Stand up straight and tell the truth

Beating the ogre of timidity

An 8-year-old girl stands up, gripping volume X of the Encyclopædia Britannica in clammy hands. Her face is flushed, her tongue parched. Her knees wobble as she walks to the front of the class.

“Horses are my favourite animals. Horses evolved from small, fox-like animals over millions of years. Humans began to domesticate them about 6 000 years ago. Horses can be different colours, like black, brown or white. When a horse is white we actually call it a grey, because there are always some darker hairs on a white horse and it is never pure white.” She holds up the encyclopaedia and points to a picture of a white horse.

“Well done Hayley, that was very interesting. Class, did you know that a white horse is called a grey?” says the teacher.

And so, to her relief, she gets through yet another oral presentation.

But the ogre that gripped her that day made itself at home in her mind and bullied her at every social opportunity. Not content with just classroom speeches, it meddled in her entire life, squeezing her throat whenever a boy spoke to her, shrinking her when she tried to stand up to an adult, stealing her words during interviews, and, most awkwardly, randomly setting her face on fire so that all and sundry would know, without doubt, she was timid.

Many years later, with countless uncomfortable social experiences under her belt, this girl landed a job at a wildlife conservation non-profit organisation. She loved animals and had earned herself a degree in nature conservation. But the job wasn’t about cuddling penguins or darting lions. It was about convincing other people to donate their money to the cause. It was about talking to other people.

Everybody was great at public speaking. They did it all the time and were compelling, inspiring, self-confident. Our girl however, still couldn’t even introduce herself to a group of people without blushing. There were others, she noticed, who seem to dislike speaking up. A popular girl who did a spinning class every morning before work. A guy with a PhD who had a way with wild birds. A 50-something Princess Di look-alike. But everybody else was great at public speaking. The CEO demanded that people speak up and say something virtuous at every opportunity. And his 2IC then challenged every word that trickled out. Those who aspired to be them, drove this culture forward. For a shy person, it was stressful, to say the least.

Our girl needed to decide: would she defy their demands, refuse to be heard, stick to her guns and maybe, eventually, just shrivel up in the corner of her dreary little office and die? Or would she accept the challenge, rise to her feet, spread her wings, take off and soar above the clouds with the eagles, like the superhero she was born to be? Well, what choice was there really.

She started a mantra: stand up straight and tell the truth. Every time the nerves sent irrational impulses to her extremities, her lungs would fill up with a little extra air, her shoulders would relax, her voice box would open up and the moral centre of her brain would light up with self-righteousness, knowing she was going to say something good.

She told herself to focus on the other person, consciously. This really worked. She still blushed violently sometimes, but if she ignored it, other people did too. Now that she was paying attention, she though that it was selfish to make other people focus on her self-consciousness. It made them uncomfortable and often got in the way of progress. Of course, she couldn’t really help it, but honestly, she felt, grownups should know better.

Over time, these sparkles of self-discovery began to glow as our girl grew determined to get over herself. Every opportunity to speak to other people was taken. And she prepared for these opportunities. She made an effort to have an informed opinion. She listened carefully to other people’s debates and actively pursued meaningful discussions. She told herself the lives of the wild animals she was tasked to protect depended on it.

And then, she did something astonishing. She sought out opportunities to stand up in front of large groups of strangers and tell them what she was thinking. She offered herself as guest speaker at gardening and bird clubs, schools and pensioners’ entertainment hours. She lamented about the plight of the owls and chastised her listeners for using poisons. She persuaded people, and she got them to part with their money and promise to change their ways.

Three years on, she became that same organisation’s communications manager. She outgrew the clubs and schools and moved on to radio and television interviews. She was quoted in news articles and asked to comment when something of environmental importance happened. She presented a guest lecture to a class of public relations students and she even coached a few colleagues on how to speak to the media. My word, she had come a long way.

Today, our shrinking violet works as a digital consultant for a financial institution. She still frequently blushes, and when she’s tired, she sometimes still struggles to untangle her tongue. But she knows who she is. She knows that if she needs to, or wants to, she is capable of speaking up, with authority. She can persuade with her voice and, now that she’s learnt to focus on the other person, she can even help others to speak their own minds.

She’s come to realise that she’s actually quite normal. That everyone (with maybe a few exceptions) has anxiety around speaking to other people. It’s a mechanism to keep us in check, make sure we consider one another and live in social harmony. We all have it to some extent.

‘Timid, ‘shy’, ‘anxious’, ‘insecure’, ‘lacking confidence’, ‘introverted’ and whatever else you want to call it, that’s just an unkind label for a particular feeling of discomfort. Don’t get hung up on it. It doesn’t define you. You know it’s not life-threatening. You know it’s not useful. You must know that if you face it head-on, you will subdue it. That, if you pay attention, you could even slay it.

Now grab that ogre off your back, look it in the eye and tell it where to go, before it makes a nest in your head and starts breeding.