Tuesday, November 07, 2006

On shyness

I need to work on my blockquote style for my blog, because this comes out looking terribly dull. Still, here's a quote from an abstract for a study published in the Archives of General Psychology:
Conclusion -- Children who manifest higher levels of shyness or have 1 or 2 copies of the short allele of the serotonin transporter promoter gene appear to have a different pattern of processing affective stimuli of interpersonal hostility.
Alright, so we all know I'm no Psych major, eh? But I remembered this study from a much more readable (and therefore suspect) article on CNN awhile back, and recently I was reconsidering the findings.

To paraphrase, shy kids (or anyway, a high enough proportion that one could draw some tentative conclusions) apparently don't recognize aggression and neutrality in facial expressions as readily as non-shy kids do.

Lots of other factors contribute to shyness. Wiki shyness (that'd be the new verb, to Wiki) and you'll get a good glimpse, even though the current contributers to that subject area are especially into the genetic paths to shyness. Events, environment, genetics; there are too many variables to be sure which is acting on any specific shy person.

I consider myself to be shy. I have a great tendency to scare other people because I am bold and straightforward and a little arrogant (a lot arrogant, truth be told, but I like to think I hide some of it successfully); I stride rather than walk, if given a choice; I give my opinion before I am asked (which gets me into trouble); and I avoid interaction; I would rather hide under my blankets; I flush bright red whenever I'm called upon to speak in public; and I can't remember a word of what I said, anytime I've made an impassioned speech. I was really impassioned, I just don't know what I said!

The thing about the virtual balls I display as a shy person is this, perhaps: I know I can't tell what's going on in other peoples' minds. Over time, I've decided that I can't know this, so I won't know this, and I can't let it stop me. I can't stop and worry about what people are thinking or how people are viewing me, because if I do so, I'm miserable. I know. I used to be miserable.

As a shy person, I used to find a lot of money. No, really, this is a true phenomenon. I found a lot of money because I lived in a well-populated city, the paper money was conveniently multi-colored, and I never looked up from the ground. I was afraid, if I met someone's eyes, that they would see me looking at them and think I thought I could measure up in some way. It was worst, not surprisingly, with handsome young men.

As a shy person, I nevertheless made friends, because well... I don't know. I like to talk? and when I was 20, I liked music, and hung out at some blues jams, and met some people. One day I was on a bus, heading to the house of one of these friends on a sunny afternoon. I was standing -the bus was crowded- and avoiding other people by staring steadfastly out the window. The bus stopped at a stop, picked up some passengers, and I, looking out the window, saw another person across the road, and instantly liked her, felt a kinship with her. She was just a nice-looking person, nothing extraordinary, a little bit familiar. Blue jeans, jean-jacket. Brown hair. Green army-surplus bag. Who knows why I noticed her, or why I instantly liked her? I just did.

Then the bus moved, and I saw the light on the reflective bank windows across the road.

I'd been looking at myself.

I've had some seriously defining moments in my life, and that one was by no means the last. In some ways I suppose it was the first, at least of my adult life. I didn't overcome my shyness that day, but I saw it for what it was: a projection, nothing more. I projected my anxieties on others. I judged myself, and so I assumed they judged me. The moment I saw myself without judgment, I realized others might view me the same way.

What the hell does this have to do with a Psych paper? Oh yeah, this: The psychologists and geneticists and other cists all over the world will tell us how something like shyness happens, and I think that's great. But there's always going to be more to it. For instance, I can buy that an inability to translate facial expressions would extend pretty naturally to an unwillingness to interact. That's completely understandable. But what if this inability to translate facial expressions is a result of not encountering them in the first place?

What if it's caused by not looking at facial expressions in the first place? by avoiding them? by taking other, more subtle cues, sensing that there is conflict, and deliberately looking away?

I spent a good chunk of my life avoiding something that was very difficult, very painful. And pure chance forced me to look at it in a light that showed it for what it was: Just a girl in a jean-jacket.

I can love being just a girl in a jean-jacket. I can love me. I just couldn't face all the millions of things I thought I was supposed to be, and that others were supposed to see, above and beyond just a girl in a jean-jacket. So... I didn't look.

I'm still shy, but I look people square in the face whenever I can push myself to do so. And nine times out of ten... they remember that bold, friendly woman who seemed so confident, and grinned, and said her name was Becky.

I can live with that.


sjer said...

That was fascinating, and so well written!

jason evans said...

Great post!

I can attest that being overly attuned to facial expressions, mannerisms, speech patterns, etc. can also lead to a kind of shyness. You attribute meaning to things which the other person is doing subconsciously (and therefore may be fleeting).

Being too aware makes you very cautious and quiet. Observant instead of jumping in.