Cower Struggle

I’m a 20-something single woman. I just moved to a new city where I don’t know anybody. I’d like to meet people, but I work from home, and I’m pretty shy. The idea of having to earn people’s acceptance in a new environment (and possibly making a mess of it) leaves me tempted to stay home with Netflix and my cat.

—Afraid

To be human is to err. And err. And err. Personally, I have clogged somebody’s toilet, shattered an expensive, um, vase (“Nooo…not Nana’s ashes!”), and knocked a guy’s red wine the length of a white-on-white living room. In my defense, not all at the same party. 

You can’t really control what happens to you — and if you’re as graceful as I am, you can’t really control what you do. What you can control is how you react: whether you “shy away” from public life or put on a brave face, hoping somebody in your circle gets arrested for bestiality and bumps you from the top of the social newsfeed.

Researchers have spent decades squabbling over how shyness should be defined, and they have yet to agree on a definition. However, shyness, to some extent, is a super-light shade of “social anxiety disorder”: a debilitating fear of being “negatively evaluated” by others — deemed disgusting, stupid, ugly, weird, or otherwise rejection-worthy — and then being publicly humiliated and socially deleted. 

Social anxiety sufferers, desperate to avoid the eyeballs and judgment of others, live shrunken lives. Parties, meetings, and classes are often out of the question, as are situations requiring “public speaking” (like the coffee line, with the ever-looming danger of being asked “You next?”).

Though you’re merely shy — meaning you probably just dread and sometimes duck out of parties or talking with strangers — it’s important to reflect on whether your shyness is standing between you and the life you want — or…whether it is (or has been) a good thing. 

That question — about the possible benefits of shyness — might sound a little nuts (though it’s anything but). Answering it requires exploring shyness from an evolutionary perspective: Why might shyness have evolved — that is, what might’ve been its function in an ancestral environment? 

Now, maybe you’re grumbling, “Ancestral environment?! Who cares what some hairy humans were doing way back when?” Well, we need to care, because our modern skulls are home to an antique psychological operating system — adapted for the mating and survival problems of our distant human ancestors. 

In ancestral times, getting booted from your hunter-gatherer band meant going it alone in a horribly harsh environment, millennia before DoorDash — or doors. If you didn’t starve to death, you might become the brunch entree for Mr. and Mrs. Tiger. Deeply unpleasant — and a big dead end for your genes. 

That’s where our emotions — including feelbad ones like fear and anxiety — come in. Psychiatrist and evolutionary researcher Randy Nesse explains that our emotions are motivational tools, driving us to behave in ways that help us survive and pass on our genes. For example, he observes that “People develop a fear of heights after a fall” — killing the appeal of skydiving, rock climbing, and other sports with a concerning, shall we say, splat rate. 

Along with our ancestral history, your personal history has shaped your behavior. At some point, it was probably “adaptive” — functional, protective — for you to duck and cover; for example, if, like me, you were a little kid bullied by bigger, older girls. (“Out of sight; out of beatdown.”) 

But…does it make sense now to keep ducking and covering? It’s unlikely there are giant meangirls (or other childhood “monsters”) lying in wait for you. Plus, your adult “neighborhood” is vastly bigger than your childhood one: filled with new friends to make, should the ones you have give you the shove.

Changing a habit is seriously hard — but doable. It takes repeatedly behaving as the person you want to be. Scary — maybe even terrifying — but here’s a tip: You might feel shy, but you don’t have to act shy. As I wrote in “Unf*ckology”: “Your feelings are not the boss of you.” (Just because you have a feeling “doesn’t mean you have to go all ‘Yes, your lordship!’ in response.”) 

We tend not to unpack our fears — ask ourselves, “Yo, Self? What’s the worst that could happen if I go say hi to Hot Strangerdude?” Unless you can truthfully answer, “I’ll be snatched up and pecked to death by a pterodactyl!” there’s really no good reason not to take the plunge. 

Nobody’s liked by everybody, but let’s be real: Contrary to your worst fears, other guests at the cocktail party aren’t waiting for you to leave so they can compare notes on how stupid you look trying to eat a mini quiche. 


(c)2022, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA  90405, or e-mail AdviceAmy@aol.com. @amyalkon on Twitter. Weekly podcast: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon

 Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence,” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2018).