Breaking the shell of shyness

I was a shy child.  I liked to be around people and was very interested in them, but for some reason I found it difficult to talk to unfamiliar people or even to feel that they were looking at me, and I was nervous that I might do something “wrong” that would make people yell at or laugh at me.  Some people continued to seem unfamiliar even when I was around them frequently, so in public settings like school I often spoke very little and tried to pass unnoticed.  (I got teased and harrassed by other kids, which motivated me to keep trying for invisibility…but in retrospect I wonder if it was because I was so quiet that I made a good victim!)  My shyness lasted until I was about 15, and then I began to come out of it gradually. By 18, I could walk up to strangers who seemed to have something in common with me and start a conversation feeling only slightly nervous, whereas at 11 that would’ve made my heart pound in my throat, and before that I was hardly willing to try it at all!

An old friend recently asked about my transition out of shyness, how it worked and what made it happen.  It doesn’t seem completely explainable to me–it felt like my innate temperament changed at some deep biological level–but these are some experiences that I think were helpful:

  • Girl Scouting.  For the first several years I belonged to a troop made up entirely from girls in my grade at my school, but it was nonetheless a different social environment because of the emphasis on group identity instead of individual traits.  Instead of being “that smart girl who dresses funny and watches the wrong TV,” I was just another Girl Scout.  The buddy system set me up to feel close to and able to depend on one person, which helped me not to feel alone and confused.
  • Going door-to-door.  In addition to Girl Scout cookies, I sold occasional other fund-raising items, collected food for the needy, got pledges for the Reading Olympics, etc.  I felt nervous and always had to rehearse what I was going to say in my mind, but seeing that it worked was very encouraging.  (Unfortunately, the usefulness of this strategy is compromised now by our society having decided that kids going door-to-door must be accompanied by a parent.  I never was threatened in any way when I went out alone, and I know I would’ve been much less motivated if my parents had been right there to “save” me from the need to speak.)  I lived in a suburban neighborhood where people mostly kept to themselves, so this was a rare opportunity to meet my neighbors.  Even if I didn’t talk with them beyond the bare minimum necessary, just knowing their names made me less nervous about them.
  • Gifted classes.  While I was already shy before starting school, I felt particularly shy in school once I realized that I was smarter than nearly all the other kids and that they felt alarmed or even hostile when I revealed how much I knew or learned something quickly.  Spending one morning a week in a room full of smart kids, in classes that allowed for discussion beyond “giving the right answer,” I felt more able to speak up without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings or getting teased.
  • Grown-up friends.  Some of these were people who’d talk with me at mostly-adult gatherings I attended with my parents.  Others were teachers who’d let me hang out with them during their playground duty, moms who’d let me hang out with them in the kitchen when I felt left out of a party of my peers, etc.  All of them were adults who were willing to have a genuine conversation with me, rather than taking an “Oh you poor thing, neglected by the normal kids” or “Oh aren’t you cute” attitude.
  • Storytelling.  My mom is a professional storyteller (folktales and such) who convinced me to learn a few stories and perform at the local arts fest.  One of her tips: If you see someone you know in the audience and aren’t sure he/she will be completely supportive, don’t look over there; focus on someone you don’t know who appears to be really enjoying the story.  I was amazed at how effectively that quelled my worries about what people were thinking about me and allowed me to focus on being a vehicle for the story.  Through storytelling, I began to feel confident on stage–my dance recitals and oral book reports caused less panic.  An unexpected fringe benefit was that kids who’d ignored me at school would come up to say, “I saw you telling stories at Sunfest.  You were good!  How did you learn how to do that?” and suddenly we had something to talk about!
  • Having an “advertised” skill.  One of the boys in my fourth-grade class noticed that I was always reading and asked me to help him choose a book in the library.  He liked the book so much that he told everyone I was a good “book recommender.”  That gave them a reason to approach me.  My problem wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to people, it was that I was too nervous about approaching people…so if they not only approached me but did so with the idea that I had a skill that could help them, that was great!  However, this only worked when it was informal and among peers.  Having an authority figure draw everyone’s attention to my skill (for example, a teacher telling everyone that I’d written the best essay and demanding that I read it aloud) was one of the most terrifying things that could happen to me, both in the moment and because of the likely “Teacher’s Pet!” repercussions.
  • Finding the right friends.  I always had a few good friends, but eventually I managed to have a group in which I felt like I could really be myself, let out all my various types of zaniness and be valued for it.  This was especially important once I started to feel less shy, because it was so much fun to go out in public with peers who would encourage me to unfold a little and to stay unfolded even if people were looking at me.

Probably the single worst thing well-meaning adults did was to take me aside for a “little talk” implying that shyness is a personal failing.  All that accomplished was increasing my self-criticism to the point of paralysis.  Already I was afraid to try things in case people might laugh at me or get mad at me for doing it wrong; lecturing me (in that tone that’s meant as sympathy but fails to disguise condescending impatience) about not acting like the other kids only made me feel that I really was getting everything wrong and causing such a shameful problem that the adult had to scold me.  I’m very grateful that my parents never did this.  “Different people are good at different things,” they said calmly.  They helped me warm up to new situations by preparing in advance as much as possible (sometimes we actually did role-playing), taking time to get used to a new place or group, and finding one helpful person to show me the ropes.

So, if you are dealing with a shy person, instead of lecturing I recommend looking for opportunities to give gentle instruction about appropriate behavior in everyday situations.  I wish my parents had told me what to do when someone gives me a compliment, for instance–someone would say, “That’s a pretty dress,” and I’d just blush and cringe and have no idea what to do!  I’m sure I’d seen people say, “Thank you,” in response to a compliment, but somehow I didn’t realize that that was the appropriate response until my best friend (with some puzzlement, in about third grade) told me what I was supposed to say!

It feels better to be less shy.  My daily life is a lot easier and happier than it used to be.  The stage when I stepped out of my shell felt really good–as if I had been stuffed into a too-small container and never realized how cramped I was until I escaped!  But I don’t think anyone else could have made that happen before I was ready.  I needed many years of careful, gradual practice and support to build skills that other people apparently develop in the womb.  I hatched out into a fairly normal person, in my own good time.

P.S. After writing this article and hearing from the mother of a very shy preschooler, I was motivated to look up some articles explaining the difference between shyness and introversion:

  • All About Shyness includes some helpful advice (that is, I found these tips helpful when I eventually heard them!) on navigating social situations.  Important point: Introverts prefer solitary to social activities, but do not fear social encounters like shy people do. “If you see two people standing by a wall at a party,” Carducci says, “the introvert is there because he wants to be. The shy person is there because he feels like he has to be.”
  • Encyclopedia of Mental Health entry on shyness with handy table of symptoms.  (Note that each column in the table is a category of symptoms.  I started out trying to read across the table, thinking that things on a line together were related, and got all confused!)  One symptom that sounds painfully familiar to me is A belief that there is a “correct” protocol that the shy person must guess, rather than mutual definitions of social situations.
  • Caring for Your Introvert is an article first brought to my attention several years ago by one of my favorite introverts, Andy Looney, who is not shy.
  • My first clue that I am, in fact, an extrovert came from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which was used by my university to match people with roommates.  I noticed while answering the questions that I was making myself look like a very social person, and I didn’t think of myself that way, so I considered changing my answers, but I decided that rather than worrying about the result I should just answer each question as honestly as possible.  It wasn’t until I read the explanation of extroversion vs. introversion that came with the results that I realized I was a shy extrovert!


P.P.S. More about shyness.

17 thoughts on “Breaking the shell of shyness

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