A Post For Shy People (and the People Who Know & Love Them)
Walk into a room full of people you don't know. Walk up to one random person and start a conversation with them. Then, do it again with another person. And another, and so on, until it's time to go home.
Does this sound like a fun and exciting opportunity to meet and connect with new people?
Or would this be your personal idea of Hell, a nightmare you would beg to wake up from?
For, me it would be Hell, pure and simple. The anxiety that grips my stomach, the constant thoughts of, What should I say? What should I talk about? Are they looking at me because I'm pretty or interesting, or is it because my necklace is backwards or my hair is Something About Mary-ish? Where do I put my hands so it doesn't look like I'm fidgeting or have some weird nervous tic?
The constant stream of terrified thoughts makes it twice as difficult to have the normal conversation that others do with ease.
If this doesn't describe you, then trust me, you have my envy. I admire people who can strike up a conversation, who look forward to talking with new people, and who don't have to deal with 20 minutes of talking themselves into (then talking themselves out of, then talking themselves into) the conversation in the first place.
Outgoing people, I study your technique. I'm in awe of how natural it seems. You mean, you just like talking to people? Any people? Even ones that you haven't talked to before? Huh.
If you're not like me, I'm guessing you at least know someone that fits this description. Your best friend, or your significant other, your child or your Dad. Sure, if they're an adult, they've probably learned to cope. They can hide or downplay their shyness. They can mingle or initiate. They can.
But they hate it.
Secretly, they just want to close the door, turn off the phone, and find an escape. A book, or a movie. Put on the headphones and tune it all out. Pretending to not be shy sucks, and it's draining and it makes us feel anxious and guilty. Because we're us and not them, those people who can talk to anyone with ease.
Anyone who is shy, who has always been shy, knows that from the time we're small kids, outgoing kids are praised for simply being outgoing.
Shy kids are whispered about, often while we're standing right there.
She just needs time to come out of her shell.
He really has trouble making friends with the other boys.
She's always alone . . . he gets picked on . . . he has trouble with eye contact . . .
Us shy kids, we end up thinking, "I'm defective."
"There's something wrong with me."
And people will say it directly to you, too, when you try to explain what, exactly, is so hard for you that the entire rest of the population seems to get. "Oh, you're shy?" They'll say, "Well, why don't you try just being more outgoing?"
Gasp, you're right! Why hadn't I thought of that?
Don't mean to be snarky here, because this has always been said by people who mean well. I actually had that same statement said to me by a significant other who had known me for years. But it's like telling a depressed person to count their blessings . . . they know they should be able to, but when they're depressed, there are no blessings! So they end up feeling depressed and guilty!
When I tell people I'm shy, I always feel like I have to apologize for who I am. "I'm sorry, I'm shy." (Or you can insert naturally quiet, not a people person, socially anxious, or introverted - which is a little different but can go along with being shy - etc.) I feel like I have to offer an apology for being the person I was made to be! It's like saying, I'm sorry, I'm right handed. I'm sorry, I have a fear of heights." My bad!
If you're young, and you're shy (or if you know someone who is and want to show this to them):
I get it. I get it. I was you. I was the little girl who preferred books to people. I was the boy who wanted to drive his Matchbox cars on the comforter, alone.
I dreaded recess because on the days when that one friend wasn't there, or she played with someone else, I would be forced to lurk and look busy. I was a total master at this! I would wander from one spot on the playground to another with purpose, and then when I got there I would locate another spot to move purposefully toward, so nobody would realize I had no friends that day.
I get it. I know how it felt.
I once wet my pants because I was too shy to go into a new babysitter's house after the bus dropped me off, because I'd never met her.
I walked an extra several blocks in 3rd grade after school to avoid having to walk in front of the middle school kids out front waiting for buses.
I was a master at looking occupied or daydream-y to mask the fact that I was the only one in the room with nobody to talk to.
In college I dreaded small group work, and that's all we did! Pair up with these three people you don't know and then speak intelligently.
I wish - I so wish- I could tell you it gets easier when you become an adult, or that you'll grow out of it, as your mother told everyone you would. It doesn't and you won't. You just learn to deal. I'm sorry, I wish I had better news for you. But I'm not going to sugar coat the truth. The only advantage you have once you reach adulthood is that you've had years of dealing with it and have coping mechanisms.
One of my worst phobias is picking up the phone to call someone I don't know. I have to sit for a while and convince myself, It's okay. You can do this. You can call the local hardware store to ask them if their pressure treated lumber is on sale! How ridiculous is that? I know it is, but it's something I've always struggled with and always will.
Some days, I am a master at approaching someone to ask a question. "Excuse me, can you help me?" No problem. Other days, I am so riddled with anxiety about it, it seems easier, smarter, to just find the damn item I'm looking for myself. That's not to say I haven't mostly learned to overcome my natural tendency to shrink. Most of the time I can function with little problem, with few thoughts of, I'm shy and this is hard and stressful. I can small talk the librarian, smile at the customer, order a new part over the phone.
Each time, I experience a small, illogical thrill. I did it! I accomplished this grown up task! And then I walk around for a few minutes like a big shot, planning all the other forward things I will do, until that little voice inside my head says, softly, Hey don't forget . . . you're you. Don't get too carried away.
My bubble deflates, and I realize I will feel like that every time. For someone else, that was normal stuff, but for me it was a big deal, and my shyness wants recognition: Hey! I did that! Now tell me how awesome that was!
If you're like me, if you're shy and always have been, you can learn to not apologize for it. It's not something that needs apologizing for, it's just something that is. You can tell people, "I'm a little shy, especially at first. It's just who I am."
If you're not like me, you may wonder, "What's the big deal? She's whining about talking to people? Puh-lease!" But look around you. Some of the people you care about most might struggle every day to fit in, to feel 'normal,' and to be accepted for their quiet nature, their reserved tendencies, or their struggle to speak up.
You may tell your child, "Go on over there and make friends!" And they'll look at you with terror in their eyes. Because to them, that's on par with introducing themselves to a fire breathing dragon, or jumping into a pit of lava. It's physically uncomfortable and emotionally scary.
If I could tell anyone who has ever felt like I've felt, it's that you can be both a shy person and an awesome person.
You - shy person in the corner, reading on the phone - you can be shy and awesome.
You - shy person who hates entering a crowded room - can be shy and also be a pro behind the scenes where you don't have to put yourself on display.
Your shyness is part of who you are, as much as your preference for winter or your ability to play music from memory, and you can make it work for you. It took me many years before I was able to understand that I couldn't hide from life behind the "I'm shy," excuse. Instead, I just needed to accept that it's just the way I am and move on with life.
Whatever you do, don't forget that being shy has many strengths: you are a good listener, you have strong observation skills, you often take the time to think before saying or doing something, you don't often have to deal with foot in mouth disease, you have long-lasting and deep friendships, and when you do contribute, it's often well thought out and meaningful.
Being shy isn't a curse, a flaw, or a defect, even though it can feel that way sometimes. It's simply who you are, and you're awesome.
Note: I have used to word shy in this post to stand for a group of behaviors that are related, and that all point to a difficulty in social interaction stemming from childhood. Some of what I've described could be attributed to both shyness and to being an Introvert, which I know & understand are slightly different, but it read awkwardly to put both words every time or to try the slash thing: shy/introvert. For the record, a shy person has a learned fear of social interaction in varying degrees, from mild to debilitating. An "Introvert" is a person with an inner focus who recharges his batteries with alone time and introspection. You can be comfortable interacting with people and be an Introvert! You can be shy and mainly an Extrovert. I happen to be shy AND an Introvert, so . . . double whammy for me.