Self-esteem is a concept that I have my issues with, predominantly due to the fact that it’s externally dependent; but, the concept as whole, with its corrosive features will be a topic for a future blog. For this blog, I want to focus on shyness and its sibling, doubt. I’ve often wondered how much to reveal about myself in light of my practice, but I’ve chosen to share certain aspects of my life with the hope of helping others feel understood and connected; there’s nothing worse than feeling as though you’re alone in your sorrow, at least to me.
As a boy, I was taught to be tough and strong, like the great men who’ve come before me. Any sign of weakness would be perceived as feminine, I was told. So, I put on a mask and trudged through the world pretending to be something I wasn’t; as kids and as adults, we pretend to be the heroes we emulate in our cartoons and movies. To be kind and sweet and nurturing is for girls, boys are told; men aren’t supposed to behave that way! These ideas and expectations were the foundations of my sorrow as a kid, as I felt to have never been able to live up to them, and believed that I, consequently, failed as a man. I often wonder how different my childhood would have been had I been allowed to express sadness and hurt, instead of anger. I wonder how different my friendships would’ve been had I been able to confide those feelings in my male friends, letting them know how scared and sad I was, of the bullies, of my diminishing perception of myself as a man, and of the rejection of my schoolmates because I wasn’t the stereotypical boy.
The concept of manhood was an ideal that I struggled with, hoping that I could someday live up to it, and be like the great men James Cagney used to portray in his films: the tough guys, the ones who don’t allow others to tell them what to do or push them around! I wish I could say that I’ve entirely disavowed it, but I haven’t. I still want to be tough and strong, and I still want to emulate Cagney, but I also want to continue to be kind and caring and sweet; traits that I would want for my children to have. Often, to be kind, caring, and sweet is also to be incredibly shy and full of doubt, traits that aren’t considered to be very manly, or at least weren’t when I was a kid.
Throughout the early stages of my therapy practice, I used to attempt to help my clients reduce their social anxiety, to help them attack it. And time and time again our attempts failed. I would ponder over and over again, ruminating obsessively, over whether or not shyness was inherent or learned, if not some combination of the two, and over and over again I felt stuck; I just didn’t know how to help my clients, or even myself. Then, it dawned on me, after complete exhaustion from my seemingly perpetual consideration, that I had no rational basis for considering shyness to be a negative trait or for being an unmanly one. Shyness, in itself, simply was, and, I realized, the way to overcome it, was to embrace it! It was simply a part of who I was, neither good or bad; it just was. And yes, it was related to another seemingly unmanly and maladaptive quality: doubt. Doubt, which is the disbelief in oneself and his or her abilities, is anathema to manliness; but, doubt, I came to accept, is also the foundation of learning and certainty, the foundation of an open and humble self.
So, although I continue to struggle with my perception of myself as man, I now have a more generous perception of myself as a kid; I see a boy who was becoming a man. I see a boy who was caring and sweet, and even shy and unsure, and that’s absolutely okay with me. Had I not been doubtful, I would’ve never engrossed myself in study; had I not been unsure, I would’ve never sought and re-sought certainty. Had I not been doubtful, I may have become arrogant, which I definitely have been at times, perhaps too many. Had I not been awkward, I would’ve never been able to help my clients begin to accept themselves and, paradoxically, overcome their fear, because I would never have understood their experiences, the understanding that’s necessary for empathy and acceptance. Had I not been been shy, I would have never accepted my weakness, which was actually a strength. How so? You ask. Because it was the foundation of my acceptance of myself.
It may well have been that in seeing myself in my clients I was able to understand and accept them, which in turn, helped me to accept myself. Stripped of our societal ideals, they were simply people, just like me; creatures trying to find their place in a world that continually enforced the notion that each of them had to be someone they weren’t.
In the words of Epictetus, the great Stoic, what matters most is who you are and who you are becoming. And there isn’t anything more satisfying than giving yourself the freedom to be who you truly are.