I first became aware 30 years ago of how the trait of shyness can have its own spiritual dimension while teaching a (“pro-religiousness”) class on “Psychology and Religion” at Yale which relied on reading the autobiographies of especially spiritual religious leaders in history who it turned out, were often quite shy.
Out of this experience came a definition of a shy personality as opposed to the passing shyness we all can feel say bearing our testimonies.
Let me explain briefly.
The class focused on the auto-biographies of famous spiritual leaders who changed the world. We read and reacted to the auto-biographies of those like Augustine (in his Confessions), Gandhi (who was non-violent because of the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita), Dorothy Day, Malcolm X and also C.G. Jung; Jung gave us a definition of an introvert v. an extrovert.
Whether a person had an introverted or an extroverted personality depends for Jung on whether the individual increases in energy from being with others therefore an extrovert; conversely an individual who recharges his or her spiritual and emotional energy from being alone, for example, accompanied only just by their own thoughts, or even in solitary prayer, is an introvert. How do you restock your spiritual energy?
Dr. Jung saw that the introverts’ tendency to re-energize, from being all alone, was one marker suggestive of person’s having an introverted personality. (Dr. Jung in fact self-diagnosed himself by this distinction, understanding himself as shy or timid or an introvert.)
In fact, many of history’s most influential religious leaders were introverted and even highly sensitive individuals. Included in this trait could even be an in-born tendency to both contemplation, and in some instances, agoraphobia (an exaggerated fear of leaving the house) or depressive tendencies (feeling as bad news stimulations that were merely novel).
I did not know this until a student pointed this out. Apparently, and this is a tribute to a great person, Eleanor Roosevelt’s easy charm as the spouse of President FDR “cost” Mrs. Roosevelt a full hour each morning, just to do for herself the inner emotional work to overcome her own feelings of inferiority –the feeling that she was ugly. This feeling stemmed from an old insult to her way back in her youth.
Two morals perhaps to the story of Eleanor: Never give up! And to whoever insulted her physical appearance: Shame on you! And you! And you! And wo, the New Testament warns, to whomever offends one of these “little ones,” be it through sarcasm, obtuseness, or just plain old fashion meanness and envy—and maketh our young women in transition to adulthood feel at all bad about themselves, whether they dwell on Madison Avenue or within the Wards of Zion! (I know that last sentence was a run-on sentence, but as a father of three beautiful daughters, so be it.)
One in four Mormons, to extrapolate from statistics, is seriously shy, perhaps overly sincere, and sometimes even nervous when you greet them at Church.
The Importance to the Church of the Activity of Our Introverts: “Brother Brigham’s” Insights
Advice on how one might help unusually shy Ward members are found in the teachings of the Prophet Brigham Young—this is not a new issue.
President Young still has much to teach us of the practicalities of human nature. He was clearly well aware –though not himself shy by temperament– of the abundance of especially sensitive Saints within the Kingdom, and was accordingly himself always trying to be more sensitive towards sensitive Saints.
President Young for example stated:
“You may, figuratively speaking, pound one Elder over the head with a club [.] There are others, if you speak a word to them, or take a straw and chasten them, whose hearts are broken; they are tender in their feelings . . . and will melt like wax before the flame. “
The Prophet then drew this conclusion, which might be advice to us all:
“You must not chasten [the Highly Shy] severely; you must chasten them according to the spirit that is in the person. Some you may talk to all day long, and they do not know what you are talking about. There is a great variety.”
In sum, Brother Brigham’s conclusion was: “Treat people as they are.”
Our Creator Apparently Created Some of Us “Hard Wired” to Be Especially Shy and Sensitive
There is great diversity within the Lord’s Creation: God must love diversity for He created so much of it.
Paul the Apostle in his ministry pointed out that the Church has need of every member.
Now shyness is absolutely not sin, for blessed are “the poor in spirit.” But I know from family experience that sometimes an introverted temperament can predispose a shy one to lesser activity in one’s Ward, if that person is not sufficiently self-aware of the in-born reasons one might feel awkward around others. The defect is not in our local Ward in this case but in being clueless. “Know thyself!”
Perhaps a tee shirt I recently saw can help one not to confuse shyness with a dislike of Church services: “I’m shy. I’m uncomfortable. And I really want to be home.”
For as President Brigham Young observed:
“Our Father in Heaven begat all the spirits that ever were [.] Then the Lord by his power and wisdom organized the mortal tabernacle of man . . . . He is our Father; he is our God, the Father of our spirits; he is the framer of our bodies.” (See, The Discourses of Brigham Young at 150 and 24.) Criticizing someone for how God organizes Creation makes no sense.
Ordinary shyness is different from extraordinary shyness. Delicacy of shy feelings applies to most of us, for example, and we all deserve support in the moral courage involved in bearing one’s testimony. A Sunday place of rest, to rest from worldly agitation to our feelings, ought to bless each member. But the super-shy may start feeling the need for courage just thinking of attending their Ward.
Yet, perhaps in a positive-minded “PMA” (Positive Mental Attitude) and socially-energetic Church like ours, there are occasions in Wards where the most shy are not noticed; in our good energy we can be obtuse to their presence. Or absence!
Paul further observes in the New Testament –this is substantive and not an exact quotation– our Church’s needs to be enriched by the contributions of every member. Paul even stipulated this good as essential to building the Kingdom.
Special Gifts of Shy Saints
Especially shy Saints are valuable—all of us are.
Jung pointed out that the introverted often pick-up on spiritual subtleties unobserved because not felt by others. They are quick on the spiritual uptake. All Church members tend to have an especially rich and complex inner spiritual life, and sometimes shyness predisposes one to this. Conscientious to a fault, the shy Saint also can be gifted at concentration on the things that “matter most.”
For that reason, throughout history, the shy personality has displayed an aptitude to counsel others compassionately, and it is suggested, made up the advisor class in differing societies. Given half a chance, some studies suggest, they can process information at the deeper level of ‘semantic memory.’ And the shy are good at second-order thinking, or “thinking about their own thinking,” and sometimes blessed to be able to learn without being aware they are learning–because their quiet intensity generates learning by osmosis.
The shy Saint may be more ‘right-brained,’ and so better at synthesizing information, because they are less linear in their thinking.
Shyness is no defect for a Member, even if life in the Kingdom seems a little more intense.
Some Miscellaneous Advice: “For What It’s Worth.”
What follows is a very brief list, composed from talking with friends and family who are blessed with special sensitivity. We are each unique individuals, and a great diversity also exists within the ranks of the highly sensitive. Pick and choose on these points of advice; some just might help strengthen your attendance, both quantitatively and qualitatively. I have adapted them from other’s good insights.
We all do well to help those with special gifts that to them are also special burdens. (Special gifts may generally be said to also be a special burden in life.)
Pray. In addition to daily prayers, a short prayer offered “in the moment” is a calming habit. A prayer for deliverance in the Scriptures is usually a short prayer being offered in an emergency.
Take a quick break. Breathe. Calm your breathing and your breathing will calm you.
Perhaps taking a very short break is just not always practical but if feasible, breaking briefly away from an intense situation can help. Walk around the block. Be peripatetic.
And self-coach. So don’t forget right afterwards to remind yourself, “I’m sensitive but I am smart: I just breathed!” Confide in a good friend, “I took a short break today!”
Smile. Don’t quote me on this one, but: Fake it! The act of faking a smile can actually cause one to smile. More generally, behavior can modify mood.
Avoid avoidance. Do stuff. Just start! Avoid avoidance by breaking down endeavors into small parts, especially identifying the very first part. Forward motion at the start is so important. Feeling over-whelmed can actually be normal much of the time. Once a task is begun, things can quietly settle down. “A thousand mile march starts with the first step.”
Get out, go to Church. A highly sensitive saint really needs his or her Church meetings. The social dread of going to Church with all those people passes quickly once inside the Chapel. From dread to spiritual light. ‘People who need people,’ sang Barbra Streisand, ‘are the luckiest people in the world.’ Okay maybe not for you. You may love your energy-charging solitude more. But getting out of you is prudent, which leads me to my concluding thought.
Be wise. ‘Oh, be wise,’ King Benjamin once preached. That’s certainly good advice to an overly feeling type of individual. Yes, Church may leave one fatigued a bit after, as well as a bit tense getting ready. But be wise rather than letting your feelings slow you down. For activity is an eternal good for us, and –at least in this world—Church activity can very often set-up the whole week ahead for you in a friendly Light. So enjoy the good habit of regular activity. That habit will minimize your ‘psychic costs’ of deciding each week.
Shyness and even anxiety can bless one’s life, and the life of our Wards. Most importantly, these types of feelings, as Kierkegaard once observed, are blessing because they are “a sign that God is there to be found.”