If you are raising a shy child or were one yourself, have you ever considered that being shy might not be a bad thing? While there are countless books on how to get your shy child to come out of her shell, and therapists scrutinizing children for signs of social anxiety, being shy has its benefits. There are many reasons why shy children not only grow up to be productive people, but many go on to be leaders and artists.
Susan Cain’s article, “Shyness: An Evolutionary Tactic” in yesterday’s New York Times‘ Sunday Review breaks open the stigma of being shy and replaces it with scientific evidence to support the evolutionary benefits that introverts, or sitters, bring to a world of extroverts, or rovers.
As Cain points out, the ads for social anxiety medications show pathetic views of shy people who apparently suffer from social anxiety. One has to wonder if children who are prescribed these medications even need them or if they just have a quiet way of being part of the world, a way in which they take in their surroundings through peaceful observance and introspection rather than immediate interaction.
Why does everyone have to be a social butterfly to be deemed normal or even acceptable? There are many brilliant and successful people who were thought to be shy like Einstein, Darwin, and J.K. Rowling. Cain says that many shy people grow up to be fabulous leaders because they listen and really take in what others say; they are sensitive to people and careful thinkers.
It’s distressing that society doesn’t value this personality trait, and makes being shy an uncomfortable characteristic at best. Think about how many times you’ve heard a mom or a teacher says, “She’s a little shy” or “He’s just shy.” It’s probably the worst thing an adult can do to a child because it points out their trait by making an excuse for the child’s personality, which sends a message to the child that how he or she is in the world is wrong. And that’s just not true. Think about if a child was being rambunctious. An adult wouldn’t try to point out their behavior by saying, “Oh, he’s just loud and obnoxious.”
Now more than ever, society place pressure on people to be extroverted. The media, social networks systems, and even the medical profession is capitalizing on telling people they need to be more socially active. Cain writes that the idea of social anxiety hadn’t begun to take off until the drug companies started making medication to treat it:
Social anxiety disorder did not officially exist until it appeared in that year’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-III, the psychiatrist’s bible of mental disorders, under the name “social phobia.” It was not widely known until the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies received F.D.A. approval to treat social anxiety with S.S.R.I.’s and poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising its existence. The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-IV, acknowledges that stage fright (and shyness in social situations) is common and not necessarily a sign of illness.
So is the stigma of shyness exploding because worried parents are bombarded with doctors and drug companies telling us that our children won’t lead successful lives if they are simply shy? That is anything but the truth. Furthermore, it is a travesty to try to change a person’s innate personality with medication, which it seems is now happening:
A recent study suggests that today’s S.S.R.I.’s not only relieve social anxiety but also induce extroverted behavior.) The day may come — and might be here already — when people are as comfortable changing their psyches as the color of their hair. If we continue to confuse shyness with sickness, we may find ourselves in a world of all rovers and no sitters, of all yang and no yin.
I was a shy kid and to some degree still am shy. I always enjoyed and even craved, solitary time throughout the day. Now I spend most of my day in the loudness that comes from raising kids, working in publishing and living in New York City but I still treasure being alone, and I know that exact personality tendency is what has spurred my writing. I am at my best when I am writing my fiction and my mind is happily wandering the realms of the creative world. I often wonder what would have happened if my mother had viewed my shyness as a fault and instead of allowing me the quiet time I needed, threw me into non-stop activities just so she would feel better about my personality, or worse yet, put me on medication. I fully believe my artistic sensibilities would have suffered if I was not simply allowed to live as I was born to be.
By medicating children to be more socially active, we might possibly be stifling many sensitive, would-be artists and creative thinkers. As Cain writes, Steve Wozniak, the engineer who founded Apple with Steve Jobs, is a person who craves quiet and time to be alone:
Mr. Wozniak describes his creative process as an exercise in solitude. “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,” he writes in “iWoz,” his autobiography. “They’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone.”
Shyness can be a gift and the best thing a shy child (or any child) can have is a parent who doesn’t see their personality as a defect but celebrates their uniqueness.
Is this really a problem? More about social anxiety and selective mutism in kids