” What is the “confidence” Kathy needs to put on her coat and go to a gathering of strangers?

Let’s begin by defining our terms:

What is shyness?
Webster’s defines shy as “easily frightened” and “disposed to avoid a person or thing.” Dr. Bernardo Carducci, Director of The Shyness Research Institute in Indiana University Southeast, says that shy people are slow to warm up, have a limited comfort zone and avoid approaching strangers.

What is confidence?
According to Webster’s, confidence is “a feeling or consciousness of one’s powers or of reliance on one’s circumstances” and “faith or belief that one will act in a right, proper and effective way.” In other words, to be confident is to know you can handle whatever comes along, which you probably can.

So Andy is frightened to ask about his bonus and is avoiding the subject. And Kathy is afraid to approach a stranger because she doesn’t think she’ll be able to handle herself in an impromptu conversation.

Gregg Krech, a leading authority on Japanese Psychology and the author of the book "Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection" writes, “In the center of [a shy person’s] anxious feeling is the seed of the desire to achieve, to transcend, to be worthy. The real problem is not these feelings in and of themselves; it is that we are letting this particular group of feelings "push us around.”

You see, it may feel like we are being pushed around by co-workers and bosses and clients, but we’re actually doing it to ourselves. So the assertiveness we need to learn is not to be addressed towards the pushy boss or coworkers. Instead, we need to learn to be assertive with ourselves and our feelings so we can achieve our goals.

Even if you’ve been shy all your life and it “feels” natural, there are things you can do, actions you can take that will expand your horizons and bring you out of your shell. Benefits -- even riches -- await those who can speak up and reach out. That’s the premise of this book.

Who is shy?

Dr. Bernardo Carducci, author of "Shyness: A Bold New Approach," who has been studying shyness since the early 1980’s, asserts that the number of Americans who consider themselves shy has hovered around 40% for the past 25 years.

Forty per cent of Americans. That’s a lot of shy people.

So no matter how much it feels like you’re the only one, you are not alone. The ranks of the shy include men and women, young and old, salaried and self-employed. They come from across the professional spectrum, span from the top of the corporate ladder to the bottom, and can be found in all industries, from information technology and accounting to advertising, publishing and the world of fashion and design.

It’s not always easy to believe that shyness is so widespread because many shy people don’t appear to be shy. In other words, there are many seemingly outgoing people who feel shy, who see themselves as shy, but it’s not always evident to the outside world. And there are many who "masquerade as extroverts" because they have to -- CEOs, performers, and media-savvy people who spend lots of time in the limelight. Some of the more famous ones include Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson, Barbara Walters, Al Gore and more.

In fact, we all have shy moments when facing a new challenge or an unknown person. The only difference is that some of us let it hold us back while others don’t. That’s a choice you can make.

Shyness and biology: genes, temperament and brains

For many people, shyness feels innate. But are people born shy? And if so, is biology destiny?

According to a study reported in the Wall Street Journal in early 2006, there is such a thing as a “shy gene” and it’s called 5-HTT. However, not everyone born with this gene becomes a shy child or a shy adult. It only lives up to its name when you grow up in a certain type of environment.

In other words, if you have the “shy gene” and you were raised in an environment where your parents had little social support and if you were protected from the world -- instead of encouraged to venture out into it -- you may have become a shy adult.

However, if you have the shy gene but were raised in a strong community with many adults attentively teaching you what you needed to learn, and by parents who made a conscious and consistent effort to get you out to play with other kids despite your reluctance, you are more likely to have “shaken” your shyness.

Researchers have also attributed shyness to natural temperament. There is evidence that approximately 15 to 20 percent of infants are born with what Dr. Jerome Kagan of Harvard University (Kagan, 1994) and his colleagues (Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1988) refer to as an “inhibited temperament.” Inhibited children are those who are easily aroused or excited. They are the ones who, at two years of age, might be more likely to hide behind a parent’s legs when a stranger enters their play area. They are the ones who, at seven, play by themselves instead of with other children.

Dr. Carducci proposes that this inhibited behavior begins to be labeled by parents, teachers, and acquaintances as “shyness.” Shy behaviors then become habits that are strengthened, like muscles, as we mature.

But the opposite may be true as well. “Parents who engineer gradual emboldening experiences to their shy children provide a lifelong corrective to the fearfulness,” writes Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book, "Emotional Intelligence". He also cites statistics that 1 in 3 infants born with an inhibited temperament lose their timidity by kindergarten.

Beyond our genes and our temperament, we have our brains, which also play a role. Here’s how it works: When you learn a new skill, your brain actually changes. If you wanted to learn to use a computer, for example, your brain would arrange a new neural pathway for learning to use a computer. As you learn, this new pathway develops. The more you practice, the more proficient you become, the more your brain changes, until your brain gradually develops the neural pathways to make your "practicing" become automatic. Soon, you don’t have to focus and you can type and click and open documents without even thinking about it. You’ve learned to do something new.

So experience sculpts the brain. Everything we learn changes our brain and becomes part of our neural pathways. We’ve known for a while that a child’s brain has a remarkable plasticity and changes as a child learns and develops. More recent studies on the adult brain also demonstrate an astounding ability to create new neural pathways, even as we age. For example, memory-enhancing exercises and intellectual stimulation have been proven to keep the brain evolving and to prevent dementia.

So although you may not realize it, you have more control than you imagine over which pathways in your brain get strong and which ones get weak. This applies to behaviors as well, both shy ones and assertive ones. Each time we don’t speak up, we are actually strengthening the neural pathways in the brain that keep us shy. That means you can also strengthen the neural pathways that make you more assertive, by learning and practicing over time, appropriate strategies and techniques.

Sharon Begley, science columnist for the Wall Street Journal writes, “If you combine the discoveries of the plasticity of the adult brain, with the hints of what underlies shyness, then I'd say one has to entertain the possibility that an adult's 'shyness circuits' can be remodeled.”

In short, you can learn a few new tricks, if you want to. It’s not “hard” work. What it takes is repetition and perseverance.

Are you shy all the time? (Are you sure you’re shy?)

There are plenty of personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator™ that will “reveal” your true personality type. You may have taken one in high school or on your first job and earned the label of “introvert.”

One problem with these personality tests is that they don’t tell the whole story. In the real world, you are not just one way – there are many factors that determine each of your behaviors. Plus, you are constantly changing. So even if you have a naturally quiet temperament and lots of shy moments, chances are there are other moments, other environments, other circumstances in which you are less shy, or perhaps not shy at all. Maybe you don’t have a lot to say in every situation but there are probably also situations where you are quite talkative. Maybe you wait for someone to take an interest or ask a question before you open up.

Shy is a label you put on yourself (or someone else put on you) and it just stuck around. Until now, you may have been limited by the habits you’ve formed around the label of shyness or “introvert.” But the actions that go along with the label – keeping your opinions to yourself at a staff meeting or letting a new contact walk away without exchanging business cards -- these are things you do, actions you take, or don’t take. And you can decide to take a different action in any situation.

Even if the label of “shy” reflects your natural temperament, it’s likely you are capable of much more – all of us are. When we believe the labels, we limit our ability to recognize how flexible we are and how much potential each and every one of us has. And we limit our access to the abundance offered by the world around us.

Try this. Take this sentence -- “I am ______” – and fill in the blank in as many different ways as you can. Try for 100 but feel free to go further. Do it over the course of a few days or a week as you observe yourself in action. Notice the myriad aspects of yourself. See how many pages you can fill and then study the range and expansiveness of who you are. Then, ask your friends and family to fill in the sentence, to get other people’s perspective on you.

What you need to know: Exactly when are you shy?
We don’t necessarily need to understand why we are shy. It really doesn’t matter. But if we want to expand our comfort zone, what we need to know is what we do and when we do it. And that can be done through observation.

Instead of making a blanket statement like “I’m shy,” it makes more sense to begin to identify the situations in which you are most uncomfortable and the types of people in whose presence you feel shy. Then, likewise, identify the ones that make you the most comfortable. That way you can create a plan to systematically expand your comfort zone.

· Are you shy in big groups but not in small ones? If so, where is the cut off point for size?
· Are you shy around people with authority but not around those you consider your peers?
· Is there one person or type of person around whom you’re the most shy?
· Are you shy around outgoing people? Or people who seem loud and boisterous? Do you see these people as “aggressive”?
· Are you shy with people who are considering hiring you but then once you’re “in”, you relax and can “be yourself”?
· Are you shy at gatherings of people you’ve never met before?
· Are there settings in which you take a lesser role on something that you have been highly involved in designing, implementing or managing?
· Do you shrug off compliments and have trouble taking credit for success?
· Are you shy around people of the opposite sex? Same sex?
· Are you shy at any hint of conflict? Or when other people are expressing their opinions freely?
· Are you shy at a particular time of day, in the early hours rather than in the evening?
· Are you shy if someone asks you a direct question, even when you can voluntarily offer the information any other time?
· Are you shy in formal settings but outgoing when it’s more casual? Does it depend on what you’re wearing?
· Are you shy when there is pressure to perform, like speaking to a reporter or into a tape recorder? When there’s no chance to retract what you say? When it feels like this is your only chance?
· Do you notice yourself saying phrases like, “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me” but can’t stop yourself?

Do you:
· Apologize all the time?
· Avoid potential conflict?
· Avoid risks?
· Fear making a mistake?
· Fear being found wrong?
· Find yourself annoyed and irritable in groups?
· Blame others for being boring?
· Blame others for your discomfort?
· Get mad at yourself easily?
· Feel things are often unfair?
· Fear rejection?

Reflect a bit on these lists. What is it about these situations that allow you to turn a part of yourself off, to lose access to your ideas and your words?

It is very natural to think of being shy as containing a large measure of victimhood. But if you think about it, it is actually selfish to be shy. Not only are we withholding our ideas from others, but because we feel this way, we require special attention, additional time to feel comfortable. That’s not always possible. We do have something of value to offer and it’s not fair to others – in fact, it’s stingy of us not to contribute, just because we don’t feel like it.

What you need to know: What are the fears?
The problem with our fears is that they are locked in our heads and they exist only for us. This may also be a great thing. If they're all in our heads, we have complete control over vanquishing them - if we realize them to be the destructive forces they are, instead of mistaking them for some kind of reality. If we can bring them out into the open, they can be examined as to whether or not they correspond to reality.

Let’s go back to Kathy, who is terrified of attending a networking event because she doesn’t know what to say to a stranger.

“I’m afraid I will say the wrong thing or I will mumble or not finish a complete sentence and the other person will be looking at me as though I’m stupid.”

So the way she tells it, Kathy is afraid of the way someone will look at her. Is that something to fear?

“Ok, let’s say someone looks at you as though you’re stupid. Then what will happen?”
“Well, the other person will reject me.”
“How exactly?”
“Well, he will just walk away in disgust.”
“Has that ever happened to you before?”
“No, not really.”
“Have you ever seen someone do that?”
“Well, no.”
“And have you ever done it to someone?”
“No, I would never do that.”
“So here’s the picture: you introduce yourself to a stranger and at first he is interested in what you have to say but as soon as you start to stutter or say something “stupid” (what would that be?), this person gets fed up, rolls his eyes, and simply walks away in disgust? Do you really think that would happen?”

As the picture of what Kathy imagines gets filled in with details, she can start to see how irrational and how unlikely it is. And yet, when the fear is inside her head, it seems completely plausible -- so plausible that she has convinced herself not to attend an event because of it on many, many occasions.

That’s only one fear – there are many more where that one came from. What about the fear of confrontation, of being humiliated, of not knowing the answer, of being judged by "authority figures" – bosses and supervisors, clients and prospects, anyone in a position to critique or choose?

If we can look objectively at our own fears, especially the tiny ones that hide behind automatic reactions, if we can bring those out into the light of day, we may see that they are just as unrealistic as Kathy’s. Sometimes that helps just enough to overcome them.

Try this. Next time you notice that a fear is holding you back, write out the scene of what you imagine will happen. This will help you see whether it is realistic. Show what you’ve written to someone you trust. Ask their opinion. Sometimes even that is enough to let it go.

Sometimes what you feel isn’t the most important thing
Our culture places tremendous value on our feelings. We are encouraged to “get in touch” with them, to “work” on them, to think and talk about them, to treat them with the utmost respect and attention, as if they were our most valuable asset.

We are encouraged to steer clear of anything uncomfortable. We do what’s easiest or most familiar instead of what needs to be done. We choose activities and events based on personal interest or entertainment value. Our feelings are often responsible when we decide at the last minute not to attend a gathering or a class. We rarely do anything we don’t “feel” like doing. This is how many of us make our decisions, both trivial and important ones -- from making a difficult phone call to choosing a career.

“We are not out of touch with our inner world -- that world of feelings, of preferences, of desires and discomfort. It is a world we know too well. In the course of exploring our pain, our worries, our feelings and our dreams we forego the development of our more needed skill -- to notice and engage the world around us.”
Gregg Krech, author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection

We believe that getting what we want should be easy. We are seduced by hyperbolic promises like “Become self confident in 10 days” or “Get fit without doing exercise.” These voices are speaking to the part of us that wants to feel good and doesn’t want to work, to the part of us that engages in magical thinking.

But we know that mastery in life happens slowly over time and only with effort. If a goal is worth striving toward, it usually requires work and sacrifice and often, yes, discomfort. So are feelings the best foundation for decision-making?

Think about the networking meeting that Kathy is afraid to attend. What if one of her goals is to build her business and bring in enough work so that she can hire an employee and she can spend more time with her children or work at her church? She knows that networking is an essential tool in that process but she is terrified of talking to strangers and therefore never “feels” like going anywhere new. Should she therefore not go?

Can she stop the fear through sheer force of will? Probably not. But if she allows her feelings to prevent her from doing what’s needed to achieve her goals then she won’t build her business and she won’t be able to hire that new employee and fulfill her purpose.

Goals aren’t achieved by magic. No amount of wishful thinking or feeling good or dreaming will grow your business or help you climb the corporate ladder. If your long-term goals are important to you, whatever they are, you’ll no doubt have to endure some discomfort to achieve them. That’s a given.

Having a different attitude might help get through that discomfort. It would be more constructive to place less value on how we feel and more value on our goals and what we’re trying to accomplish, both professionally and personally.

What you need to know: Where your attention is

“Anxiety is misdirected attention.” (

Andy gave feedback on a report to a co-worker, who seemed appreciative of it. But not long afterward, he started to imagine that he’d been too harsh and worried that the co-worker was angry with him.

This is very similar to Kathy imagining that the stranger she’s talking to will think she’s stupid.

So many of us spend time imagining what has happened or what will happen. Think about how often you catch yourself replaying an awkward conversation in your head or rehearsing what you’ll say when you stand up to your boss about the way an issue was handled.

When this is going on, where is your attention?

It may seem like your attention is focused outward because these thoughts have to do with someone else. But in fact your attention is focused inward, on yourself and what you imagine others will think of you.

In reality, you have no idea what another person thinks, much less what someone will say or do. You will never know. You can get some information by watching and listening. But when your attention is focused inward, it’s impossible to see or hear. You miss offhand (and sometimes even direct) comments or body language that could help you read the other person more accurately. You miss openings that could get you closer to your goal.

This happens automatically for most of us. We don’t consciously point our attention inward. It just keeps going back there, unless we shift it consciously, and get in the habit of doing that.

Morita Therapy, founded by Japanese psychiatrist, Shoma Morita, teaches acceptance of our feelings while shifting our attention to something more constructive. It is based on the idea that we can make a conscious attempt to shift our attention from our feelings to our purpose. “We focus our attention on the things that help us live a fulfilled and meaningful life,” writes Morita. “We don’t allow our anxiety to prevent us from the taking actions that will lead us toward our goals. We simply bring the anxiety along as we strive to live well and do what’s important.”

This is simple but not necessarily easy. It means you have to notice where your attention is first, then redirect it, literally move it somewhere else.

For example, if you’re sitting in a meeting, rehearsing what you’ll say when it’s your turn to speak and not paying attention to the comments that come before you, your focus is inward. In those moments, you can catch yourself and redirect your attention to the people in the room. You will likely hear or see something new, something that could affect what you will say, something that could trigger a brilliant idea that isn’t already in your head.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of what you may be missing. Action can pull you back into reality and distract you from your shyness. The shyness doesn’t disappear; it just moves out of the spotlight and becomes less and less of an obstacle. Paradoxically, the more actions you take, the less shy you will feel. Not only will you become more skillful and confident in work situations by gaining experience in them, but you will be turning more and more attention away from yourself (and your problems) toward the reality out there. You become a shy person who speaks up and reaches out.

So next time you’re talking or meeting with someone, ask yourself, “Where is my attention?”

Excerpted from Stop Pushing Me Around: A Workplace Guide for the Timid, Shy and Less Assertive (Career Press, 2006). Order your copy here.


Blogger Tig Wallis said...

Interesting thoughts on the origins of shyness. I do believe that much of the social fear is exacerbated by television. Look at any sitcom and watch a character say/do something stupid and consequently be harassed/laughed at/ridiculed for it. We learn what we see.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Howard Levy said...

This chapter is a good examination of the subject. I think that in Kathy's case, what she fears in networking is perhaps her inability to approach someone and start a conversation and keep it going. Her real fear isn't that the other person will literally walk away in disgust, but that the person will figuratively walk way - Kathy fears not being able to easily establish a connection with other people.

Tig makes a good point about media. The converse of that might also be true - that TV and movies make it seem effortless to have seamless conversations and establish instant rapport - which makes us feel all the more inadequate when can't do the same.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Mary Kaye said...

What I take away from this excerpt is that I need to place less emphasis on my feelings and focus more on my goals. It probably seems perfectly clear to most men, but for women, we tend to rely to heavily on how we feel at the moment.

Very valuable advice, Ilise!


12:41 PM  
Anonymous David Stoddard said...

I can so totally relate to this. I am definitely a shy introvert. I won't even call to order pizza or chineese food.

Then again, I am definitely an extrovert when it comes to chatting it up with cashiers at the fastfood places or greeting card stores.

Ok, so I do fit the gemini idea of the twins. I guess that's where my feelings of differentness come in. As a writer, that protects the introvert in me. But as someone who has thought of being a teacher or motivational speaker, that brings interest to the extrovert side.

Is this shyness side learned over time? Is it always with us? Or am I just lucky in ways to be a bit of both?

9:37 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home