“The shell must break before the bird can fly.” Tennyson
When I was in High School, people thought I was a stuck-up snob because I wouldn’t speak to them. It’s not that I didn’t want to, just that I didn’t know how. I had no self confidence, and was very shy. One on one with someone I knew reasonably well, I was alright, but I was never able to do well in a group situation. I never wanted to put my hand up in class and answer a question. I hated anything that would draw attention to myself. When I was eight, my parents placed my photo on the children’s birthdays segment on afternoon television, and I was embarrassed and horrified.
I’m not as traumatised as an adult, but if I have to take the initiative in a social situation, I still hang back and would rather hide than come forward. I just don’t know how to start a sparkling conversation. I am a loner. I love people, but I’m far from gregarious or confident. Can you relate to this? Shyness is a common problem, and most people experience it to some degree. It can be a awkward personality trait which causes us discomfort, or a major handicap. When you become a hermit when you don’t want to be, or experience severe anxiety or panic attacks in social situations, then you have a very serious problem. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
Shy kids may not just “grow out of it.” Shyness is a behaviour that is learnt in childhood, and can become a life pattern. It’s root is anxiety and insecurity. When your self esteem is low and you are afraid of being rejected by other people, it can be easier to avoid them and stay safe. The problem is, shy people want social contact, and the isolation can create depression and stop you from achieving the lifestyle, maybe even the career, that you want. Negative experiences when you reach out to people just teach you to hold back more, and shyness can become a self validating cycle.
It takes time and courage to conquer shyness. One of the best ideas is to start working on your shyness in a safe place. Join a hobby group or a small group where you are with people who have similar interests, and who you feel the most safe with. Try finding a situation where you are more comfortable and feel you can be yourself. Don’t place pressure on yourself to handle the situation like a social butterfly first time. Change and success come in small steps. You do have to make some effort to be sociable, but you don’t have to be perfect, and it’s OK not to be. Sometimes our expectations of ourselves to be witty, vibrant, interesting and intelligent all at the right moments, are the biggest problem. If we fail in our own high expectations, we won’t want to try again, even if we did receive a good response from others.
If people pass you by, don’t worry. There will always be some people you get on well with, and people you don’t. You will find other people who genuinely like you for you, and understand how difficult it can be to feel shy. I found that having to work with people I had to communicate with was one of the best ways to overcome my shyness. I had no choice, I had to perform ready or not, and people were very supportive. When people know you are struggling, they can be very kind. It has been a long, slow learning process, and I am not as comfortable with people as I would like to be yet, but I am getting better.
Let your disasters go, and summon the courage to keep moving forward and making new friends, step by step, week by week. Any changes we make in our lives take courage, persistence and determination, and overcoming shyness is no different. Change takes time, as you are learning new skills, but as your confidence builds, the process will get easier. So be brave, plan a regular, safe social encounter and enjoy getting to know people. No matter what you believe about yourself, you have inestimable value. Every individual has their own combination of gifts and talents, positive traits and strengths. You are worth as much as anyone else. Give it your best shot, and don’t get jaded by disappointment. You can win over shyness, it just takes time.
This article by Cate Russell-Cole is under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Written in Australian English.