Shyness: An Insider’s Point of View

Please note: I am not a mental health or medical professional.  These are just my personal thoughts and opinions on living with shyness. 

According to the American Psychological Association website (apa.org): “Shyness is the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people. Severely shy people may have physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, a pounding heart or upset stomach; negative feelings about themselves; worries about how others view them; and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.”

This definition provides a perfect description of my personal experience with shyness. I often experienced the above listed symptoms especially during my high school and college years; I still experience them on occasion although not as intensely. If you suffer from shyness you are already well aware of these physical symptoms but probably find that those around you are completely oblivious to the painful and debilitating ways in which shyness affects you on a daily basis.

Many people don’t seem to understand that shyness affects every aspect of your being. It can turn the most mundane tasks and interactions into nerve-wracking and uncomfortable experiences. Shyness robs you of self-confidence and the belief in your ability to achieve your dreams. It convinces you that everyone else will find success in their chosen endeavors, but you are only destined for failure. It plays tricks on your mind until you’re convinced you are just not worthy or good enough to enjoy all that life has to offer.

There is no doubt, shyness can make life miserable. But, the good news is, it is not unbeatable. If you are currently struggling with shyness and its unpleasant side-effects, believe me, there is a light at the end of the tunnel! I am writing this as someone who was once deeply entrenched within her own shyness but who now finds herself not quite so encumbered by this intrusive behavioral characteristic. During the past several years, I have discovered three important things about living with shyness.  I would like to share those here in the hope that they may provide some comfort and encouragement and perhaps even convince you that it can get better.

1. The Awkward Moments Don’t Matter
Everyone experiences awkward and embarrassing moments at one time or another.  For most people these moments come and go without much interference upon their daily lives. This is not the case for shy people; at least it wasn’t for me. On those days when I committed what I perceived to be yet another epic social faux pas, it stayed with me for days or even longer. I would relive it over and over in my head, cringing and obsessing over my social ineptitude. This reliving of the situation in question inevitably made it seem even more horrifying and embarrassing than it was in reality. I wasted so much energy on rehashing awkward and embarrassing moments that it often left me emotionally and physically exhausted. Only later in life did I finally realize that these awkward and embarrassing moments don’t matter. Contrary to what my head kept telling me people were not thinking about what I did that day once they went home. They had their own lives to lead and their own business to attend to; I didn’t factor into their lives outside of school or work.

If you find yourself reliving your latest social fumble, remember that you’re the only one doing so.  It is very likely that any “witnesses” have forgotten about your perceived cringe worthy behavior long before you finally stop obsessing about it. I understand the idea of simply brushing off these awkward moments is easier said than done. You may need to distract your mind until you move past the reliving/obsessing stage.  Try to direct that train to another track! Some professionals suggest writing down these moments listing everything that happened according to your perception and then rewriting them as you would have liked them to happen. Once you’ve done that, file it away and don’t look at it again. Or, allow yourself a set amount of time to ponder the incident but then deposit it in your mental trash folder and do not allow your brain to use it as ammunition against you later.

Listen, shyness is difficult to live with. It may seem like you have more than your fair share of embarrassing moments.  The inherent traits of shyness just seem to lend themselves to embarrassment – we don’t react the same way to everyday activities as our more confident peers do. For example, blushing and breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of being called on in class is not the average reaction of most students. Your shyness can cause normal, everyday situations to seem scary and more difficult to handle than they are for those around you. Try to give yourself a break. You’re only human and you’re dealing with this behavior as best you can. Remember – most people are not going home thinking about what you did that day and more than likely whatever you’re obsessing over was probably not as bad as your imagination is making it out to be.

2. It’s Not Your Fault
I often felt I was being blamed or punished for my shyness which eventually just made me angry. There were many teachers who became frustrated with me because I did not feel comfortable speaking up in class. It was usually these teachers who then made it their mission to yank me out of my shell. Others would compare me to fellow teenagers, “Why can’t you be more like (insert name here)? She’s so outgoing and friendly.” Even innocent comments from my peers like “you’re so quiet” or “you never say anything” made me feel like a bit of a weirdo.

Comments such as these and the incessant desire of others to force you out of your shell can make you feel as though there is something wrong with you. When people become frustrated that their “good intentions” aren’t paying off, it can feel as though you’re being punished for something you cannot help. As far as I know, no one chooses to be shy.  Shyness is not fun. No one wants to feel socially inept, have zero confidence in themselves, or feel excluded from normal experiences because they are trapped in their own mental prison of sorts.

Shyness is not your fault. You did not choose shyness. If you find yourself becoming angry because you feel as though you are being punished for your shyness, you may find it useful to write down the things that make you angry and why. If you have a friend or family member who is willing to listen, ask if you can explain how living with shyness affects you. This may not help in school or at work, but you may feel better knowing you have expressed your concerns to someone who will support you and who can help you become an advocate for yourself.

In my opinion, people who struggle with shyness should be allowed to emerge from their shells in their own time. Forcing someone out of their shell is rarely successful. This may contradict medical and mental health advice, but I can only speak from my personal experience. It did nothing for me to be forced into participation – I changed when I was ready to change.

3. It Can Get Better
Although you may not believe me, shyness does not have to be a life sentence. Again, I am writing this as someone who was once quite heavily entrenched in her shyness but who has since been able to do things that once seemed impossible. I have led meetings and made small presentations; I have auditioned for a play (and miraculously got the part), and I managed to speak up in front of 11 strangers while serving on jury duty for a week in 2014. I am not sharing these accomplishments to brag, I am sharing them to demonstrate that anything is possible once you are ready to battle your shyness.

In my mid 20s, I finally decided I was tired of my shyness holding me captive. One of my first “breakthroughs” occurred in my third job after graduating from college. My boss at the time (a very outgoing, dynamic gentleman) asked me to meet with a small group of student workers to discuss their work schedules.  I had never led a meeting before and I began feeling panicky almost as soon as he mentioned this assignment.  But, he did something not many people had done before – he acknowledged that this was going to push me out of my comfort zone. There was something about this outgoing individual recognizing my shyness and the fact that I was ready to challenge myself that made me willing to try rather than recoil in terror. I didn’t necessarily jump for joy when the day arrived, but I muddled my way through it without falling apart. This was a significant boost to my confidence and I was able to use this success as a foundation to build future successes.

Though you may not think so as you’re sweating it out in class, praying you don’t get called upon, or as you’re walking through the hallways with your head down, there will come a day when you tire of being held captive by your shyness. You will want to fight back and break free from your prison. When you are ready to do battle remember to take baby steps. It doesn’t matter how insignificant or small your victories seem to others, what matters is how they help you. All you need is that first, small victory to prove that you are worthy of participating in life and that you have just as much right to pursue your dreams as everyone else.

A Word to Parents, Teachers, Friends, and Family:

Shyness is a painful and debilitating issue. It is not fun and I’m certain no one willingly chooses to be shy.  I certainly did not. If you are the parent, teacher, or friend of someone who struggles with shyness, I hope you’ll tread lightly.  Try to resist the urge to force them “out of their shell” before they’re ready. If you must help, then adopting a softer, more encouraging approach usually works best. Recognize their struggles and reassure them that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to although they still may remain unconvinced.  Never make an issue of their shyness in front of others; they’ll have a difficult time trusting you if you do. Do not compare them to other students, friends, siblings, or relatives. Have faith that they will overcome their shyness in their own time and on their own terms.

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