On Shyness: I’m too shy to talk about it, so I’m writing it down!

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Shy — Photo by Holger Vaga

Here’s a confession: I have been shy all my life. There, I have said it! Looking at me, you won’t guess it. Neither could you gauge it from the way I talk. But, beneath the confident persona I have created for myself, is my awkward, tortured self.

Why am I admitting this now? Over the years, I have learnt one thing – I’m not alone. Each one of us is shy – may be to different degrees. Nonetheless, every one of us has, at one time or the other, been diffident or tongue-tied. For instance, some people may feel shy when they interact with someone they are attracted to. So, can you truly say that you have never, ever been shy?

What causes shyness?

There is no rhyme or reason behind shyness. Yet, that’s what I generally feel when I’m in a room full of people whom I have never spoken to before. A multitude of thoughts cloud into my head and I feel self conscious. I have to muster up courage before speaking to someone. Sounds familiar to you? Why does that happen?

    • Self esteem issues: Poor self esteem or self image can lead to painful shyness. This could be because of some past experience where you spoke to a stranger and got snubbed or laughed at. As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy. New school? Be prepared for some ridicule before you fit in. I should know; story of my life! And, yes, being bullied also contributes to low self esteem and shyness.
  • Parents, relatives, or teachers who criticise: Let us say, you were a precocious child. Maybe mum or dad scolded you for something that you let slip in front of his or her peers. “Idiot! Not one jot of sense in you. Don’t know when to keep your mouth shut?” or something on those lines… (Happened to me quite a lot!) Continuous put-downing by authority figures can cause a sense of inadequacy. Also, it makes you watch what you mouth.
  • Genetics: There has been some research into finding a gene for shyness, but it is still in the early stages. However, evidence thus far show genetics contributing to roughly half of the foundation of shyness. Also, researchers say about 15% of babies are born shy.
  • Lack of opportunity for social interaction: Strange as it may seem in this day and age, lack of opportunities, especially for children, to interact and develop social skills is an important cause for shyness. Let your children play with others their age. Put them in playschools, send them on play dates, and put them in sports… Schools these days have the concept of “show and tell” to encourage children to talk in front of others – a good tool for overcoming shyness or stage-fear.
  • Language problems: Sometimes, fear of saying the wrong thing can inhibit you from conversing or interacting freely.

What shyness is not

Shyness is not introversion. You may mistake a shy person to be an introvert. An introvert prefers to be left alone and is, for the most part, content to be so. A shy person, on the other hand, cries to be included. He or she wants to connect and be part of a group, but is prevented by a fear of rejection.

Shyness does not mean you are stupid. Lack of social graces may get you labelled as a “loser” or a “nerd” in school. But, just wait until college is what I say. A friend of mine at school was a genius in math, yet incapable of giving coherent answers to teachers’ questions. She felt intimidated at being suddenly the focus of all attention. She would hum and haw while most of the class giggled. Of course, all of that changed later in life and she is now most respected in her field.

Top 5 things to do so shyness doesn’t get in the way

1. Accept that you are shy.
Sweaty palms, racing heart, or a slight paranoia that everyone is looking at you? You are shy, mate! You better accept that, so you can do something about it.

2. Understand what it implies for you to be shy.
This is a tough one. List out the myriad ways your shyness makes you helpless. Does it make you stammer or want to run away? Does it prevent you from talking in public or a before group of people? Do you feel you have to steel yourself? Is it making you anxious? What does your shyness prevent you from doing? Is it hindering your career or higher studies? – List them all down, every sad little fact.

3. Create an action plan.
This is the part I like – it gives me control.

So, like I said, I feared talking to strangers. I realised that this prevented me from getting ahead socially, career-wise, from making real friends. I found that my fear of rejection stemmed from a fear of making a fool of myself… or saying something stupid or laughable. Which is silly, because I am smart, well educated, and witty (in online forums, at least). So, I decided to be a good listener. To begin with, I started posting on online forums. It ensured my anonymity, gave me time to write witty rejoinders, and boosted my confidence. Then, I practiced it on everyone I met. I reasoned that the person I am talking to could also be shy and doesn’t know what to say. So, I hit upon four topics that anyone can safely ask a new acquaintance at a party: Friends, family, work, and hobbies. Oh, did I say four topics? There are five actually; the last one is weather… ha, ha, ha!

I had a set of questions (and variations). I would really, really listen and gently encourage them to talk. I was never pushy and never inappropriate. It took some time, but slowly people found me sympathetic and they were ready to share their troubles. Now that I have the confidence, I converse easily… No more need for prepared questions. Now, when I walk into a party, I don’t have to steel myself. I am normal, I smile readily and easily, say a hullo here and there, I either get called by someone or I push my way into a group and join the conversation. I have even emceed at a show or two. Along the way, I have gained plenty of friends, and some very good, close ones too who know me as I am.

How did I even think at one time that people laughed at me? Looking back, that seems strange! Am I still shy? Maybe… I really don’t know, but not to the extent that I once was.

You can also find out what’s holding you back and chart out a great action plan to propel you forward. Write it down now. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

–        If you have a language problem, smile when you stumble… Most people will help you out. But keep practicing on them anyway. One way to pick up a language is conversation.

“Reading maketh a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man” — Bacon.

–        A friend of mine who had stage fear tackled his problem by joining a laughter club that met once a week – where you had to do stand up comedy. He was not very good initially – a lot of people booed and laughed at him – then he improved, and now people laugh at his jokes.

–        Find like-minded people through online forums – where you can whine or brag and no one will mind… for a while at least. But, it can be fun too and give you confidence.

4. Find the positives of shyness and be proud of them
You didn’t think shyness has positives? There are quite a lot of them. Firstly, you will have lots of free evenings and plenty of alone time… ha, ha! Jokes apart, shyness makes you cautious. Shy people don’t make rash or risky decisions. We are the look-before-you-leap kind. Shyness also gives you the opportunity to observe people and become great listeners. Shy people also score high on family values. Shy people are loyal and sensitive with great empathy. Many shy people are also talented – we are artists, writers, scientists… So, list down those positives and feel proud of them.

By the way, did you know that in some cultures shyness is lauded as a virtue? Shyness is considered as being “modest” and praiseworthy. Not so in a country like ours where we push our child into being competitive. Being bold and brash is preferable here. So, you might mistake an Asian or Hispanic person to be shy, when actually she is not – it is just the way she has been brought up.

5. Act on your plan, but don’t be limited by it.
You have started your great action plan and it is kind of working too. So, what next? Look for more ideas. Join group activities. Shyness goes in tandem with loneliness. Remember, I said shy people actually want to reach out to others? A gym or a yoga class not only keeps you fit, but could bring more people into your circle. Join a book club, if that is more your thing.

And don’t stick to the script. Keep improvising on your action plan. Sky is the limit, as they say.

Anyway, with all the pearls of wisdom that I have been dropping, you are probably wondering who I am, right? Have you met me? Do I work here at the centre? Ah! I’m not telling you just as yet… May be some day I will. I’m shy!

Until then, if you are looking for more help with shyness or social anxiety, the following psychologists at the centre can assist you:

To get an appointment or to make enquiries, please call (03) 9820-5577.

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