Well, kind of.
Shy people, and people with confidence problems, do not generally lack self-esteem. In fact, they tend to have the opposite problem—they have an inflated sense of their own importance!
I first encountered this idea from some of my mentors, and over the years I’ve been able to develop it further in my own work. A tremendous help with the issue came from an opportunity I had to work with the—amazingly rare—people who do actually have low self-esteem.
Now, to be fair, such people might not actually be all that rare; maybe they just avoid seeing changeworkers of any kind. Why should they, when they don’t deserve to get better? Or at least that’s how they see it. Anyway, as of writing this, I have worked with more than five hundred people on the issues of shyness and confidence alone. Out of these, fewer than 1% had low self-esteem.
Once I had a client named Teresa. I offered her some coffee, tea or water. She chose water. Then, when I ask her what the problem was, she replied, “It’s just that. You asked me what I’d drink, and I could only accept water. That’s natural; you need it to survive, so I could get it. But coffee or tea? I don’t deserve them, so I can’t ask for them.”
I suggest rereading the above statement, then comparing it with what most shy people say about their issues. The popular phrase with shy people seems to be “I won’t do it because I’m afraid of what people will think about me.” Well, a person with truly low self-esteem, someone like Teresa, doesn’t care what people will think of her. That’s because she believes people don’t care about her and won’t bother to devote a moment’s notice to her.
From a social panorama perspective, a person like Teresa represents herself as being far apart from other people and as having a lower status. She expects that others have their attention far from her; they are looking at each other, not at her. That’s true low self-esteem. And, in my clinical experience, it’s an extremely rare situation.
What usually happens is something rather more complicated, and certainly somewhat controversial, given the popularity of the “shyness equals low self-esteem” idea.
The person who is shy or lacks confidence will actually have a grossly inflated sense of self-esteem. They tend believe they are the center of everyone’s attention, that any mistake they make will immediately be noticed, observed, dissected, ridiculed.
On the level of internal representation, that person tends to have a rather fascinating structure. They probably start out with the “low” position—to use a social panorama description, they represent themselves as smaller than other people but in the center of others’ attention, often right in their midst, with everyone looking at them.
This position is, understandably, quite uncomfortable. So the person tries to change it, but tends to misdiagnose the problem. They assume that it’s their size, their low position, that causes the problem. Therefore, they try to rise above everyone else. Sometimes this is done through real-life ambitions—being rich and powerful, or getting that promotion or that job title, for example. Often it’s just done internally, usually by devaluating other people or promoting one’s own single trait as something unusually valuable. Having gone this way myself as a teenager, and having worked with many people who have gone through this, I’d say the single most common fantasy advantage here is intelligence. As Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame once said, “I’m a misunderstood genius. And by that I mean people don’t understand that I’m a genius.”
So, by real or imagined achievements, shy people raise themselves above other people. (In social panorama terms, their self-perceived smaller size often remains the same, but they position themselves much higher above other people). The problem is that they’re still in the very center of everyone’s attention. In fact, in many ways, the situation is worse now than it was before. In both cases, both before and now, their different size makes it easier for other people to concentrate on them. But now they’re also up in the air, far above everyone. And everyone is looking at them. And if they take a wrong step, they’re going to fall. And it’s easy to take such a step, being so high above others. And the higher they are, the harder they’ll fall.
What happens then is that when the person starts feeling vulnerable, they revert back to the “low” position, but of course they hate it even more. So they search for a solution. And the solution is simple, it seems. They just didn’t get high enough the last time around. What they need is simply to get a little bit higher, and everything will finally be OK!
So they try. They put themselves higher above others.
And since it doesn’t work, they go even higher.
Until at one point they look down and all of the people don’t seem that real anymore. They’re just things to be used and discarded.
I honestly believe that if left to work long enough, this pattern will always result in narcissism. Now it might be an aggressive kind of narcissism, a “power-crazy, alpha-male, piss-in-the-sink-during-the-staff-meeting-because-I’m-so-important” kind of guy. (Real case, chief editor for an American magazine.) Or it might be a passive-aggressive narcissism: “Why isn’t the world as I want it to be? The whole world should act as I want it to because that would be better, and I failed if it doesn’t.” But either way, narcissism it will be.
Oh, and as a side effect, anyone trying to get close to these people (including spouses and other loved ones) will instinctively be pushed away, through anger, emotional manipulation, or any other means necessary. After all, if they got close enough, they’d stop being a thing and become a person again. And then all the old issues would become as strong as they used to be. (I don’t think that at the narcissistic level the emotional issues are completely cleared; it’s just that they hurt far less than otherwise).
Admittedly, I rarely get people even close to this stage, so that is mainly a belief. Clients tend to come to me earlier, and at that point I’ve observed several interesting patterns.
The patterns of shyness and low self-confidence
Clients with shyness and low self-confidence issues tend to be unable to smoothly change the size of their personifications—their images of themselves. They start to increase the size of their personification, but then it just jumps, skipping right to the huge and high-up position, without anything in between. So they can be either smaller than other people or larger than other people, but nothing in between.
I usually work through this issue with my own Mindlines method (basically teaching the client to discern more positions than just the two extremes) or through a combination of social panorama and belief work.
People are icky!
Another very strong pattern with such clients is a sense of dissociation from, basically, humanity. They often have a strong resistance to becoming “one of the crowd” (“the gray crowd” as we say in Poland) and of “getting lost in the mass of people.” They might suffer from being outside of the group of people, but they’re almost disgusted by the thought of becoming one of the people.
This feeling is evident in their representation of other people (grey, featureless, sometimes dolls or mannequins, sometimes people from other cultures) and in how such clients represent themselves to other people—outside of the group, often above them.
I tend to work through this with a combination of belief work and social panorama. Possibly the most interesting case I’ve had in this area was with a client who, as a result of having, admittedly, a truly abysmal life living most of his life in what could easily be described as gang territory (and being unpopular in the area), had some significant issues, including a rather severe irritable bowel syndrome.
When we worked on this issue together, the client first started out high above his representation of other people. Then, after he changed his representation, he was at their level but outside from everyone else, and everyone was turned away from him. When he moved among other people, it turned out that they were, in fact, lifeless dolls. And finally, when he managed to change the dolls into people, they were all Chinese—foreigners with whom he had little in common. Only the final transition let him find himself among actual people who were now finally typical to the area he lived in, and he could see himself as equal with them, with some paying attention to him and others not. This process required breaking through at least four separate defense mechanisms he’d built up throughout his life. Each of these transitions was done through separate belief work.
It stings for a long time
I’ve made a novel but often recurring observation: people with such problems tend to have rather long time limits for how they think people judge them. This concept, which comes from my Mindlines work, states that different people have individual time limits set in their heads for many issues. For example, when selling to a client and having the client decline, one salesman will assume “he said no, so he’ll never buy anything from me again” (time limit of eternity), while another will assume “he said no, so maybe I should try tomorrow when he’s in a better mood” (time limit of one day).
With shyness clients, I have often observed that they perceive other people’s judgements of them to have a very long time limit, often eternal ones. So, basically, once someone thinks something bad about them, that’s it, it can never be changed. Luckily, time limits can be changed, often quite easily, through a mix of Mindlines and belief work.
Having worked through this issue with a very large number of people, I find that the patterns described above tend to be the most important things to deal with in work around shyness and low self-confidence, as well as in any similar issues.
The goal here is to get the client to be just one among many people, level with them, with some paying attention to him but most cheerfully ignoring him and having their own business on their minds—just as it works in real life. The effects of such a change tend to be very significant.
The problem with most approaches to shyness that center on the myth of low self-esteem is that many of their methods only make the client worse by promoting their narcissistic tendencies. And that’s really not a good idea.