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Originally published Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Spotlight dims, shyness sets in

There are politicians, business leaders and entertainers who seem perfectly capable of giving speeches, leading groups or performing in public but who self-identify as shy.

The New York Times

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Speaking at an event sponsored by More magazine last year, Malaak Compton-Rock surprised the audience by revealing that her husband, the no-holds-barred comedian Chris Rock, is painfully shy. "At a dinner party, you want to sit next to me," she told the crowd.

Shyness is often misinterpreted: The shy may be thought of as aloof or arrogant. But most surprising are the secretly shy, those whom you would never suspect of reticence.

There are politicians (like former prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain), business leaders (like the former Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham) and entertainers (like Rock) who seem perfectly capable of giving speeches, leading groups or performing in public, sometimes exuberantly or outrageously, but who self-identify as shy.

"I'm always cast as the guy who has it easy, the cocky guy, the jock who beats up the karate kid," said Daniel Bess, an actor and musician in Los Angeles. "People assume I'm the opposite of how I feel. As soon as I hit puberty, I couldn't talk to another soul, and when it came to performing, I was terrified. But then I'd feel that ecstasy and keep chasing that high. Performing was joy and release.

"I've had success in these fields, but every time I go out there, I have to talk to myself, almost a version of the Stuart Smalley thing," Bess said, referring to the comical character created by Al Franken on "Saturday Night Live" who intoned in the mirror, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."

Bess sometimes hid his discomfiture at a party by having a fake conversation on his cellphone. Drinking helped (a solution known as "liquid extroversion"), but now he substitutes less-damaging forms of courage. "It's so annoying, the amount of things I have to do to be OK socially," he said. "I meditate, write in a journal, run, exercise and just try to get out of my own head."

The terms "shy" and "introvert" are used almost interchangeably and without distinction in the common parlance. "Psychologists debate about the overlap," said Susan Cain, author of the recent book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," which extols the power of those who prefer listening to speaking, or reading to socializing. "Shyness is fear of social judgment, a consuming worry about how people view you. Introversion is more about a preference for environments that are less stimulating: someone who'd rather have a glass of wine with a close friend than go to a cocktail party."

Shyness exists on a continuum, from mild to paralyzing, according to Christopher Lane, a professor at Northwestern University and author of the book "Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness."

"I am firmly of the belief that shyness and introversion are acquired, not passed on genetically," he said. "They're behavioral traits that people experience in early life, becoming part of their personality. It's only recently that we have begun to think of that behavior as a problem. In the '40s, '50s and '60s, there was far less expectation that people would be loquacious, more emphasis on being reserved."

"The secretly shy have acquired a facility to represent themselves as pseudo-extroverts, providing they have the right props and it's for a limited amount of time," Lane said. "Many are adept at moving into that role because they are highly attuned to social mores, and if there is a professional reason, if that's the expectation, it becomes draining. There are photographs of Gordon Brown slumping forward in exhaustion. He would stay up all night in anxiety about meeting with his Cabinet."

Trying to conceal or overcome shyness can bring on physical symptoms from sweating to stuttering to the kind of gastrointestinal issues that are best left undefined. "Ever since kindergarten, when I got called on in the classroom, my voice changed and I couldn't form complete sentences," said Liz Longacre, who describes herself as a recovering lawyer in New York City, and said that law school obligations for moot court and oral arguments overwhelmed her. "I can't believe I did it. I'm like an emotional cutter: I like to do these things that put me in uncomfortable positions. I overprepare so I can do things that scare the bejesus out of me. But I was trying to be somebody I wasn't."

Despite fooling a lot of people, Longacre ultimately decided to embrace her shyness. "I learned how to reframe the way I view myself," she said. "And your greatest weakness can become your greatest asset. Because I had trouble dealing with people, I developed a big passion for animal welfare."

In January, she created a website called Gentle Living, which includes a travel-planning service for animal lovers and a blog called the Shy Girl's Manifesto. Social media (with the "social" part more remote, almost oxymoronic) can be the shy person's best friend, such common respite that it has been dubbed "electronic extroversion."

Perhaps the most surprising shrinking violet is the author Nicholson Baker. From a small town in Maine, he writes bawdily in books like "Vox" (aka the phone-sex novel), which Monica Lewinsky presented to Bill Clinton in 1997. Baker self-diagnosed his shyness around the age of 10, "and it's so powerful that it never leaves you," he said.

"I've figured out how to work around it now," Baker said, "but there are moments where it looms up, the old pain, the feeling of tremendous uncertainty. I feel that I'll never be able to give the other person what he or she wants. Any conversation is going to be an approximation and a disappointment. What shyness is doing is hurrying forward to the sense that one has disappointed, which I know I will."

If shyness has been a bane to many, it seems a badge of honor to others. (When Kim Kardashian claims to be shy, it is tempting to think of Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride" saying: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.")

And despite its inconveniences and limitations, Baker does not believe in "treating" shyness. "I'm always happy to meet somebody who is a little bit at a loss," he said. "It seems a better way to come at the world. Shy people know that the world is big and they're small. But when I experience it myself, it feels horrible. It really helps to put on a nice jacket."

When Anna Fisher was growing up, "I wanted to be an astronaut so badly, I didn't realize the talking part that was necessary," she said. "I just thought about the math and science."

Fisher, a physician specializing in emergency medicine, was selected as one of the first female shuttle astronauts and was immediately thrown into the light of news-media attention. "When I came to Houston, people thought I was stuck up," she said. "They didn't understand the reason I wasn't talking to them was my shyness."

She has had a career of stellar accomplishment, flying two missions in space and representing NASA all over the world. "But I cannot go into a social setting and talk to people," she said. "If I'm invited to a party, I drive up to the door and don't want to walk into the room. I'm never able to relax. People have a totally different image of me than I have of myself."

A subset of adults remains enslaved to shyness throughout life, according to Cain. "And there are some who don't get over it, but it's not with them in a crippling way," she said. "There are countless shy children who hide behind their mother's legs. All those children turn into grown-ups who don't do that."

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