Are you shy?

The pastor's wife is typically expected to be warm, bubbly, and outgoing. But what if she is naturally shy? What are the roots of shyness, and how can a shy person have an effective ministry?

Carole Kilcher is an adoption consultant with the Maine Adoption Placement Services. Since 1979 she has done research, writing, and continuing education classes on the subject of the clergy family.

Dr. Peter Blitchington, a clinical psychologist in the family practice residency at Florida Hospital, Orlando, Florida.




Kilcher: Recently I led out in a workshop for pastors' wives. During the feedback session the issue of shyness surfaced. Several women who consider themselves shy expressed frustration. They felt that most people expect the pastor's wife to be outgoing and friendly to everyone. One wife said that her conference president had gone so far as to take a survey to prove that members indeed did expect this of their pastors' wives. These women were concerned that they would never measure up. Is it possible for a shy person to change? Is shyness an inherited tendency or a learned behavior?

Blitchington: Shyness is at least partly an inherited trait. But it can also be influenced by learning. Introversion is strongly inherited, and shyness is a product of introversion.

Kilcher: Is the word shy synonymous with the word introverted?

Blitchington: Research shows that the two are very highly correlated but not identical. People are introverted or extroverted because of the way in which the central nervous system is constructed. The introvert seems to have a high level of cortical activation. This makes him or her more prone to avoid stimulation of all kinds, since stimulation brings up the level of cortical activation. In fact, studies show that even looking into another person's eyes causes one's level of cortical activation to increase. If you are already functioning at a high level of cortical arousal, an increase in activation may make you uncomfortable. That's the introvert's dilemma. They sometimes avoid people, not because they dislike them, but because interaction with others is just too stimulating.

Kilcher: Are you saying that extroverts have an advantage over introverts?

Blitchington: In social relationships they probably do. But we should not downgrade the strengths of introverts. One stereotype says that extroverts like people and introverts don't. This is not the case. Introverts are likely to have fewer friends, but there is nothing to suggest that they don't like those friends as much as or more than extroverts like their friends. Introverts are less likely than extroverts to seek out people or to feel at ease in large groups.

Kilcher: I am fascinated. Can a person be half and half? I know sometimes I like being around people and other times I want to be alone.

Blitchington: We're all more complicated than these two categories imply. And some people are neither introverted nor extroverted. They are what you might call ambiverts. Ambiverts can go either way—toward introversion or extroversion. They have more flexibility but often a vaguer sense of identity.

Kilcher: I hear you saying there are advantages and disadvantages in all three types of personality. What are some of the hurdles facing a shy person?

 Blitchington: One hurdle is the subtle conditioning that takes place when the shy person meets strangers or interacts in a group. In a person who already has a high level of cortical activity, these two activities may increase the activation to an extremely uncomfortable level. The shy person experiences a sense of panic in the presence of others and doesn't know why. This makes the shy person perform poorly, since it is difficult to give your attention to others when you are experiencing pain. Also, the shy person is being punished for interacting with others—punished by his own brain activity. The extrovert feels good around others, since the interaction brings his or her level of cortical activation up to a comfortable level and makes social inter action a positive experience.

Kilcher: What can the shy person do?

Blitchington: The most important first step is self-acceptance. Don't punish yourself for being shy. You're dealing with powerful forces that were molded by your genes. Accept your basic personality style, even though you don't like everything about it. You can make changes within your personality style, but I doubt if you can change your basic personality style.

Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid appearing cold and aloof to others. If you feel uncomfortable around people, you might be tempted to reject them before they can reject you. Some people appear stone-faced because they are afraid of others. Even if you are shy, try to smile and be warm. Most people will accept a shy person if he or she comes across as warm and responsive.

There are other techniques. If looking into another person's eyes makes you uncomfortable, try looking between his eyes.

Psychologist William James advocated giving up all concern over the results of a conversation. He noticed that the students who did best at public speaking were those who were least concerned about how their audience would react. The ones who performed poorly were too concerned with results. Perhaps the shy person is overly concerned with reactions.

Kilcher: Let's talk for a minute about the strengths of the shy person.

Blitchington: I believe introverts tend to be more creative than extroverts. The same mental-emotional factors that make a person sensitive to others' reactions and behaviors also make that person sensitive to fine shades of mean ing, to subtle impressions that the less sensitive person doesn't pick up. In other words, the shy person is discerning and perceptive.

I remember an anecdote about the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. He was so sensitive to what was going on around him that if there was any noise—a dripping faucet for example—he could not concentrate. But this same sensitivity obviously made him mentally receptive and observant.

Kilcher: It appears to me that there is a real lack of understanding of the needs of shy people. I am sure an awareness of these facts we've talked about would be beneficial to whole congregations—not just to the shy wife of the pastor.

Blitchington: It's true. We need to become more aware of the strengths of other personality styles. This will help people accept themselves and grow.

Kilcher: You've done extensive work on the temperament. Do you see any correlations between shyness and any of the four temperaments?

Blitchington: I have not done a correlation analysis, but it would appear that shyness is more associated with the melancholy and phlegmatic temperaments.

Kilcher: Does the phenomenon of "opposites attract" apply to introversion and extroversion in marital pairing?

Blitchington: It would probably be more accurate to say that generally a balance in marriage occurs. Spouses seem to complement each other. This is not limited to shyness. A moody person may need an emotionally stable or even-tempered person. Both may or may not be shy.

Kilcher: One final question, Dr. Blitchington. How can the pastor whose wife is naturally shy minimize his wife's anxieties?

Blitchington: He can recognize that his wife's social needs are different from his. The further he is from her on the extrovert-introvert continuum, the more sensitive he'll need to be to this issue. She may need more breaks from social interaction than he.

He can also help her be aware that she need not let others intimidate her. She must be affirmed for her strengths and encouraged not to let her self-consciousness prevent her from doing what she wants to do. He can help her remember that God created her just the way she is and that she may be able to relate more effectively than more outgoing women to shy people in her congregation and community.

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Carole Kilcher is an adoption consultant with the Maine Adoption Placement Services. Since 1979 she has done research, writing, and continuing education classes on the subject of the clergy family.

Dr. Peter Blitchington, a clinical psychologist in the family practice residency at Florida Hospital, Orlando, Florida.

July 1987

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