Monday, January 21, 2008

How To Conquer The Shyness Within

I used to be a very shy person. When I was in high school, I would walk down the hallways while staring at my shoes. It’s not that my shoes were just so darn attractive - I feared that if I made eye contact with someone, that person would force me into conversation, and it would be painful. My brain wouldn’t work, I’d start to sweat buckets, and if I did manage to say something, it wouldn’t make any sense (like, "My arms aren’t always this straight, you know.").

I was a pathetic case, all right.

But I got better. For all you shy and introverted people out there, there is hope.

First of all, let’s distinguish between being shy and being introverted. There is a difference, though often the two go hand in hand. In a nutshell, being shy means that you’re uncomfortable having attention on you. Being introverted means that you draw your energy from alone time (being by yourself). On the other hand, extraverts get their energy from interacting with other people. Typically, if you’re shy, you’re also introverted. But you can be introverted, and not necessarily shy (or not terribly so, anyway).

I am both. When I was younger, my shyness was the stronger of the two. I wanted to interact with other people; I wanted a boyfriend and friends to talk to and laugh with, like I saw everyone else doing, but I just couldn’t make my tongue work when it came to actually speaking words. I am less shy now, but probably more introverted. I like my alone time. It may have to do with being a stay-at-home mom with 3 kids always badgering me. But I’m just guessing here.

So what did I do to overcome my shyness? I practiced. I forced myself to engage in conversation. I forced myself even though I ended up saying some really stupid things. I’d accidentally switch two words around or say something I really didn’t mean at all like, "I just love orange pop!" I hate orange pop. But I was probably trying to impress someone drinking orange pop. Dumb, huh? Mistakes are going to happen, though. The good thing is that most people either don’t notice them, or if they do, don’t care. If they do care and belittle you for it, then they’re not who you should be hanging out with. Plain and simple. That took me a long time to learn.

I found that a good place to practice is to join an informal group of people who are talking and chattering (you know, those outgoing types). There was no pressure to talk, I could just sit and listen if I wanted. But I knew I had to practice, so, when I was ready and there was a lull, I contributed something (after thinking it through and then rehearsing it a hundred times). Once the words were said, I could safely retreat.

Here are some more tricks I tried: If I had to make a phone call, which I hated doing like the plague, I’d write what I needed to say on a notecard. That way I had the relevant details (like my name) right in front of me when my mind would go blank (in the beginning, it inevitably did). I also used cognitive exercises, telling myself that the person I was talking to didn’t know me, didn’t really care, anyway, and just wanted to take my pizza order. I practiced in the mirror. I told myself that I didn’t look any funnier than the next person (even if I did, who cared?). I had to be my own personal cheerleader. It wasn’t easy and I worked like mad at it. My ego took some real beatings (and funnily enough, I was the one doing the beating), but eventually I got better.

As I grew more confident, I took on bigger challenges. I got a little crazy with it, though, because one of the things I decided to do when I was a sophomore in college was volunteer to be in a debate in front of 200 freshmen - twice. There were other people there and I somehow managed to speak my piece and even defend it. No one booed me. No one told me that my hair looked funny. I survived. Life was getting easier, I thought. Then, as a member of this particular committeee, I foolishly agreed to give a speech to a roomful of deans, provosts, professors, and college presidents. I was 19. I was very grateful for the full-length podium because one of my legs shook like mad during the entire speech. But I got through it, shaky leg and all, and they even laughed in all the right places.

It wasn’t easy to do these things and everything in me rebelled against them. But still I forced myself to take part in socializing and speech giving. Somewhere inside me I knew that I would have to overcome this problem of mine if I wanted to achieve some of the things I wanted to do in life (like get a boyfriend - I know it’s not all about getting a man, but come on!). Actually, I just got tired of being lonely and ignored and overlooked. If I wanted to be heard, I was the one who was going to have to force the issue. No one was going to do it for me.

Remember this phrase: Fake it until you make it. Some experts don’t agree on this, or have come up with other phrases, but basically I think this one is the best. You have to act like you know what you’re doing, even when you don’t - especially when you don’t. Eventually, you actually will - for the most part. I’m not saying be fake or not yourself, just pretend that you can do this stuff. You really can put your thoughts into words. Take chances in talking to people - maybe start with your grocery bagger. "Those sure are some nice plastic bags." Or, "Do you think I should try out the renewable ones?" Most people are relatively forgiving and patient and are willing to help you along. Okay, maybe not in high school - that’s just a jungle, but maybe more so in the outside world. You will probably come across a lot of shy people out there who can empathize with you and want to help you. If you come across a meanie - and you will - then move on because they aren’t worth your time, and are probably just as miserable as you are (or worse, so count your blessings!).

Being shy is not a bad thing. But when it controls your life and keeps you from achieving the things you want, then something has to change. Remember when you learned how to ride a bike or to read or write? You had to practice at it. It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of falls and broken pencil leads, but you kept trying, right? This is the same thing. Just keep in mind that you’ve spent a lot of your life being shy; it’s going to take some time to unlearn some old and very strong habits.

But I believe you can do it! Now just believe in yourself.

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