“Beyond Shyness,” Ensign, June 2001, 56
I well remember the moment when I was called to teach Sunday School in my singles ward. The call was extended, and Brother Balli waited for my response, smiling expectantly.
I gulped and thought, You mean, you actually expect me to get up and talk in front of all those people? But what I said was yes. Behind my answering smile and genuinely enthusiastic assent, though, lurked a faint sense of panic. I had secretly hoped for this calling; I’d always wanted to teach. But the very thought of standing in front of a classroom, all eyes upon me, made my knees weak.
I know I’m not alone in having those feelings. As members of the Church, we are commonly given opportunities to teach, give talks, conduct meetings, visit or home teach people we don’t know well (at least at first), attend large group functions—all of which can be difficult for people who may be naturally reticent. And the ranks of the shy are not small; in fact, nearly 50 percent of adults in the United States identify themselves as shy.1 Shyness—limited here to discomfort or anxiety in some social situations—has been described as a “nearly universal human trait” because almost everyone experiences it at least occasionally.2
Yet many Latter-day Saints are able to successfully overcome or at least manage their shyness as they perform their Church responsibilities. How do they do it?
What follows are suggestions culled from those who have experienced, to one degree or another, feelings of shyness and yet who are involved, contributing, fully participating members of the Church, enjoying the many blessings that result.
Venturing beyond one’s comfort zone is essential to overcoming shyness. Yet like any worthy goal, this requires effort, self-discipline, and the willingness to adapt.
Claudia Mecham, a member of the Great Falls First Ward, Great Falls Montana East Stake, joined the Church at age 29—but not before making the missionaries promise that she would never have to give a prayer, never have to give a talk, never have to bear her testimony if she didn’t want to. “The thought of having to do that was frightening and intimidating,” she says. “I was never comfortable speaking to groups.”
Her first calling was as a Primary teacher, and her confidence grew from that. “I can’t think of any one pivotal experience; it was just a gradual change,” she says. “I attribute this to my callings in the Church.” Now, 28 years after joining the Church, Sister Mecham’s experiences include having served as a seminary teacher, ward Young Women president, and stake Relief Society president.
Steve O’Bannon, a member of the Caldwell Third Ward, Caldwell Idaho Stake, became acutely aware of his shyness about the time he entered his teen years. He found speaking in front of a group to be difficult, and he avoided most social situations and parties. In high school he reached a pivotal point. “I realized that if I wanted to accomplish my goals, I had to overcome this to a degree—I had to really concentrate on it and put in effort,” he says now. “I knew that if I didn’t, I was going to have problems with most of life’s major activities.”
Brother O’Bannon says his mission, which continually required him to assert himself, was especially helpful. At first he was extremely uncomfortable with approaching people he didn’t know, but this grew easier with time. The mission experience, he says, “really changed me a lot internally. After I returned home, I don’t know that people thought, Wow, he’s different, but internally it was easier to take steps and go forward.”
You don’t have to be a missionary to learn these skills. For example, forcing yourself to offer comments in class can, over time, make it easier to participate. Sister Mecham says her natural inclination, like that of many members, is to sit on the back row during Church classes and just listen. “I have to make a conscious effort to participate in the lesson,” she says. “The thought will come, You really should bring this up. It takes a real push.” But the results, she says, are generally worth it.
Tisa Curry, a member of the Shaker Heights Ward, Kirtland Ohio Stake, went from being voted “most shy” in eighth grade to “best personality” her senior year in high school. Yet this young mother still identifies herself as naturally quiet and finds speaking in front of groups to be a challenge—albeit a manageable one. When she was called to serve as a Relief Society teacher, she found that the key to doing well was thorough preparation: becoming comfortable with the material and actually going through the motions of giving the lesson beforehand. “Preparation is the only way. You do everything you can ahead of time and then pray that Heavenly Father will help you get through it,” she says. She is also helped by the realization that “doing it isn’t as hard as worrying about it.”
Linked with preparation is persistence. President Heber J. Grant, known for his willingness to practice a difficult task until he mastered it, often said these words: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do is increased.”3 Almost every person who has overcome shyness would agree with that principle.
“If speaking is the critical thing, there’s really no substitute for actually speaking. You have to do,” Brother O’Bannon says. “Then you can become good at something you were poor at before.” Due in large part to the practice his Church callings afforded him, Brother O’Bannon today is comfortable speaking in front of church groups. In fact, a calling to the high council required him to speak at ward meetings nearly every week, which he was able to do with relative ease.
Those who are shy often focus on their own reactions to events—their emotions, their fears, their perceived inadequacies. Church callings can give them the opportunity to redirect that focus to others so that shyness becomes less of an obstacle.
A favorite scripture of Sister Mecham’s is Mark 8:35: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” She adds: “Through the gospel you learn that focusing on yourself and your weakness is not the answer. If you look outside of yourself and focus on others, your problem diminishes.”
Brother O’Bannon says that his Church callings, particularly leadership callings, have given him opportunities to look out for others who may feel ill at ease and help them feel more comfortable. “Taking that kind of approach helps you over the hurdles and puts things in perspective,” he says.
Denis Hawkins, a member of the Woodland Hills Ward, Bountiful Utah Central Stake, has found this to be true as he has served in several bishoprics. He says that when he was called to serve as bishop of the Citrus Heights Third Ward, Citrus Heights California Stake, one practice that helped him overcome his reserve was to try to emulate the pure love of Christ. “If I tried to view people as I thought the Lord would, my fears would vanish and I could get up and talk in front of them, greet them and shake their hand, try to fellowship them, things like that. I wasn’t focusing on myself and my own inadequacies. I was really just trying to love them and help them, and that was a key to help me overcome any feelings of insecurity.”
Several years before that, Brother Hawkins’s wife, Jan, learned the same lesson while serving as a Relief Society president. When she was first called, she says, “I felt the bishop must have been mistaken. I didn’t feel like I was the type; I am much more introverted.” She felt overwhelmed until she learned to concentrate on one aspect of the calling at a time, particularly by focusing on individuals. That insight again helped her as the wife of a bishop. “The key for Denis and me was focusing on the people and enjoying them and trying to just love them and be their friends,” she says.
Probably most crucial in overcoming shyness is to realize that, when fulfilling Church responsibilities, we do not have to rely on our own abilities alone; we can seek help from the Lord. Nephi encapsulated this truth: “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Ne. 3:7).
“The Lord really does take care of the people who are called to positions in the Church,” says Brother Hawkins. As a bishop, “it was a tremendous source of strength to feel the Spirit working with me. A wonderful thing about the Church is that all of us, no matter who we are, can have that same help.”
Sister Mecham remembers a blessing that helped her fulfill her first speaking assignment in stake conference as stake Relief Society president. “When I was asked to do that, I knew early on that it would be a painful and difficult situation,” she says. “I was afraid of panicking.” Her husband gave her a blessing in which she was promised that she would be able to successfully deliver her talk. “Normally in speaking situations I am shaky and can feel my heart beat a foot outside my chest,” she says. “But from the time I entered the chapel and sat down, there just wasn’t the usual anxiety. I was calm all the way through. It was a real faith-promoting experience.”
One of the things that helped Sister Mecham get beyond her shyness was simply understanding the reality of God’s love for her as an individual. “Early on in the Church I’d look at other people and think, They’re such spiritual giants; I can never be like that. I’ve since learned that it’s not necessary to compete or try to measure up to others. God loves all of His children, and no matter who we are or how we serve or what we do, we are important to Him. It’s not up to you entirely—there is someone greater than you there to help you, and He wants you to succeed.”
The Lord has told us He gives us weakness so that we may be humble, and if we turn to Him, our weaknesses will become strengths (see Ether 12:27). That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can completely transform our personalities. It does mean that with the Lord’s aid, difficulties can be overcome and success can be achieved. Not only that, but the “weakness” of being shy can yield its own strengths: perhaps better listening skills, increased compassion, sensitivity, humility, and willingness to turn to the Lord for help.
As for me, that teaching calling which at first seemed so daunting became my favorite up to that point. I have since had a number of opportunities to teach or speak in front of Church groups, and while I may still be nervous at first, I know that the jitters will usually go away after a minute or two. There’s always a sense of exhilaration in knowing that, with the Lord’s help, I can master my fears instead of allowing them to master me. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear,” Paul said, “but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). And there are few gifts greater than those.
“Now, some of you may be shy by nature or consider yourselves inadequate to respond affirmatively to a calling. Remember that this work is not yours and mine alone. It is the Lord’s work, and when we are on the Lord’s errand, we are entitled to the Lord’s help. Remember that whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies.”—President Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency, “Duty Calls,” Ensign, May 1996, 4.
Be friendly. Reserved people often find it difficult to initiate contact with those they don’t know. Your friendliness can make a world of difference in helping them feel more comfortable in a situation. It helps to ask open-ended questions to draw them out.
Offer genuine praise and encouragement. When a shy person completes a task such as giving a talk, performing a musical number, or teaching a lesson, offer praise for his or her efforts. Shy people are often particularly harsh judges of their own behavior, and positive reinforcement from others helps them view themselves more realistically. Be sure, however, that your compliments are genuine.
Support them in their callings. Be especially willing to offer comments in class when you know a teacher struggles with shyness. Show support in any way you can; after all, that’s what we pledge to do when we sustain someone to a calling.
Don’t call attention to someone’s shyness. Saying to someone, “Boy, you’re quiet,” or (sarcastically), “Don’t be so loud!” really isn’t helpful. Shy people already know they’re reserved; they don’t need to have it pointed out. Doing so usually only makes them feel more self-conscious. And do not put shy people in the spotlight unless you know they are comfortable with this.
Accept individuals as they are. Trying to force people to change often results in the opposite of the intended effect: it makes them retreat even further. Unfortunately, many who are shy tend to ascribe more validity to criticism than to praise, and the effects can be damaging and long-lasting. Loving and accepting them are among the most beneficial things you can do in helping them overcome their shyness.
Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:
When we face difficult situations, how can we learn to focus on others rather than ourselves?
How can we avoid allowing our fears to dictate our actions?
How does the gospel enable us to bring positive changes in our lives?