From Shy, to Oh My! Overcoming Shyness

You know that kid who sat in the back of the classroom and always had her nose in a book? Who looked confused, nervous, and scared when you addressed her directly? Who fumbled over her words because she couldn’t understand why you had even the remotest interest in speaking to her? You know someone like that? Oh, wait, is that you? Well, that was me too.

I was always the tallest kid in my class, and I began puberty before everyone else. Since I looked different from the rest of my classmates, I felt like I was different. It made me feel disconnected from them. Throw in a few fat jokes from kids I considered my friends, and you had a recipe for a self-esteem so low that it dwelled somewhere in the depths of a self-imposed hell. By the end of elementary school, I was quiet and reserved — an outsider within my peer group.

In middle school, I expressed to my father that I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other kids at my school. He took me to the bookstore and handed me a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. He said, “When I was about your age, my best friend was in this book.” I took it home and read it with a fervent desire to find a true friend somewhere in its pages. It took me all of seventh grade to finish it, but with every page I read, I sympathized more and more with the main character’s plight. Being betrayed by the very people he considered his friends would’ve been hard on anyone — it certainly was hard on me. With each betrayal the protagonist suffered, he became nearer and dearer to my heart; he became my trusted friend. Through his experiences, and my own, I learned that people were not to be trusted. Opening up to people only got you hurt.

It wasn’t until college that I started coming out of my cocoon of shyness, and experienced what it could be like to be a social butterfly. I had a car, so I had the freedom to take myself anywhere. I used my new-found freedom to go to a couple of house parties and club-sponsored events, at which I was, of course, socially awkward and stuck like glue to the friend with whom I had come. I made casual, transitory friendships with some of my classmates while we worked on school projects, or occasionally asked each other for the notes we missed from the previous class. I sometimes got together with classmates to study for the next big test, and we helped each other learn what we needed to ace it. I usually didn’t initiate conversations with my classmates, organize study groups, or lead group projects, but I did learn that people could help each other, and that most people had the capacity to communicate with you in positive ways. I started to trust people again.

After a few presentations in college, in front of large classrooms full of students, who were just like me, I felt more at ease talking to more than one person at a time. But I still found myself very anxious at the thought of spontaneously initiating a conversation with a (gasp!) stranger, because who cares what I have to say anyway, right?

I went on to get my Master’s in Clinical Psychology. I learned a bit about why people tease or say mean things to other people. We each have our own unique experiences that help to shape who we are, what we say, and how we behave. That being said, some people with low self-esteem externalize their feelings (for example, they call people names or behave in ways that are considered disruptive to others) and other people internalize their feelings (for example, they sit quietly reading or writing angsty poetry and stories — I totally fell into this category). We each deal with our low self-esteem and our insecurities in our own ways.

In graduate school, I learned that speaking negatively to yourself (for example, telling yourself, “You are so bad at talking to people.”) contributes greatly to lowering your self-esteem. I realized that I had internalized all of the teasing I experienced in my childhood, and created a negative voice in my head that puts me down anytime that I allow it. Even now, that negative voice constantly attempts to make its way back into my life and tries to drag my self-esteem and self-confidence down to those fiery depths where they once dwelled. Thanks to this realization, I learned how to tell that voice to shut up, preventing it from undoing all of the progress that I’ve made.

In my second year of graduate school, I was still uncomfortable initiating spontaneous social interactions with people. My cheeks would turn a bright pink and I would feel as if they were on fire at the mere thought of saying, “Hello,” to someone sitting right next to me while we were waiting to have our nails done. Then, my future husband walked into my life with a swagger that stunk of confidence and well-adjusted social skills, and he told me something that would completely change the way I saw the initiation of spontaneous social interactions forever. He nonchalantly said, “Who cares what other people think? You’ll probably never see them again anyway, so say whatever comes to mind. If you like someone’s shirt, tell them you like it. You’ll make them feel good about themselves, and it’ll make you feel good that you said what you were thinking.” Say whaaaaaaat?! At that very moment the earth shook, the clouds parted, and the realization hit me like a coconut to the head: He was absolutely right! I could just spontaneously initiate a conversation with anyone as long as what I said was genuine, and could be helpful to them. The first few spontaneous interactions I attempted were a little awkward. I was like a baby deer stumbling all over my words. But, the more I practiced, the easier and less anxiety-producing my interactions became. Now, if I see a person with a cool shirt that I like, I say, “Hey! Cool shirt.” If I see a person who looks lost, I ask, “Can I help you find something?” I’m a total pro at spontaneous social interactions — or, at least, that’s how I see myself. For all I know, people find conversations and interactions with me to be very awkward, but, you know what? Who cares? Because I will probably never see them again, anyway.

And, presto! Just like that — with years of practice and hard work — I went from shy to — Oh my! — I’m communicating with others, even strangers, with little to no anxiety.

So if you find yourself feeling shy, just remember to never believe any of the mean things that people may say to or about you; tell that negative inner-voice to shut up; be genuine and helpful when communicating with others; and talk to anyone you feel inclined to, because, even if it is an awkward interaction, it doesn’t matter — you’ll probably never see them again, anyway.

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