Perspective of a “shy” person: “Shy” is not a character flaw and please don’t say I’m “slow to warm” either

Hello. I’m not a psychologist, but I am a human with 30+ years of experience with an introverted personality in an extroverted society, and for 2 years, have been observing similar personality patterns in my child. And I have something to say…

I follow quite a few social media accounts of child psychologists, which are super helpful and informational and I’m so grateful to those content creators for sharing their expertise. However, I’ve seen more than one post recently about how to deal with shyness and I can’t help but feel like they miss the mark.

Where I agree: We need to stop getting defensive when our children look away or hold on tight to us when unfamiliar people talk to them (and also not assume that their uncle who they’ve seen five times over the last year is ‘familiar’ to them). “Oh, they’re just shy.” Saying phrases like this, and especially in the apologetic and sometimes embarrassed way they tend to be said, carries a negative connotation, and believe me (because I was a “shy” child too), kids pick up on and internalize that. They believe they are shy (even when that’s not necessarily the case) and that it’s a problem to be embarrassed about (which begets social anxiety, either creating some where there wasn’t or building off of what was there).

Let’s talk about “slow to warm” and why it’s not so great

The professionals I follow have been quick to offer up the “shy” alternative of “slow to warm”, and frankly, I’m not a fan of this phrasing either. Why? What if someone asked you a question and it takes longer than expected for you to answer, so I explain to everyone during the pause that you’re just “slow to think”? Would that make you feel better? Understood? Supported? More likely to come up with an answer soon? Being “slow to…” also carries a negative connotation and it implies that “warming up” to others is the end goal.

These kids are not slow to meet your social expectations; they are perfectly paced to be exactly who they are.

What if the child never reaches the point of “warm” in a given social situation? What if the child isn’t shy, but is feeling overwhelmed? What if a child isn’t shy, but after assessing the group, has decided they don’t want to interact because they simply don’t feel a connection with those people? What if a child is feeling shy and now they are also feeling pressure from adults to “warm” up and “quickly”?

Sometimes, there’s actually some pretty awesome observation happening while a child is sitting on the sidelines. Ask a child watching what they are seeing, and you may be surprised by their perceptiveness and all that they are taking in.

Everyone is shy sometimes

“Shy” is not an accurate descriptor of any one person at all times. I’ve observed even really outgoing people become anxious about a social interaction under certain circumstances or with certain people, and I (a frequently labeled “shy” person) have been very quick to open up to certain people under certain circumstances. Being shy is something every human experiences, some more than others. It’s not a term that needs to define us at all times and I think if we were to say that someone is “feeling shy” rather than that they “are shy” (and if we normalize all feelings… which is a whole other conversation) then we wouldn’t internalize the statement and come to believe that there was something innately wrong with us.

What are they if not “shy” and not “slow to warm”?

Oh, so many things! I think it’s fine to simply say this personality introverted, but there are also so many ways to call out the strengths: observant, cautious, mindful, perceptive, thoughtful, aware, in-tune, curious, calm. These people bring balance to the risk-taking personalities that jump in feet first without any consideration for consequences. Society thrives when it encourages and supports its full spectrum of personalities.

So, please stop using the term “slow to warm”. Ugh, it’s so cringey.

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