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January 27, 2015 | by


Hermann von Kaulbach, Die Schuchterne, 1909.

One of the great sacrifices of adulthood is giving up shyness. Even if it’s been a defining characteristic since childhood, a constant companion through early life, at a certain point it is a luxury we cannot afford. So far as the world is concerned, we are all outgoing, delighted to be here, happy to see you. We can’t run away when we get to the door.

There are moments that change our lives. Sometimes big, conscious decisions, other times a word, a missed train, the last five minutes of a party. I can only remember one such, consciously. It was reading a quote by Penelope Keith: “Shyness is just egoism out of its depth.” 

Introversion is real, of course. For many people, shyness—or its cousin, social anxiety—feels like anything but a luxury, and renders a host of situations challenging. What’s more, it feels less like egotism than a total subjugation of self. I’ll admit it: I still feel a clutch of panic before walking into a room of people, and I remember fondly hiding behind a book, finding a corner, hearing my mother tell people I was shy. But for some reason, the unequivocal harshness of that quote was what I needed. Okay, I thought, it's you or other people. No one is looking at you; to think they are is the worst form of solipsism. Taking the option away was what I needed. 

Because the problem is, when you are a grown-up—especially if you look halfway normal and have at least a few friends and aren’t visibly weeping or shaking—people don’t look at you sitting by yourself and think, She’s shy. They will, perhaps, attribute to you all the power you give them. In short, they will merely think you aloof. And this does not become less true as life goes on, even if yours is what Jane Austen termed “a mind which had seldom known a pause in its alarms or embarrassments.”

“Everyone’s shy,” my dad used to tell me, when I didn’t want to go to a birthday party or meet dinner guests before going to bed. “We just don't give into it.” At the time I thought this was silly; after all, the world looked to be full of people going about the business of socializing with none of the agony I felt. It seemed like one of those myths about adulthood, like that you lose your taste for sweets.

And now, as a grown-up, I find I don't much care for chocolate or ice cream, and I go places I don’t want to, and there is a strange power in that, too. I don’t want people to take that Keith quote to heart the way I did; I would hope you are kind to yourself. If you need ballast of that kind, look not for abuse but commiseration. Here is what Stevie Smith wrote:

Into the dark night
Resignedly I go,
I am not so afraid of the dark night
As the friends I do not know,
I do not fear the night above
As I fear the friends below.

And here is Shy Guy: 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.