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Review of "The Gift of Shyness"

By Alexander Avila
Fireside, 2002
Review by David M. Wolf, M.A. on Apr 7th 2003
The Gift of Shyness

    Being shy is often a problem for most people. It makes meeting new people awkward; can defeat even the best-prepared presentation of oneself anywhere people gather. But shyness is something else again for a minority of people for whom being shy is an overwhelming fact of social inability and, consequently, isolation. For these sufferers, being shy is crippling and threatens to prevent them from finding the dearest things in life: love, family with children, peace and contentment in a life well-used and fully developed.

    We should thank Dr. Avila first for recognizing the deep need for this book. People who are inordinately shy suffer far more than most folks realize. There is a population out there that is living with dreams they cannot realize, because they have come to believe, through failure and fear in social settings over and over, that happiness itself is beyond their grasp.

    Finally someone who understands shy people has written a work that can help this substantial minority of people who are overwhelmed, afflicted if not crippled by their shyness. In Avila's carefully organized and self-help styled book, a complete program for identifying the roots of shyness, seeing its strengths no less than weaknesses, and using the energy of the shy person to create satisfying relationships and wholly overcome past limitations.

    Not one to stumble out the starting gate, Avila begins Part One, "Why Shyness is a Wonderful Romantic Gift." The reader, who suffers self-doubt about his or her shyness, is given reasons right away to believe anew that, as Avila puts it, "Shyness is actually a gift of gentleness, sensitivity, and self-reflection, and you, as a shy person...are one of the most desirable people on earth." Quite a beginning, quite a claim, but the author backs this up in the volume that follows on.

    Key to this seeming alchemy is a basic distinction Avila introduces between what he calls "the Actor" in anyone's personality and "the Observer." It is the Observer that gets out of control in shy people and causes them so much paralysis in public and distress trying to interact with strangers in social situations. It's a simple plan, but not simplistic in Avila's use of it. The shy person finally has a way to see what is going on in his or her head and what can be done to remedy the continuing situations that control the shy life.

    Starting with this powerful distinction, Avila moves to a wholly new definition of being shy: "Shyness is a life enhancing state of extraordinary sensitivity and profound self-reflection." He calls it a "shy-centric" definition, and it is. But it provides a set of concepts as tools that can really offer shy people a new way to see themselves and to create a better life in society, to make shyness into a new asset. It is this enhanced set of assets which Avila turns to use in romantic pursuits.

    In the chapters that follow, many exercises and case examples provide plenty of chances for readers to try out solutions to what has previously limited them as shy people. For the serious sufferer, such exercises are must-do homework and should attract lots of effort by anyone who knows the pain of being limited by shy behavior. But these exercises may also cause the less severely afflicted some annoyance, quite the way homework assignments do in school work. So the causal reader may begin skipping and skimping on the exercises after a few chapters. That's a mistake and may point up the problem in a book such as this--it works if the reader is motivated enough to do the work it elucidates and leads. Some of these exercises involve up to three other people; some require taking off your shoes and lying on the floor; others involve getting out on the street and "helping little old ladies to cross the street." It's a long list of activities, each one carefully described in "Step 1...Step 2...Step 3...etc."

    The impact of Avila's program is to help shy people find the love, respect and, especially self-respect that they have lost to runaway shyness. Any reader who takes the program on its own terms and does the work will benefit, that's for sure. Whether or not these benefits can live up to Avila's stated goals for his readers is a factual matter outside the scope of the book, of course. But if ever a text laid out "a yellow brick road" through the dark forests of social reticence and the fear of being judged as wanting, it could be this hardy paperback.


© 2003 David Wolf 

David M. Wolf, M.A. studied philosophy of science for the M.A. with Prof. David Hawkins at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and also read advanced philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. His undergraduate education in Philosophy was guided by Prof. Mason Gross. Wolf is certified in philosophic counseling with the American Philosophic Practitioners Assoc. and earns his living in management consulting, where he is distinguished in writing strategic plans and advising in organization development and career counseling.