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Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013 08:10 am

Wimp daddy

 A woman wrote you about flirting relentlessly with a male classmate who seemed interested in her but may have been too timid to ask her out. You asked her, “If a man can’t endure a possible 10 seconds of rejection, is he the man you want with you when danger rears its head?” Absent a link between shyness and an inability to defend a woman in danger, I think you’re being unfair to shy guys.  –Irked

If timidity were useful in defending people in danger, police sergeants would announce to their beat cops, “Okay, everybody, go out there and hide in the back seat of your patrol car!”

You’re right that physical courage  – willingness to risk physical pain  – is different from emotional courage: willingness to risk rejection or other social pain. But they’re more related than you think. Brain imaging research by UCLA’s Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman finds that the same regions of the brain that are activated by physical pain are activated by social pain, and Eisenberger reports that “individuals who are more sensitive to one kind of pain are also more sensitive to the other.” Further pointing to a connection, what’s good for a sprained ankle seems good for a sprained ego. In research Eisenberger collaborated on, 500 milligrams of acetaminophen (think Tylenol) taken twice daily was actually found to diminish emotional pain. So, no, it isn’t a stretch to suspect that a guy who shrinks from social ouchies might respond to physical danger as if his spirit animal were the breadcrumb.

There’s this notion that the shy guy approaches “the chase” like it’s the “lie there like cold salmon,” simply because he isn’t a people person. That actually describes an introvert  – somebody energized by being alone and easily overstimulated in a crowd but who isn’t necessarily afraid to hit on a girl he’s interested in. But a shy person, instead of having self-esteem, has “what other people think of me”-esteem. This means a woman’s rejection isn’t just a bummer; it’s a crushing confirmation of his worthlessness as anything more than a container of salable plasma.

When a guy’s male role model appears to be grape jelly, it isn’t a woman’s cue to do all the work to make a relationship happen. This is dating, not a pet adoption. Besides, you get what you settle for. A guy desperate for approval is a guy a woman can never count on  – to show her who he really is, to stand up for what he believes in, or, maybe, to even know what he believes (without sticking a wet finger in the air).

A guy like this isn’t someone a woman can respect and admire. That’s essential, because real love involves having a crush on a person as a human being, not taking pity on him for his shortcomings. The shy guy to have is the one who’s worked on himself and come out the other side  – who maybe still fears asking a woman out but manages to do it anyway. This tells her something about her  – that he wants her more than he wants to avoid rejection  – and something about him: that he has the qualities women look for in a man  – courage and character and not just the really basic stuff like a Y chromosome and an ability for point-and-shoot urination.

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