Monday, June 27, 2011

In Praise of Shyness

We like to think that scientists are intrepid seekers of truth. And we like to think that scientific knowledge will spur the medical research that will cure us of what ails us.

Surely, it is true of cancer and heart disease. But, is it also true of mental illness?

Are we just a pill away from curing all forms of emotional suffering? And that presupposes that all forms of emotional suffering are bad.

By now, most of us know that therapy does not have a very good track record. All things considered, it seems perfectly rational to think that psychopharmacology is our last best hope.

Freud himself reached this conclusion after a long and distinguished career practicing psychoanalysis. Who are we to argue the point?

Of course, manufacturers are not just in the business of curing what ails us. They are in the business of selling their product. To sell pills, you must market them. When it comes to psychotropic medication, one easy way to increase your market is to pathologize normal behavior.

True enough, some people are clinically depressed. But, if you can make loneliness, rejection, and anomie into forms of depression, you can vastly increase your market.

So I’ve suggested from time to time, and so suggests Susan Cain in an excellent article from yesterday’s New York Times.

Cain argues that the pharmaceutical industry has launched an assault on shyness and an assault on introverted contemplation.

More than that, it is attacking modesty and even femininity, happily taking what used to be considered positive character traits and magically transforming them into diseases.

Once it convinces you that you are not just maladjusted, but sick, it is more than happy to offer a cure.

Cain opens with a compelling image: “A beautiful woman lowers her eyes demurely beneath a hat. In an earlier era, her gaze might have signaled a mysterious allure. But this is a 2003 advertisement for Zoloft, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (S.S.R.I.) approved by the F.D.A. to treat social anxiety disorder. ‘Is she just shy? Or is it Social Anxiety Disorder?' reads the caption, suggesting that the young woman is not alluring at all. She is sick.”

Cain shows us one the many faces of shyness. The woman is acting modestly; she is demure and alluring. In another time she would have been considered to be feminine.

According to the makers of Zoloft, she is sick.

For all of its obvious demerits, the ad also assaults femininity. Cain does not say so, but she certainly implies it. It is worth adding, in passing, that modesty and shyness look different in men and women.

As author of a forthcoming book on introversion, Cain has done her research. She admits that some people suffer from severe forms of social anxiety-- think agoraphobia-- and that these people are sometimes incapable of normal functioning.  She accepts, as I do, that Zoloft can be a godsend for people who are too terrified to venture outside of their own homes.

She also notes that Zoloft is not an unalloyed good. It might also bring on: “nausea, loss of sex drive, seizures.”

In days of yore shyness and modesty were positive social values. They were signs of good character.

I am not just talking about modest attire. A person of character is so tactful and considerate that he does not blurt out every thought that passes through his mind. Nor does he send photos of his private parts to strangers.

Call him introverted or shy or modest, our culture might see him as suffering from a mental illness.

We seem clearly to value extroversion. We value people who are outgoing and gregarious, even in excess.

In many ways, that is the important point. Our culture is awash with people who let far too much hang out, who act too quickly and too impulsively, who take unnecessary risks because they have not thought through the consequences.

In this cultural whirl a person who does not form friendships quickly or easily or does not offer intimate contact on the spur of the moment risks being labeled repressed, inhibited, shy, or sick.

But, are we really confident that the person who makes friends slowly, but who keeps the friends he makes, should be seen as suffering from social anxiety?

Why not say that the person who makes friends too quickly, who flits from one friend to another without much thought, and who acts impulsively and thoughtlessly, is really the one who has the problem?

We all know that there are times when it is best to keep your powder dry. There are times when it is best not to jump to conclusions or to take action prior to reflection. And there are also social situations where reticence and shyness are the right thing to do.

If your social world is filled with criminal gangs, you do best to show a high level of shyness and introversion, an unwillingness to get involved with people who are up to no good.

If you arrive in a new social world and are unfamiliar with the rules or the players, you do best to sit back and observe the situation before getting involved.

At some point, of course, you will need to join in, but feeling that you must throw yourself into a game whose rules are unfamiliar to you is not going to contribute to your emotional serenity.

Good decision making exists between the extremes of making a precipitous decision before you have considered all the facts and being so terrified of making a mistake that you cannot make a decision at all.

Once the decision is made, you need to take action, but taking action just for the sake of looking active is almost as bad as doing nothing because you are too afraid.

There is more to shyness than feminine allure. Cain notes that introverts, if they do not get too caught up in their own thoughts, tend to take the time to examine all sides of an issue.

This capacity for reflection, and for hard work, is essential for good leadership.

If a leader has examined all of the relevant information and has weighed all the relevant opinions, then each member of his team will feel that his contribution has been respected. The result will be that he will be more likely to work hard.

Introversion, as Cain is using the term, is not the same as introspection. Looking into your mind to try to figure out how it is malfunctioning is not the same as taking the time to reflect on all the possible real outcomes to a decision.

Cain concludes: “But even non-medical treatments emphasize what is wrong with the people who use them. They don’t focus on what is right. Perhaps we need to rethink our approach to social anxiety: to address the pain, but to respect the temperament that underlies it. The act of treating shyness as an illness obscures the value of that temperament. Ridding people of social unease need not involve pathologizing their fundamental nature, but rather urging them to use its gifts.

“It’s time for the young woman in the Zoloft ad to rediscover her allure.”


It’s not really about science; it’s about culture. And it’s about the way that culture communicates values.

In the case of shyness, the culture is hiding its true intentions behind the mask of science. It wants to transform values, to make extroversion a sign of health and introversion a sign of illness.

Thus, people are no longer shy or modest or reticent. If they exhibit these qualities, they are suffering from repression.

As you probably know, the notion that repression is bad while expression is good comes down to us from our old friend Sigmund Freud.

It is not a scientific fact. It is a dogmatic belief, enforced through the mechanisms of mind control.

It is also the basis for psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic treatment is based on the strict injunction to censor nothing, to say whatever comes to mind, regardless of how painful or trivial it seems.

Psychoanalysis has always tried to break down thoughtfulness and consideration.

The psychoanalytic patient is trained to free associate, and is told that anything less is a sign of repression and censorship.

Strangely enough, and dialectically enough, the psychoanalyst himself occupied the other extreme. He hid behind the couch and practiced an extreme, even pathological reticence.

Nothing is more characteristic of classical analysis than the analyst’s refusal to engage with the other person qua person.

Now, if you can find a sufficiently naive psychoanalyst, he or she will tell you that free association is only practiced in session. Nowhere does psychoanalysis suggest that people take this practice with them when they leave the analyst’s office.

Yet, if you train people, over a period of years, to say whatever comes to mind, why would you think that they will simply shut down the habit once they leave the analytic setting.


Melanie said...

A great deal of effective information for me!

Anonymous said...

what if you are shy but don't keep friends or make them easily? I want to make friends but don't know how. I gave up because people don't give me a chance. I hate it.