I recently received a question concerning shyness and the person was convinced that their lack of confidence had resulted in the destruction of all their relationships. As I’m sure there are more people than this person who are working through their own level of shyness and lack of confidence in making social connections, I thought to share my response in the hope that others will gain something from it.
One of the best pearls of wisdom I’ve received is from Russ Harris’s “The Confidence Gap.” In it he notes: “competence breeds confidence.” I mention this and explain it further in my response below and I highly recommend people reading the excellent book.
Now my response:
If you are not writing this while sitting in a cave in the middle of nowhere, having run power cords from a village miles away, I’m going to assume that you have some various forms of social connections, whether that be friends of some kind and/or work connections. Let’s back up from the universal statements that you’ve “tried everything” and how this shyness has “ruined my life and relationships.” I think you’ll notice that you do in fact have relationships, the issue is that they aren’t what you would like them to be.
Which is perfectly fine to be frustrated about! Here’s why it’s important to step away from the universal condemnations: you have the skills to move forward, you’re just not seeing them and that lack of sight is making it difficult to build off of them in new ways.
Begin by looking at what you already do: how do conversations usually go? Do you go out at all? How do you respond to questions/inquiries in life and at work? It doesn’t matter whether your responses to all these are the ideal of what you want them to be, the point is to see what you’re already doing.
Once you’ve taken note of what you’re doing, consider next what you’re avoiding by not expanding on those skills. What is it about social connections that has you so worried and anxious that you don’t pursue them? If the answer is some form of rejection, note immediately that you’ve already achieved this by avoiding that very thing! Seriously, avoidance is fulfilling all your fears while lying to you about being helpful. Avoidance is an emotional narcotic, setting up the pitfalls you’re afraid might happen and then pushing you in anyway.
So, what next? If you want your life to continue the way it is, then by all means don’t change your behavior. If you want something different, then you have to try something else and a quick way of doing so is building off of what you’re already doing. Even if what you’re doing is 2% of where you’d like to be, it’s amazing what doubling that effort every week or so will lead to. Confidence is a trap when we try to seek it first, it’s like fool’s gold, shiny and great, until we run smack into our doubts again and it crumbles. Focus on the doing, no matter how small, and build up from whatever level of competence you’re currently at. Eventually your confidence will rise as you do more of what you want and this time it will last.
As a last point, acknowledge to yourself that this is going to suck. Anxiety isn’t necessarily a sign that what you’re doing is wrong, it’s simply an assessment that what you’re doing is different and outside your perceived norm. You’re going to have this feeling as you grow. Say hi to it, hug it, thank it for letting you know you’re exploring life and then let it go on its way have served its purpose. If you have to be present and let it go often at first, that’s ok too, emotions have a way of becoming a habit and like all habits, they’re difficult to change.
Being ‘the real you’ is the destination of the modern person, pursuing the claim to be put in contact with the singular ‘I.’ This destination at the end of a journey, spiritual and/or existential, is, ironically, a place of stopping change. Every step along the way required working within the push and pull of social and personal influences, judging oneself with an ideal, all to reach a place where change no longer occurs. Sound strange? Consider how authenticity is often portrayed. Spoken of in near-religious reverence, the authentic person is consistent, doesn’t question who they are or what they do and above all those around feel a sense of rightness in their presence.
A Narrow Vision Supporting Judgment
While larger-than-life spiritual leaders are often looked at as being authentic, for the common person it is used almost entirely in juxtaposition to perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency. This use is where the journey of change to the destination of stagnation can be seen as horribly unhelpful. We’re supposed to cherish authenticity, yet celebrate when someone makes a change in their life. A quick addendum will show why this is a problem: the celebration comes when the change is agreed with. As soon as it’s a change that isn’t agreed with, then it’s no longer in the pursuit of authenticity, instead it’s hypocrisy.
Authenticity becomes a cudgel to use on people to tow a perceptual line, named and detailed by the vision of others. This myopic view of a person ignores the interlocking stories of their life. We are not simple creatures, locked into the 1’s and 0’s of a computer program, where we’re either on or off in line with a command. A behavior exists to support the story or Narrative a person, in a given context, has identified as important (i.e. a Value). This in no way means other things aren’t important to them, or that there are no other Narratives they’re living by.
A single person can be Sibling, Spouse, Child, Employee, Citizen, Human-being, Community-Member, Group-Member, etc. Each of these labels, only a handful, come with more Narratives attached based on personal history, education, relationships and immediate social context. Those Narratives are supporting a host of Values or what the person cares about, each triggered by a number of internal and external variables. Our lives are not straight lines and they are not doors being closed or open. We live in a matrix of competing potential identities, all vying for our attention to support behavior that, in a given context, keeps the world making sense to our perception.
An Authenticity of Inquiry Not Action
Rather than haranguing ourselves and others about an authenticity that has more to do with judgment and dismissal, we can instead ask questions. Instead of limiting our interactions to an either/or of complete agreement, we can increase our understanding of how life is working in ways we hadn’t considered.
- Given the context, what Value or concern is most important?
- How is the person framing what that Value means to them in the situation?
- With this Narrative in mind, how is the person’s behavior supporting what they care about?
These questions move us away from a simplistic view of a life journey and into an appreciation for how many pressures/desires/needs/wants/influences we’re all trying to juggle in every moment of every day. Authenticity, instead of focusing on a narrow future ideal, can be an inspiration to explore the nuances of our interaction with the many layers of life.
Searching for inner peace leads us down many paths. From the shelves of books in the self-help section to gurus, coaches and spiritual leaders, we’re often looking for a direct line from uncertainty to calm. This isn’t about a quick-fix. Far too many are mocked for supposedly wanting that. I think the vast majority are quite willing to put in the time and effort. Unfortunately explanation and instruction often replace clarity with obfuscation, as if a struggle of understanding is required for wisdom. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery.
What is being mindful?
Mindfulness is an active mental state of reflective awareness about the present.
– While mindfulness is often looked at as meditation, too often meditation ends up being a passive behavior. To be active is to be intentional and focused. This isn’t about relaxation, though that can happen, but deliberate engagement with mental life.
– Don’t let the “mental” make you ignore the physical. Our minds are embodied. Mindfulness acknowledges our physical reality and how our bodies are the means through which we put thought into action.
– Being aware is one of those behaviors we often think we’re doing, but is not as broad as we think. To be mindfully aware is to actively seek out and allow more of your experience to be seen and known. This means having no single thing take over your mindsight to the exclusion of everything else.
– Time is, within the human experience, at least as much about our perception as it is a thing we live within. To be present is to recognize the transitory nature of our experience. Every present moment is immediately followed and replaced by the next present moment.
As Daniel Siegel, in his book “Mindsight,” puts it:
“Openness implies that we are receptive to whatever comes to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how things “should” be. We let go of expectations and receive things as they are, rather than trying to make them how we want them to be.” (Mindsight)
Not Getting Lost In Your Own Thoughts
There are many ways to talk about mindfulness and even more declarations of what its practice can bring into your life. The focus here is on broadening the contemplation of our lives to make room for new behavior. For that, we turn to how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) utilizes mindfulness.
ACT breaks mindfulness skills down into 3 categories:
Defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories
Mindfulness allows us to see the transitory nature of our thoughts. Mental states do not last for long at all. We only think they do because of how they loop on themselves through attention and focus. The feeling of being stuck is due to being caught in one of those loops, where all potential action becomes fused to a narrow singular thought or story. Defusion is the process of breaking free of that narrow vision.
Acceptance: making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle
Our mental states change with the speed of thought. We trick ourselves into thinking they last longer through our attention and obsessive focus. This is how pain leads to suffering. Our focus is often on ‘moving past’ or avoiding the pain, but the irony is what we avoid is what ends up running our lives. Acceptance isn’t about being a doormat to be stepped on. It’s an acknowledgment that pain is an inevitable and natural part of living, an indication of change.
Contact with the present moment: engaging fully with your here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity
Personal stories or narratives are how we split reality into what we call experiences. No single story can hold the entirety of reality and so there are always more to our lives to be explored. The present moment fades into the next present moment seamlessly and inevitably, a fertile ground for curiosity to find new growth.
Mindfulness: The Present is Calling
We are more than any single thought, emotion or story. No single action can or should define the whole of who we are. Our Values manifest in constantly evolving behavior. Shame ties us to a past that has already gone by, holding us to a falsely narrow vision of who we are capable of being. Mindfulness skills help us explore the present to find the inner peace of healthy questioning, the calm of accepting uncertainty and the personal growth of letting go of our thoughts.
Learning mindfulness skills can be an integral part of moving forward, contact me for more information on Coaching
Article: Forget Mindfulness, Stop Trying to Find Yourself and Start Faking It
Book: The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
Book: Mindsight: the New Science of Personal Transformation
Website: About ACT
The future contains the present that the past was preparing for. Consider that for a moment. For all the time and resources spent preparing for a potential future, it will never be more than what was possible in the present. For all our lamentations and considerations about the past, it held within it the potential of the present we’re experiencing. The past and future are indelibly connected to what the present holds or becomes, yet we typically spend more time considering either than being thankful for the moment we currently reside in.
Bring to mind driving and, if that doesn’t have too many anxious associations, remember a time when you suddenly ‘woke up’ and realized several miles had gone by without full conscious awareness. Whether it was a focus on what was coming, that meeting or event, or what had happened previously, a missed opportunity or action unfulfilled, the present in which all that thinking was occurring slipped on by without your noticing. What sights were missed? Who passed us by? What dangers did we ignore? An entire section of life, a whole area of living, passed in a blur of contemplating everything but what was happening right in front of us.
Without a clear sense of where we currently are, what shape our life is in, it is profoundly difficult to engage in that nourishing practice called gratitude. Rather than simply a declaration said over the dinner table or engaged in on Thanksgiving, gratitude can be a lifelong practice reminding us to not lose sight of what’s directly around us.
The past is a recall of events seen through the lens of our current situation, removing us from contemplating what we already have. The future is a projection of our current hopes and concerns, removing us from consideration of our current situation. Both cast our vision away from the grounded reality of our current relational self, the very narrative that holds the potential to travel these roads in different ways. Think of turning a telescope to look upon a night sky, it is precisely where the lens or present is located that will determine what is seen through the other end. If we forget how powerful the present is, we may never shift our imagination to contemplate the rest of the sky above.
To start with gratitude is to begin with Value, the identification of what we hold to be important. It is to recognize our capacity to care, to connect, to hold the strings of our relational lives in our mind’s eye. To pause in that relational present, to refrain for just a moment from losing ourselves in the past or future, is to hold the now and everything it contains. That now provides all manner of lessons to be learned from what has come before and a growing list of potential outcomes out of what has yet to happen. It is precisely within the universal human process of Value-ing that gratitude springs eternal.
Being lost is not seeing the paths all around because of looking for the ‘right’ one. We encourage freedom of imagination in our kids because we want them to not get locked into bad habits. We entreat each other to think outside the box when confronted with adversity and seemingly insurmountable struggles. Corporations hire coaches and gurus to help make the stagnant, movable again. Our very existence as a species is due to the variations possible within the seeming limitations of genetics. Life changes, expands and manifests in new ways precisely because it is not caught in a singular way of being.
As in life, so then in each and every human being. Living is ever-expansive because our potential is not limited by any single identity or story of who we are. Being trapped, stagnant, and confined is what occurs when we get locked into a narrow way of visioning who we are and therefore what we are capable of achieving. This is true of ourselves and, given the interconnectedness of relational reality, of those we look upon.
A Restricted Vision
Sin, within the framework of conservative fundamentalist religious traditions, is a way of framing humanity within a restricted vision. It is a declaration that the wholeness of humanity is found within a story of depraved, immoral and inherently self-serving boundaries. It removes intent and will, replacing it with an assumed knowledge of what lies beneath or at the core of a person. Behavior ceases to be a window into the multiplicity of human rationale, of the varied reasons, thoughts and stories of justification, and becomes an empty expanse unworthy of exploration. Why did the person do what they did? Well, we can look at what they say, but really it’s this thing called sin, the insurmountable evil at the heart of humanity.
The problem of sin is not simply that it’s a false idea, but that it separates us from looking at our potential. Our varied lives of layered thought and emotion become lies and obfuscations hiding us from our ‘true selves.’ This process of singular-visioning inexorably leads to shame and doubt, shame of who we are and doubt about our capacity for change and growth. Unfortunately this process is not limited to the notion of sin, it occurs any time we select a rationale for our behavior, separate it from the interactional and reciprocal reality of our relational lives, and make it the unalterable core of who we are.
How often have any of us faced failure and in the midst of defeat, callously declared “I’m just a loser” or “this is just who I am” or “I’m only ever going to be this way”? We may not be thinking of sin, but we are most certainly embarking on a similar path of limitation. Similarly, when we break someone else’s behavior down to a singular reason, we are artificially limiting our understanding of their humanity.
By selecting merely one potential rationale for our decision-making, we have cut ourselves off from the complexity that is our story-making, the formation of our identities. Instead of the multiple interconnected layers of a full life, we are crushed beneath the weight of simplicity and the desire to forge a clear direction forward. This process is not concerned with health, well-being or truth; it is a means of razing the trees to the ground to save the perceived forest.
Every one of us makes decisions based on a variety of factors, explicit and implicit, historical and future-projected, conscious and unconscious. Further, none of us are immune to prejudice, bias, appeal to authority and the myriad of other emotive-logical cognitive failings. To be called out for one stone out of place and have the whole of our identity-structures or personal narratives defined by it is to place the need for righteous judgment above and beyond that of humanistic understanding.
The determination of right and wrong does not occur starting from the assumed superiority of a singular position. This is where culture wars and the relationship fights we later feel ashamed for having gotten into, begin from. An understanding of ourselves and others begins where morality does, within the relational network that is our humanity. Individual actions can still be judged, but they need not overshadow the whole of that person, nor should they become the main or only lens through which we see ourselves and one another.We do not walk the path of understanding those around us if we begin and end with what we disagree with. Separation only furthers itself, it does not rejoin what was sundered.
Growth along the scale of human progress is a waltz between what we believe ourselves capable of being and the depth and quality of the relationships we live our lives through, it is not a sprint to a pre-determined goal. Dwelling in the space of potential means identifying the infliction of pain and move to reduce it by stretching the bounds of our empathy through touching the strands that bind us together.