What’s the difference between a quiet person (an introvert) and a shy one? Confidence.
I’m proud to be an introvert as well an almost fully recovered shy person. Most of the times I’m not shy anymore, but that self doubt does creep up on me every now and then in certain social situations. Growing up I was painfully shy and it impacted my ability to make friends, participate in school, and generally live a full life.
Here’s a look at what my life was like:
- Books were my best friends at school. I could read or pretend to read at the beginning and end of every class rather than interact with peers and look like a loser who didn’t have any friends.
- Books were my best friends at home. I actually really do like to read and since I didn’t have many friends, this was my main source of entertainment.
- I dreaded being called on in class. Most of the time I knew the answer, but I HATED having all of the attention focused on me.
- Part two of why I hated being called on in class. I have a serious blushing problem and my face would turn a million shades of red whenever I got called on thus increasing my anxiety. Having kids snicker at my discomfort did nothing to quell my anxiety. I had one teacher who told the class that he called on me once a day just so he could see me blush.
- Turning in tests was stressful. Why? Because I had to walk across the room in front of everyone and I truly believed that everyone was staring at me noticing all of my flaws. Throwing away my trash at lunch was a long, miserable hike for me as well.
- Recess, morning free time, lunch, and field trips were lonely. Generally this is a kid’s favorite part of the school day because they can hang out with friends. Not so much for me. I generally had one or two closer friends, but often was ranked number three or four on their list of friends. This didn’t make me feel very secure. Free time was generally spent on the outskirts of some random group of people.
Shy people are their own worst enemies who engage in three very destructive thought patterns: extreme self-consciousness, excessive negative self-evaluation, and excessive self-preoccupation. My negative inner dialogue was incessant and sabotaged most attempts I made at stepping out of my safety zone.
Here are the types of things I worried about in middle and high school:
- My feet are too big.
- I’m so boring.
- No one’s going to be partners with me.
- Are my pants high waters?
- I hope I don’t have to eat lunch alone.
- I’m sooo flat chested. (This was pointed out to me several times in high school, once by a boy when I was on my way back from turning in a test!)
- Why do I have to be so quiet?
- Does my outfit match?
- I hope there’s not food stuck in my braces.
- Oh no! Did I wear this outfit last week?
- Why can’t I ever think of anything to say?
- Are they laughing at me?
At some point in high school, I made a conscious decision not to be shy anymore. I was so, so tired of standing by and watching the parade go by. I wanted to be in the parade! After reading a book about overcoming shyness, I announced to my parents that I was done with being shy. Each day I set mini-goals for myself to achieve that would help me break free of my fear and overwhelming self-consciousness.
Here are some examples of my mini-goals:
- Smile and make eye contact with five people in the hall today.
- Raise your hand and answer a question in each class today.
- Don’t read in the beginning of two classes today and instead talk to people who sit nearby.
I couldn’t get over how good I felt at the end of each day when I accomplished my goals. It was surprising to me that I was able to do these things that I thought were so impossible! I’m pretty sure that no one at my school noticed that I was slowly easing my way into humanity. This was actually a great lesson that I needed to learn: The Whole World Is Not Watching You! Everyone was so busy with their own lives that they really didn’t give more than a quick second (if that) to think about me. Phew! What a relief!! No one cared if my feet were size nine. No one remembered…or cared… if I wore my monogrammed navy blue cardigan last week or the week before.
Letting go of my invisible audience and critical inner monologue were both key in working to overcome my shyness. The next step was figuring out how to have an actual conversation with someone. Being awkward and tongue-tied came naturally to me so this required some serious effort. I read a lot of books and articles about being a sparkling conversationalist, observed people, and picked up a few tips from my dad.
Here’s what I learned that I still practice today:
- Ask lots of open-ended questions; people like to talk about themselves.
- Be a good listener. Focus, ask follow up questions, make eye contact.
- Avoid the poker face. Smile, nod, provide verbal affirmation.
- Keep up to date on current events, sports, issues, local events, etc.
- Be sincere and genuine in your interest in whomever you are conversing with.
- Go into social situations prepared with a few interesting things lined up to talk about.
- If you are thrown the ball of conversation, don’t drop it. NO one word answers or shoulder shrugging! This is where the prep work comes in…grab something from your prepared list and talk!
*Most conversations I have tend to be about 70% listening and 30% talking. This is fine with me because I’m a pretty private person who happens to find other people incredibly interesting.
Pitfalls along the path to overcoming my shyness were plentiful. My first year at college was painful with a capital P. I was homesick and lonely and just didn’t know how to get out there and join in the fun. Entering a room full of laughing college kids and introducing myself seemed harder than my chemistry and physics class combined. After a miserable first semester, I began setting mini goals for myself once again, tried my first Jello shot, and soon I felt like a real-live college student!
Other shyness flare-ups have occurred sporadically throughout my life. Attending official military events where everyone is dressed up and often putting on airs sometimes throws me off my game. Groups of women who know each other well can be difficult for me to approach as they often seem reluctant to open the doors of acceptance. These situations tend to get my inner critic rattling in my ear again.
Living life in the shadows, as a painfully shy person, was unacceptable to me and overcoming this is one of my proudest accomplishments.
More info on shyness/introverts:
Introverts are people who are energized by spending time alone. Socializing for too long can be draining for introverts and they recharge by doing something quiet on their own or by spending time with people whom they are very comfortable with. Even introverts with good social skills find too much “people time” draining.
Shy people are often focused on how they will be judged by others and have a harsh inner critic. Shyness is ultimately the result of being uncomfortable with oneself. People who are shy often would love to connect socially with others, but do not know how to do so or are too afraid to try.
Did you know that there is no shyness gene? Some experts believe that shyness is a learned trait, a habit that can be broken. Oftentimes, parents will repeatedly introduce a child as “my shy one” thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps these “shy children” are actually introverts or children who are learning the complexities of social interactions.