Painfully shy


Painfully shy


your avatar   Louise, 18-year-old woman

The best way to describe myself would have to be "painfully shy". Most people who know me, like school acquaintances and teachers, will agree that I'm a very soft-spoken person. My close friends usually DISAGREE with this though, since I tend to open up a lot more and become outgoing when in their presence. But to most of the world, I'm extremely quiet. I've even had classmates joke that they weren't sure I had the ability to speak at all. I think that being an only child probably doesn't help me much.

I'm quite comfortable and happy with the friends that I have now, after having years to warm up to them, but I find it very difficult to open up enough to make new friends. My best friend, who I've known for about 5 years, is more the outgoing type, and any new friends that I make are usually made through her - so, for a lot of my current friends, I never really had the chance to meet them myself... almost as if I simply adopted them because my best friend had. Make no mistake though: I'm usually pretty set in my ways and it's difficult to persuade me into doing something that I don't want to do. So if I hadn't liked the people (who are now close friends of mine), I wouldn't have tried to force myself to be friendly because my best friend had decided to. She is allowed to have friends other than me, of course, and it's not necessary for me to like them all.

My best friend recently began her first relationship with a boy earlier in the year and, though I'm happy for them both, I've found that my friend has begun to withdraw from our friendship since she began dating. I expected such a thing to happen, since I know that she would have less time to spend with me, but it's made me realize that I've become much too dependent on her. We've usually always counted on one another to be around (some people have joked about us being "joined at the hip") but that is a comfort that I no longer have. I don't think that she notices so much, since she now has the constant company of her boyfriend to rely on, so I feel I should separate myself from her and try to be less reliant on her by spending time with others. This a bit difficult though, since two friends of mine, who are closest to me after my best friend (I suppose they are my "next best friends") have gone to university this year, while I remain in high school…where new friends are hard to make, since everyone already knows everyone else, and has formed their friendships and such. There's no one at my school that I feel comfortable enough with to be more than acquaintances.

This brings me to my problem. Recently after my friend began dating for the first time (when she was extremely distant from me, since she reveled in the novelty experience of her first relationship) we both met a group of new people because of a common (art-related) interest that we share with them. There was a kind of "club" or "organization" that we all joined on the internet for people involved in this interest who lived in our area. We communicated with each other via the internet at first (although there were a few group members that I already knew in person), and then met numerous times during the spring and summer months of this year, making friends with the majority of them. This is how I met some people who have now become fairly close friends of mine, and even mentors, since most of them are a few years older than me.

My only problem is that while I can talk extremely easily to these people online, I completely freeze up in person. This happens more so with the male members; in fact, the most with one person in particular. This person is someone that I spoke to extensively online, finding that we could talk for hours without any lull in conversation, covering anything from mundane, everyday activities, to childhood anecdotes, or current personal problems. So we were very comfortable with each in that way, and not really hesitant to share with each other. However, each time he and I met in person, I hardly spoke one word to him. After our first meeting, he expressed to me (online, of course) that he was very surprised at how quiet I am (even though I warned him beforehand). He made attempts to get me talking at following meetings, but I never could loosen up, even in the presence of some of my closer friends, which usually allows me to act more freely than I would if I were surrounded by strangers. My friends keep telling me that he's nice and funny, which I know, but no matter what, I can't seem to get myself comfortable enough with him, and I don't know why.

Since the school year has begun again, and we're both very busy with schoolwork (he with college, and me with high school), we haven't had much chance to get online to chat, so I find that I quite miss the times when we talked regularly during the summer break. My friends assume that I have a "crush" on him, since I always refer to things he's said to me (this happened more when we used to chat regularly), and they say that my nervousness around him is a symptom of that - but I'm not so sure! In any case, I am kicking myself for not using those few opportunities I had to talk and hang out with him in person (although I hope we'll have more opportunities in future), and this experience has made me wonder if I'll have trouble making friends once I'm finished high school, and go off to university next year.

How can I get myself to loosen up more? I'm afraid that my shy personality and difficulty opening up to people will affect not only my chances at future friendships (and at making a real-time friendship with the young man that I'm so comfortable with online), but also any chance I may have at a romantic relationship with someone. I feel as if my personality is setting me back, and that I'll never be able to make friends or get a boyfriend, as my best friend has done - but am I worrying too much? Thinking about all this has made me feel very lonely and discouraged, and has even made me wonder if my friends were right in guessing that I have an infatuation that is hindering the progress of my friendship with this boy - but am I over-analyzing everything? I'm really not sure that I like this boy in that context, but if it turned out that I did, it would make no difference since I would be too afraid to act on my feelings or make them known to him. By thinking like this, how will I ever be able to get a boyfriend, or make friends on my own? Should I try and change my personality? I feel like there must be something wrong with me. I'm so frustrated! Any advice you could give would be a great help. Thanks!


    Bob Rich, Ph.D.

Dear Louise,

First, I have good news for you. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. In fact, on the evidence of your statement, I can tell you that you are a very highly intelligent, thoughtful and articulate young woman, mature for your years.

People vary on a personality dimension from extreme 'extraversion' to extreme 'introversion', with most people in the middle. It is OK to be ANYWHERE on this continuum. You happen to be strongly introverted, that is all. So am I, and when I was your age, I had pretty terrible feelings as a result.

For some stupid reason (or no reason at all), society places a lot of pressure on introverted people to 'become more outgoing', labels us as 'too shy' or 'painfully shy', and tries to mould us into a partying image.

There is a place in the world for the extreme extraverts, who cannot function without a social context and find their own company boring. There is a place in the world for the great majority who sit in the middle... and there is a place for the introverts as well.

So the first way you can ease your situation is to accept yourself, the way you are, and learn to value it. You are OK.

What are some of the advantages of being strongly introverted? You will be different from me of course, but then I don't know you. I'll just list how my 'loner' status has been of benefit to me through the years:

  • I have a rich and varied mental life, am rarely if ever bored.
  • I am comfortable with words and concepts, can express my ideas well, and am generally good at thinking. Obviously, this is true for you too. This is why your posting is so coherent and well organized. This is why you are such an articulate and interesting person when it comes to the written word. I have won awards with my writing, because I am a loner. People like us are the writers, analyzers, interpreters, and observers.
  • I am a high achiever: I usually get better results at anything I try than other people of the same ability. This is because I tend to concentrate and apply myself. Again, I can see that the same must be true for you. It is NOT a coincidence that almost all your friends are older than you: you are comfortable in more mature company than your age group, and accepted by them as an equal (because you are). You have temporarily lost some friends because you are in a transition age between school and college. You know this won't last. Next year, you will be moving on too. You can survive until then, using your considerable personal resources (for example, being good at writing, and therefore at email/chat).
  • I am a loyal friend. Extraverts find it easy to make friends, so 'easy come, easy go'. They tend to be butterflies, and therefore others often feel let down by them. Our friends are precious to us, because making friends is not easy. We are greatly valued by others for our constancy, reliability, and loyalty. That boy probably realizes that while you are hard to get close to, you are more than worth the effort. If he gains you as a friend (or more), he will have you there for him, far more so than with a girl who can pick up a dozen boys in a day if she so chooses.

Will this do for a start? Now that I have given you the idea, I'd like you to make a similar list of your own, stating all the advantages of being the way you are. It will be different from my list of course.

Louise, when I was your age, I strongly believed that no one would ever love me, that I was doomed to spend my life alone, that I'd never have a girlfriend.

Now, I have been married (to the one woman) for nearly 36 years (introverts are loyal, remember?); have three wonderful children, and a circle of friends, some of whom go back many years.

So, be confident, the same will be true for you. Well, you'll probably team up with a guy, not a woman like I did :).

If you want to gain in social poise and self-confidence in a face-to-face setting, you can't do better than to join Toastmasters. This is a WONDERFUL organization that fosters personal growth and self-confidence through the medium of public speaking. I strongly recommend that you find a Toastmasters club near you, and attend a few meetings as a guest.

Have a good life,

Bob Rich

This question was answered by Dr. Bob Rich. Dr. Rich has 30+ years of experience as a psychotherapist. Dr. Rich is also a writer and a "mudsmith". Bob is now retired from psychological practice, but still works with people as a counselor.For more information visit:


Feeling stuck? Stop. Breathe. Ask yourself, "What options are available to me?"
"Be thankful for everything that happens in your life; it's all an experience."
Roy T. Bennett
When life shuts a door, open it again. It's a door...that's how they work.