After mustering the courage to ask out a woman he met in a grocery store candy aisle, Christopher Gray’s lifelong struggle with shyness got the best of him on the first date.
“I had this extreme bout of nervousness,” remembers Gray, a writer living in Toronto. He stammered, fumbled and appeared unnatural. They never went out again.
Frustrated that his romantic life was continually being stymied by social anxiety, Gray, 30 at the time, decided to take control. He enrolled in acting lessons, forcing himself to perform in front of groups. He went to speed dating events to practice conversing. He committed to talking to every woman he was attracted to and to shrugging off the 9 out of 10 times he got rejected.
Now in a yearlong relationship with a woman he approached at a bookstore, Gray said he has become a happier person generally, more comfortable speaking up in meetings at work and striking up conversations with strangers at bars.
“It’s like night and day,” said Gray, now in his 40s and author of the new book “From Shy to Social: The Shy Man’s Guide to Personal and Dating Success” (Sunbow).
Some 40 percent of Americans consider themselves to be shy, which in itself is not a negative trait — shyness is actually highly adaptive, compelling people to pause and size up a situation before proceeding — but it becomes problematic in dating when fears of rejection, failure or being disrespected prevent people from going after what they want, said Bernardo Carducci, professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.
Unlike introverts, who feel energized being on their own, shy people often want to be with other people but don’t know how, Carducci said. Behind shyness is extreme self-consciousness, what Carducci calls “shy narcissism.” Those types worry others are constantly judging them, and they blame themselves for negative outcomes — so better not to do or say anything at all.
Some people are “privately shy,” meaning they appear confident but are internally self-critical and worry what people might think if they revealed their true selves, said Lynne Henderson, director of the nonprofit Shyness Institute in Berkeley, Calif. Such people can have trouble with intimacy, she said.
Others are socially anxious but outgoing, and they are at higher risk of drinking too much or jumping into sexual experiences to facilitate the connections they seek, Henderson said.
Though people aren’t born shy, studies suggest shy people have a genetic tendency to be very sensitive to people around them, Henderson said. Other factors that can contribute to shyness are teasing, being labeled as shy as a kid or having overprotective parents.
Shyness can trip people up in the dating world in more ways than reluctance to ask someone out or uneasy small talk. A common mistake among the shy is to treat any date as a high-stakes interaction they have to get right, so when they don’t they retreat and shut down, said New York clinical psychologist Bonnie Jacobson, author of “The Shy Single: A Bold Guide to Dating for the Less-Than-Bold Dater” (Rodale).
Shy people often focus on the reasons someone may not like them and underplay their good qualities, said Greg Markway, a Missouri-based clinical psychologist and co-author, with his wife, Barbara, of “Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life” (St. Martin’s Griffin). Once a romance begins, shy people often try to leap into a deep relationship immediately without realizing building blocks must be set first, he said.
Steve Flowers said his shyness prevented him from dating as a teen. When he finally invited a girl to a movie and put his arm around her, he was too terrified to move it despite discomfort, and it fell asleep.
“When the movie was over, I went to move my arm and I slapped her in the face with it,” said Flowers, director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at Enloe Medical Center in Chico, Calif.
What all this fretting ignores is that shyness has its pluses. In Eastern cultures, it is considered an honorable quality, as it reflects a desire to do well.
Shy people also come across as more honest and sincere than their loud counterparts, and they make desirable partners because they’re usually good listeners, empathetic and understanding, Markway said.
Markway said his wife’s bashfulness was one of her most appealing qualities when they first started dating.
“Part of what I liked about her was that she was very genuine, very real,” he said, “and, I could tell, very vulnerable.”