Advice to Readers on Bashfulness

For many years Isabella served as an editor and contributor to a Christian magazine in which she had a very popular advice column. She used the column to answer readers’ concerns—from a Christian perspective—on a variety of topics.

This letter came from a teen in Kansas:

I want to ask if there is any way to overcome being painfully bashful. I am really a sufferer with this disease. I get good marks in school when the work is largely in writing, but as sure as I am called upon to talk, I am scared out of my wits.

In Voice Culture class it is the same. I am said to have a fine voice and my teachers say my “scares” are all that keep me back. I am always swallowing at the wrong place. I have been so humiliated by this drawback that there are times when I think I would like to run away where no one who knows me would ever see me again.

My dear mother is planning to have me go to college, and I know I shall fail on account of timidity; that is the only drawback, for I like to study.

Kansas.

Here is Isabella’s Reply:

Yours is by no means an uncommon affliction, dear friend. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though the world of young people was made up of two classes: those who have no timidity about anything and rush in where thoughtful persons hesitate, and those who, as the letters quoted from express it, are “painfully bashful.”

Before the remedy can be applied with any degree of success, the cause of the disease must be determined; and at the risk of having some of the afflicted start back in protesting dismay, I am going to diagnose it as pride, overweening self-esteem, egotism, any of the words by which we define undue self-consciousness.

Illustration of an 1888 classroom of young girls. One girl stands; she is holding a book, her head is bent and she holds up her arm to cover her face. The other students are seated; one tries to comfort the embarrassed student. Two others whisper and smile together; while two more are reading a book in the back. A teacher stands near the window of the room.

I know that to some it will sound like a contradiction to say that a timid person has too much self-esteem, yet I believe that in nine cases of “bashfulness” out of ten, this will be found to be the case. The remedy, therefore, suggests itself. Anything that will help us to forget ourselves entirely will go far toward removing the trouble: and there is really nothing else that is likely to do much good.

Photo dated about 1905 of a classroom of female students in their teens. One female students stands beside a large document hung on the wall and uses a pointer to indicate one section of the document. All other students are seeated at desks and are looking in her direction..
A student recites in history class. (Credit: Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

In a school recitation, if we have made such close and careful preparation that the subject has got hold of us and we are filled with admiration (or indignation, or curiosity) over the thoughts expressed by the author we study, it will be those thoughts and not ourselves that we will think about when we recite.

Photo dated about 1910. A teacher stands at the classroom blackboard where words and shapes are drawn, and points to one section of the blackboard. One little girl stands facing the teacher (her back to the camera) to answer the teacher's question. All other students sit at desks with their backs to the camera. Some students have their hands raised to answer the question.

In Voice Culture this is harder, because the inane syllables on which the pupil is compelled to practice afford no chance for thought; but as soon as one is allowed to sing words—if they are worth singing—the performer can train himself to be absorbed in the thought they express, and in the wonder that the human voice has power to render varying feeling and emotion; and in curiosity to see what range of expression he has himself, until he forgets entirely to wonder, or to fear, what other people think of his performance, and becomes an artist, lost in his art. Such a singer will not be troubled with timidity. Ordinary singers can train toward this height, and overcome self by degrees.

Illustration of a group of young people in a drawing-room about 1875. Some are seated, some are standing. One man sits at a piano and looks at a young  woman who stands beside the piano, singing and holding sheet music.

In social life the ideal way to overcome the form of self-consciousness that expresses itself in timidity, is to fix one’s attention on some other person, a stranger perhaps, or one not accustomed to society, who, for these or other reasons, is not having a good time; and resolve that he or she shall have a pleasant evening. The reflex result will astonish those who try it for the first time.

I knew a timid, shrinking girl, given to fancying herself awkward or stupid or conspicuous in some unpleasant way, who was one evening roused to sympathy for a young woman not so well dressed as the others, and evidently painfully aware of it. In struggling to make that one forget her too short dress and gloveless hands and other defects of costume and have a good time in spite of them, she forgot all about herself.

Illustration of two young women in old period dress, standing close together with a small branch of a pink flowering bush.

Here is what she told her mother on reaching home.

“We had a lovely time, mamma; and Miss Haven says I sang better than she ever heard me; that my voice didn’t tremble a bit. And don’t you believe I forgot all about being scared! I asked that Bennett girl to take the alto, and I was so interested in having her do well that I never once thought of how I was singing!”

A young woman stands holding sheet music and singing. Beside her another young woman is seated, playing a piano.

All of which goes to prove that the old, old rule which, being freely translated is: ”Think always of others and never mind about yourself.” It’s a good one to apply to the great, and the trivial acts of our lives. Once, a girl told me that she thought it would be irreverent to try to imagine what the Lord Jesus Christ thought of her when she stood up in class, or whether he was pleased with her work.

Do you know, I want no such Savior as that girl must have thought she had? I want one who knows our infirmities, “was tempted in all points” as we are, who is interested in the very hairs of our heads, and in the minutest trivialities of our daily lives. Suppose we thought much more about what he is thinking of us than we do? Would it help?

Pansy.

What do you think of Isabella’s advice to the teen in Kansas?

8 thoughts on “Advice to Readers on Bashfulness

  1. Wonderful advice! Quite a few of us modern folk could stand to take that advice, even the ones who aren’t bashful–for pride is the root of it all, and we all have some of it.

    CutePolarBear

  2. I think she gave good advice. I wonder, though, why we don’t have Voice Culture classes and required recitation of good literature. So many people have unpleasant voices and/or are poor at expressing themselves, especially underprivileged people. Classes on Voice Culture and recitation could really help students be confident and successful.

  3. I love receiving your emails. Thank you for taking time to do this!❤ I loved this one especially. The answers Pansy gave were so true and helpful!

  4. I’m sure it was hard advice for the girl to take, but there is a lot of truth in it. I was very timid as a child, but with practice, I got over it. One has to get over thinking so much about one’s self and concentrate on the others with whom you are trying to communicate.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Patricia. I’m a shy person, too, so I know what you mean about practicing to interact with others and speak before groups. It wasn’t always easy but it was worth it! —Jenny

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