Life Advice



Science Advice Goddess: Cower Struggle

Amy Alkon on

I'm a 20-something single woman. I just moved to a new city where I don't know anybody. I'd like to meet people, but I work from home, and I'm pretty shy. The idea of having to earn people's acceptance in a new environment (and possibly making a mess of it) leaves me tempted to stay home with Netflix and my cat.


To be human is to err. And err. And err. Personally, I have clogged somebody's toilet, shattered an expensive, um, vase ("Nooo...not Nana's ashes!"), and knocked a guy's red wine the length of a white-on-white living room. In my defense, not all at the same party.

You can't really control what happens to you -- and if you're as graceful as I am, you can't really control what you do. What you can control is how you react: whether you "shy away" from public life or put on a brave face, hoping somebody in your circle gets arrested for bestiality and bumps you from the top of the social newsfeed.

Researchers have spent decades squabbling over how shyness should be defined, and they have yet to agree on a definition. However, shyness, to some extent, is a super-light shade of "social anxiety disorder": a debilitating fear of being "negatively evaluated" by others -- deemed disgusting, stupid, ugly, weird, or otherwise rejection-worthy -- and then being publicly humiliated and socially deleted.

Social anxiety sufferers, desperate to avoid the eyeballs and judgment of others, live shrunken lives. Parties, meetings, and classes are often out of the question, as are situations requiring "public speaking" (like the coffee line, with the ever-looming danger of being asked "You next?").


Though you're merely shy -- meaning you probably just dread and sometimes duck out of parties or talking with strangers -- it's important to reflect on whether your shyness is standing between you and the life you want -- or...whether it is (or has been) a good thing.

That question -- about the possible benefits of shyness -- might sound a little nuts (though it's anything but). Answering it requires exploring shyness from an evolutionary perspective: Why might shyness have evolved -- that is, what might've been its function in an ancestral environment?

Now, maybe you're grumbling, "Ancestral environment?! Who cares what some hairy humans were doing way back when?" Well, we need to care, because our modern skulls are home to an antique psychological operating system -- adapted for the mating and survival problems of our distant human ancestors.

In ancestral times, getting booted from your hunter-gatherer band meant going it alone in a horribly harsh environment, millennia before DoorDash -- or doors. If you didn't starve to death, you might become the brunch entree for Mr. and Mrs. Tiger. Deeply unpleasant -- and a big dead end for your genes.


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