Shy, Cousin of Shame

Smiling student“Shy is the most terrible feeling that you can get.”

“Shyness is a habit that began when someone was afraid to talk and didn’t know what to do. Sometimes shyness can make us seem boring.”

“If I say the wrong thing, I shy to say something again.”

“I am shy because I’m afraid that people will laugh at me. If someone laughs at me, I will feel afraid, shy and I think I did something wrong.” (Other fears are “teasing and whispering.)

“I hope I can get rid of shy, but it’s really hard.”

“I want to be less shy because I don’t want always to be a shy girl, and I want to be a good, smart, and brave girl.”

These words come from the students in my sixth grade English-as-a-second-language classroom in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. We were talking about “shy” because all of them worry about being laughed at or being wrong or not good enough. One student covers his mouth when he can’t think of what to say or is too shy to say it. Another student speaks so softly that I we have to read her lips to understand. Over the semester the things that seem to help the most are: “Would you like us to come back to you?” “Would you like a little help?” “Maybe you could write it for me,” saying in a playful, singsong voice, “Just a little bit louder and a little bit slower.” Sometimes I say, “Did you understand?” If the others shake their heads, I ask, “Would you like to?” When they nod yes, I say, “So could you say it again, please?”

Still, after some months their shyness was still interfering with speaking and learning. I knew that what they were thinking and feeling was so much greater than what they could say aloud. As the above sentences show, their writing was more revealing than their words. However, one of our major class goals is to increase confidence and fluency in speaking English.

One day, the other sixth grade teacher unexpectedly had to leave, so class expanded to 12 students. We began with the “yes, and” game in which one person begins a story and then turns to the student next to him who says, “yes, and” and then continues the story. When a student was shy and couldn’t think what to say, the other students laughed. It seemed like “release of anxiety laugh” rather than a mean laugh, but it was laughter—just what these students are most afraid of. We finished the first round of the story.

“So, some of you felt shy.” (Heads nod.) “In class Six A, we have talked about when you are shy you are most afraid of being laughed at, right?” (Heads nod again.) “So how many of you felt shy?” (Most hands go up.) “How many of you are afraid of being laughed at?” (Most hands.) “How many of you laughed?” (Most hands.) “What kind of laughter was it?” “Just teasing, not mean,” answered one student as the others nodded. “So, let’s try an experiment. In the next story, let’s make an agreement that no one will laugh. Okay?” To my amazement, during the next round of a new story, some of the students were slow, but all spoke, we heard all of them, and no one laughed. (Two students did begin to laugh out of habit but caught themselves and stopped.) “So, what did you notice?” “We didn’t laugh.” “Right.” “What else did you notice?” “We hear everyone.” “Yes. So, it seems that when you are not afraid of being laughed at, you don’t feel and act so shy.” They nod.

In our next class, we talked some more. “What are you imagining that the others are thinking when they are laughing at you?” “You’re not good enough. You’re a fool. You’re bad.” “No wonder you don’t want to talk,” I said. “How scary. So, when you’re laughing, what are you thinking?” “Not mean things, Bu.” One brave student said, “I’m laughing because I’m glad it’s not me.” Another said, “I’m laughing to be friendly because the silence feels bad.” Another brave student: “Sometimes I am thinking they are not smart, but even if I’m thinking that, I don’t have to laugh.”

“So, let’s make a picture of this. Action 1: You are feeling shy and are having a hard time speaking. Step 2: Others laugh. Step 3: You think they are thinking one of these things:

(Here we listed all their thoughts and then rated them in this order. ‘I’m not good enough.’ (All the students named this one.) ‘I’m bad. I’m a fool. They hate me. I’m wrong.’ Step 4: You feel even more shy. Step 5: Others laugh . . . . So, it just goes on and on, maybe even getting worse. Does that seem right?” (Heads nod.)

Interestingly, in Indonesian, the word shy (malu) is also a word for shame. And, indeed, shy and shame feel like cousins to me. Cousins with a big difference. Shy is a normal feeling and results in behavior that can be changed. Shame is an intense and irreparable feeling of core inadequacy, badness, or unworthiness; one is forever doomed. The impact of shame is secrecy, disconnection, and an inability to assess reality. Shame: I AM not good enough. I AM unlikeable. I AM a fool. I AM a mistake. Shy: I don’t feel good enough. I feel disliked. I feel like a fool. I made a mistake.

I explained this difference to the students and we talked about how most of the time they are making up what the others are thinking and it is not at all true. “Oh, I understand. Yes, I’m making it up.” We translated the shame ideas to shy ideas. I AM not a good enough person became I’m feeling not good enough right now. I AM bad became I’m feeling bad right now. I AM a fool became I’m feeling foolish. They hate me became sometimes I don’t feel like people like me. I AM wrong became I made a mistake. They tried out feeling what the difference was between the sentences on each side of the big sheet of paper. Then I whispered in each student’s ear: “You’re good enough even when you feel shy.” Each one shyly smiled.

Back to writing. “Please write about shy again.”

“I’m not shy when I really know about the other person.”

“If I get shy or say the wrong thing, I want my friends are not laughing at me, but they can help me.”

“Stop caring too much about what the other people thinks about you.”

“The best way to not be shy is to be brave and try to do that thing even if you are shy.”

“I’m not shy when someone make me confident.”

“When I’m not shy, I feel like a hero because I’m brave.”

This was a heroic topic for this group of students to explore. During the next week, we tried a few things that I found on the internet to help with shyness. For example, appreciating yourself, breathing from your belly, moving your body, imagining yourself as confident and happy, getting more comfortable with making mistakes, remembering that everyone feels shy sometimes, noticing and writing down your successes.

Now, at the end of the semester, all the students except one, by their own assessment, feel more fluent and confident speaking in English. All of them still are slow to speak in English sometimes. They’re still afraid of not doing well enough sometimes. But they know the difference between, “I don’t feel good enough right now and I’M NOT GOOD ENOUGH and the difference between, “I made a mistake, and I AM A MISTAKE.”

Shame, the cousin of shyness, is a right use of power issue because the feeling is so intense and feels so irreparable that it disconnects people from relationships, disempowers them, and removes their ability to assess reality. When activated by shame, people are out of relationship with others. When out of relationship with others, and unable to assess reality, people misuse their personal and positional power in ways that harm themselves or those around them or in their care. Understanding the dynamic of shame and helping yourself and others disengage from it are high priorities for using power wisely and well.

Related articles:
Shame as an Ethics Issue – Part III
Don’t Underestimate Me: Ethical Use of Power for and With Children
Excessive Impression Management and Interference With Identity

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • danielle a

    June 18th, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    I have never really thought about how interrelated the words shy and shame are, but looking back on my own experience it is easy to see that I felt alot like that when I was younger. I was so shy, what people would call painfully shy, and usually ended up feeling so embarassed and ashamed because of the things that being shy kept me from doin. I really didn’t even have many friends until high school because the whole experience of trying to make friends was so frightening.

  • jill carson

    June 18th, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    interesting how this cultural take is so very different from what most of us have encountered in our own lives

    i have never thought that just because you are shy that this would be a cause to feel ashamed of something

    but i can see that in the indonesian culture and maybe even others around the world that this meaning can be very different from that concept of shyness that i have always lived with

  • Avery

    June 19th, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    Do you see this more with girls than you do with boys in Indonesia, or are the numbers pretty equal? If I had to take a guess I would say that girls are probably more prone to feeling ashamed because of how they are made for being a girl in this particular society. I would say that they probably feel a little less valued than the boys who are in their age and peer groups, and that this could play a strong and deciding part in how strong their self esteem is and how they allow their shyness to become a detriment.

  • Andrew

    June 20th, 2012 at 12:27 AM

    The problem is that some people are inherently introvert and if they do not get over that and conquer their fears at a reasonable age,chances are that they will forever become the SHY person and will continue to question and doubt themselves,which is really an unhealthy thing to do!

  • Cedar Barstow

    July 6th, 2012 at 10:41 PM

    Danielle–thanks for your words…several of my 6th graders know exactly what you are talking about! Glad you now have found ways to move through this. Jill: that was a surprise to me too, but Danielle, who commented first, could relate and she’s not Indonesian. Avery: My class was a small sample: 2 not shy and 1 very shy boy(s), 2 very shy and 1 medium shy girl(s). My guess would be in general more shy girls, but that would be more or less valued in girls, but to be a shy boy would be far more shameful. Andrew: I hope this is not as hopeless as you make it sound. I believe even inherent introverts can be sociable in a satisfying way. Cedar

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