Introversion, Shyness, and the Pastor’s Wife

A Facebook friend had posted this on her wall today.  I was uncertain how this article about helping the pastor’s wife would come across, but his list actually proved to be insightful and clear.  To be honest, I don’t know who the author of this blog is and what denomination he belongs to (or even if his other writings are complete rubbish), but he mentioned many of the stressors that pastor’s wives can face.  #3 rang especially true for me:

No two pastor’s wives are the same. Some love having others in their homes. Some sing or play an instrument. Some love shepherding the women around them. Some are extremely outgoing. Interestingly, those tend to be the expectations that are placed on all pastor’s wives. The problem is that some pastor’s wives are very shy. Some don’t like large groups. Some find it difficult to build relationships. Pastor’s wives, just like every other group of people, are different. Have realistic expectations. Some people expect their pastor’s wife to be someone God never intended her to be. This is simply unfair. Have realistic expectations of your pastor’s wife.

I’ve heard over and over again that I don’t have to do anything I wouldn’t want to do as a layperson, but this is one of the few times someone has mentioned personality in relation to the role of pastor’s wife.  It gave me a little hope during what is proving to be a fretful month.  And hurrah, I’m not the only one who is shy, doesn’t like large groups, and find it difficult to build relationships!

Do you have a pastor’s wife who doesn’t fit the “traditonal” role?  What do you like about her (I’m trying to be positive here)?  Are you a pastor’s wife with a personality that doesn’t meet the “traditonal” expectations?  How do you help congregation members understand this?  


Introduction to HSP

At long last, I’ve written the post on Elaine N. Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person.

When I went through my first round of counseling back in 2011, my counselor gave me a book to read entitled The Highly Sensitive Person:  How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.  I was initially a bit hesitant to read the book because, well, it sounded cheesy.  However, I was desperate enough to try just about anything at that point, so I went ahead and read it anyway.

It was a breakthrough for me.  Suddenly there seemed to be an answer about why I was having problems holding myself together, why I couldn’t function in the chaos at work, and even why I cried so much as a child:  I was a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

What is a HSP?

Being highly sensitive actually has a straightforward explanation.  According to Dr. Aron, who coined the phrase “highly sensitive”, it simply means, “you are aware of subtleties in your surroundings, a great advantage in many situations.  It also means you are more easily overwhelmed when you have been out in a highly stimulating environment for too long, bombarded by sights and sounds until you are exhausted in a nervous-system sort of way,” (xiii).  Basically, HSPs is more effected by their environment because their nervous-system picks up on more in its surroundings.  Because of HSPs’ sensitivity to their environment, they are likely to be more affected by things like loud noises, other people’s moods, and having to do too much at one time (for a self-test about being highly sensitive, go here).  My personal favorite sign of being a HSP is sensitivity to hunger because I turn into a terrible monster when I skip meals or snacks.

However, high sensitivity can also be hard to define in relation to shyness/social anxiety and introversion because many traits of HSPs are also found in shy people and introverts.  So what makes being highly sensitive a distinguishable trait and not just an outcome of being shy or introverted?

HSPs Aren’t Necessarily Introverts

Admittedly, HSPs’ style of socialization is very similar to introverts’ style of socialization.  However, the motivation behind these social styles can differ.  While the defining characteristic of an introvert is the need for alone time in order to recharge, HSPs “avoid people who come in the overstimulating packages–the strangers, the big parties, the crowds,” (97).  HSPs will prefer small groups or being alone so that they won’t feel overwhelmed by their environment.  This certainly explains why some introverts can handle a crowd without going comatose while some introverts become frozen like small animals facing an oncoming car when entering the din of a large party.

Since 70% of HSPs are introverts (98), their motivation for quieter socialization may be a combination of the need for alone time and avoiding being overstimulated.  However, that leaves 30% of HSPs falling into the extraverted side of the spectrum.  For extraverted HSPs, “you have a large circles of friends and enjoy groups and strangers. . .You still find other sources of arousal difficult, however, like a long work day or being in the city too much,” (98).  Consequently, the terms “highly sensitive” and “introverted” cannot be used interchangeably.

HSPs Aren’t Necessarily Shy

Many of HSPs’ social habits can make them seem shy.  In fact, it is not uncommon for HSPs to actually be shy.  However, they are not the same because, “Shyness is the fear others are not going to like or approve of us.  That makes it a response to a situation.  It is a certain state, not an always-present trait.  Shyness, even chronic shyness, is not inherited.  Sensitivity is,” (91).  So while a shy person can work on being less shy, a sensitive person can only change their reactions to being sensitive.

The reason many HSPs appear shy is because of their reactions to arousing situations.  They may hang back in a crowd or not talk much.  But Dr. Aron explains, “Remember, overarousal is not always due to fear.  Thinking it is fear can make you feel shy when you are not,” (91-92).  Take my experience on vicarage for example.  The social time between the service and Bible Study was extremely crowded and very loud.  When people tried talking to me, I couldn’t understand what they were saying because of the bombardment of surrounding conversations and the distraction of people milling around.  Since I couldn’t contribute to any sort of small talk, I had several members say things like, “You don’t have to be afraid of us” or “You’re very shy.”  Then I felt self-conscious about my inability to converse, making it more difficult to talk to others.  It also saddened me that a vibrant church community and large Bible study were things to be celebrated, but only brought me torment.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m once again adding a disclaimer to my shyness after demanding that shyness be accepted a few weeks ago.  It’s because Dr. Aron succinctly describes the negative aspects of being called shy:

Unfortunately, the term shy has some very negative connotations.  It does not have to; shy can also be equated with words such as discreet, self-controlled, thoughtful, and sensitive.  But studies have shown that most people on first meeting those I would call HSPs considered them shy and equated that with anxious, awkward, fearful, inhibited, and timid.  Even mental health professionals have rated them, more often than not, this way and also as lower on intellectual competence, achievement, and mental health, which, in fact, bear no associations with shyness.  Only people who knew the shy people well, such as their spouses, chose the positive terms.  Another study found that the tests used by psychologists to measure shyness are replete with the same negative terms.  Maybe that would be all right if the tests were of a state of mind, but they’re often used to identify “shy people,” who then bear a negative label.  Beware of the hidden prejudice behind the word shy. (93)

She eventually suggests using the term “social discomfort” instead of the word “shy.”  I’m not trying to stop from thinking of myself as being shy, I’m trying to explain that there many reasons that people appear shy and that shy people shouldn’t necessarily be written off as socially incompetent.

The Cons of The Highly Sensitive Person

While I highly recommend this book for people who constantly feel overwhelmed by the world around them, there are some aspects of the book that I didn’t particularly relate to.  First, there is an entire chapter devoted to spirituality.  I find when books try to cover all aspects religious practices by calling it “spirituality”, it generally comes off as seeming trite and flakey.  While there are some little nuggets of useful information buried in the chapter, for the most part I would have preferred that she left her audience to make their own deductions about how their personality trait may affect their religious practices.

Secondly, there was a lot of discussion (and an entire chapter) about “healing wounds,” especially the emotional wounds from a misunderstood childhood.  While I certainly had some rough years growing up, for the most part I look back on my childhood as a happy, healthy time (Good job, Mom and Dad!).  While I’m sure many of her readers did have difficult childhoods, it just didn’t pertain to me.

The Pros of The Highly Sensitive Person

However, there was a plethora of helpful and insightful information presented in Dr. Aron’s findings.  She had great insight into handling social situations as a HSP (something I found particularly helpful because the tips from my introversion books didn’t always help).  Since she is a HSP herself, Dr. Aron understood the struggle an overarousing situation can create.

Likewise, she had an entire chapter devoted to healthcare and the HSP.  She explained the sensitivities HSPs can have to medicine and the difficulties they may face when interacting with doctors.  I especially enjoyed her insights into the use of antidepressants and antianxiety medicine, something doctors can be overeager to prescribe to HSPs in order to “fix” their personality problem.  She was very diligent in weighing the pros and cons of these medications and left it up to readers to decide what was best for them.

Finally, I enjoyed reading The Highly Sensitive Person because it shows that people are complex.  After spending months reading about introversion, it was interesting to look at some of my behaviors from a different perspective.

Are you a HSP?  What do you like most AND least about your trait?  Are you a non-HSP introvert?  What do you see as similarities and differences between introversion and high sensitivity?  Are you an extroverted HSP?  How do you handle your personality trait?  

I’m Sorry My Shyness Makes You Uncomfortable, But Please Stop Pointing it Out

In the last six months or so, more and more people seem to be “coming out” as introverts on the internet.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve become more interested in my own introverted tendencies, perhaps it’s because I started sharing about being introverted so others have started posting introversion articles on my Facebook page (which I do appreciate), but whatever the reason there has been a flood of posts like “I’m Introverted and Sociable” or “10 Ways You Know You are an Introvert.”  Another popular theme for introversion posts is “I’m Not Shy, I’m an Introvert.”  In my readings about introversion, I’ve discovered that while our society is slowly becoming more aware and accepting of the introverts around them, shyness is still viewed as an undesirable trait.  But I’m a shy introvert who wonders why my shyness is such a big bother to other people.

The Problem With Shyness

Admittedly, being shy can cause problems.  In my experience, shyness can make it difficult to meet new people.  Likewise, it can make it difficult for me to join in a conversation when in a large group.  Finally, shyness added to a disastrous first few months of vicarage, where my struggle to interact with others heightened my anxiety about attending church.

However, I’m not trying to argue that shyness isn’t a problem for me.  I’m just trying to figure out why other people have a problem with my shyness.

Shyness Makes Others Uncomfortable

I know shyness isn’t necessarily a trait someone is born with and that it can be controlled, but why does it matter to others if I’m shy?  Are they the ones feeling panicked in a social situation?  Are they the ones who feel overwhelmed by a room of strangers?  Most likely not.

I think what it comes down to is that my shyness can make others uncomfortable.  It can make people uncomfortable when I don’t immediately engage in small talk, it can make people uncomfortable when I very obviously hang back in the crowd, and it can make people uncomfortable when I don’t speak or smile.

When people become uncomfortable, they try to “fix” my shyness by saying incredibly thoughtless, unhelpful things like:

join the group

I’m not saying that I don’t ever want to be invited to join a group–sometimes I really am feeling too shy to include myself.  But there is a big difference between demanding that I stop acting shy and join the group and having someone politely say, “Oh, hi!  Would you like to sit with us?”  And for the times I actually don’t want to be around others?  I might try to stretch my own comfort zone and join the group for those who tried to politely include me.  I mean, I’m shy and introverted, not mannerless!

Another popular comment of people trying to “fix” my shyness is this:

not talking

Along with the not talking much, I’m told I don’t smile and that I’m shy.  None of these are completely true.  I can talk a lot when I’m comfortable or passionate about a subject.  I can smile–you can look at my wedding photos for proof–I just don’t smile all the time.  And I’m not always shy, it just depends on the circumstance.

The Hermit Crab Analogy

Now I’ve heard the excuses for why people behave this way:  They’re just trying to make me comfortable and help me come out of my shell.  “Come out of my shell”–let’s take a moment and examine that phrase.  In college, I had some pet hermit crabs.  When I picked up one of my hermit crabs, it would immediately draw back into it’s shell.  In order to get it to come out of its shell, I would hold them quietly in my hand for a few minutes.  It would inevitably begin to peak out and eventually crawl over my hands.  It just took a little time and gentleness.

Now imagine for a moment that I tried to get the hermit crabs to come out the same way people sometimes try to get me to come out of my shell:

hermit crabThe hermit crabs would have stayed in their shells until I left them alone.  The same goes for me–if people try to have me “come out of my shell” by pointing out that I’m being shy, I’m most likely to withdraw further from them.

What Actually Helps With Shyness

I have been (slowly) working on my shyness and consequent anxiety.  Sometimes I make myself go to an event even if I know I’ll feel socially uncomfortable.  Sometimes I’ll force myself to start a conversation with someone I don’t know particularly well.  Sometimes I’ll even introduce myself to a stranger.  *gasp*

However, if someone wants to help me “come out of my shell”, there are some things they can do to help.  They can ask if I want to join the group, but make it clear that they won’t be offended if I don’t join (for example “Are you comfortable where you are or would you like to join us at our table?”).  Even better, they can ask if they can join me so I don’t have to try to enter a conversation with an established party.  Most of all, it is helpful for them to be aware that if  I am shy, I may just be quiet for awhile and that it isn’t anything personal against them.

Are you shy or have a close relationship with someone who is shy?  How do you cope/help them cope with shyness?  What do you find unhelpful when dealing with shyness?