Monday, March 30, 2009

Conquering Shyness

[photo credit Madonna Dries Christensen]

The class assignment was to write our top five fears. I don’t remember what I wrote at age fifteen. I only remember what was not on my list--- spiders.

I recall the day because of “him.” He dared to initiate a conversation with a girl who should have written “my own shadow” on her list of fears.

Evan* sat next to me in my high school religion class. I had noticed his ice blue eyes, his straight white teeth framed by tanned skin, and his shaggy caramel colored hair before. Yeah, ok, so he was good looking. Therefore, I felt safe in the fact that he would never talk to me.

Until he did.

Evan, peering over at my list: What? You’re not afraid of spiders?

Me, suddenly aware that those white teeth were flashing at me in a grin, those ice blue eyes crinkled in mirth: __________________________

Yup. That’s what I said all right. Nothing. Instead, I barely shook my head and let my long hair fall down over my face.

I spent the rest of the year hoping for a second chance. I kept my hair out of my face on the side facing him. I positioned my body slightly toward his desk. He never spoke to me again.

My two sisters, one eight years older than I and another four years younger, were spared the shyness gene. Instead, they had the pretty gene. They had long dark hair, were cute and were cheerleaders. Guys loved them. I got stuck with the brains gene.

I have no problem whatsoever admitting that I was a homely child. Where my sisters had thick, glossy, nearly black hair, mine was fly-away mousy light brown. I had buck teeth and glasses. My looks, combined with my love of all things scholastic, qualified me as Nerd Princess, Wallflower Extraordinaire, The Queen of Shy. I dared not speak to anyone first, fearing that if I did, the other person would flag down the police saying, “Officer! Officer! Excuse me, but why is this homely chick talking to me?”

My teen years were excruciating. The thoughtless comments of others didn’t help. My dad loved to party and when his friends came over the alcohol began speaking for them.

“Your sisters are so cute—what happened to you?” Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.
“The way you look all you’ll ever be good for is a bar maid. By the way, bring me another beer.” Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.
“Looks like you’ll be the last one of the sisters to get married.” Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.

I believe they thought that if the room full of men laughed at their comments, it wouldn’t hurt.

Throughout my youth, I retreated into my books--- classics, sci-fi, textbooks, novels, or The Bible. It didn’t matter. A book was a book was a book was an escape.

My shyness level remained constant throughout high school. Rude comments forced me further inside myself, but having a job extricated me back outside. I never had a date. Never went to a dance. If I had to phone someone I would first write down everything I needed to say.

As is typical of many people who experience physical or emotional pain, I found comfort in religion. I pored over the New Testament especially and sought to live a good life. I tried to be moral, loving, unselfish, and kind.

The moment

During my early college years, I made a few changes. I got my braces off, cut my hair and got contacts. And I read something that forever altered my life. I can’t remember where I read it or who wrote it, only that for me, it was a Saul of Tarsus moment. The statement was something like this:

Shy people are the most self-centered people in the world. They think
at any given moment that everyone is watching them, waiting for them
to err, ready to pounce upon their slightest faux pas. If shy people would
only realize the world doesn’t care, they wouldn’t be so shy.

I took great offense at that statement. How dare anyone suggest that I was selfish! I took great care to not offend, to not say anything hurtful, to be a good person. I read my Scriptures constantly. I felt sorry for people who had less than I did. The gall of that author! I knew I was shy, but I was not self-centered.

When I calmed down, I realized that I was a hypocrite. I was self-centered. I thought back to that day at school with Evan. I was thinking only of myself and what Evan would think of me. What if he thought I was weird? What if I said something stupid? How could I respond in a way that was witty or clever? Me, me, me, I, I, I. Did I even once in those brief seconds think about how he felt? Nope.

I reflected on classes in high school or college in which I had to give oral reports. I had obsessed, wondering what would happen if I mispronounced a word or stumbled on the way to the podium. What if my classmates were picking apart my outfit or my hair? I heard not a word of anyone else’s reports. I was too busy hyper-analyzing my own.

Me again. I, I, I.

I was kind, unselfish and good all right--on the inside.

On the outside I was self-consumed, concerned only with how I appeared in every social transaction. If that was not the height of self-centeredness, then what was?

After about one momentous hour of self-introspection, I knew that I had kidded myself for many years. It was time to change.

I vowed that day to start anew.

I would now always volunteer to do oral reports first, rather than wait until the end in hopes that a meteor would strike the earth and I would not have to speak. I would realize that if I did make a mistake it might ease someone else’s discomfort at the fear of making his own blooper. I could then focus fully on what my classmates had to say.

If someone spoke to me, I would give him or her full eye contact. I would listen to what they were saying instead of worrying about what I was going to say. I would realize that if I said something stupid it was OK. It would only give others the freedom to say something stupid too.

I would now externalize my kindness instead of keeping it inside. If someone tripped and fell, I would offer a hand, rather than worrying if they thought I was a weirdo for stopping to help. I would write a note of appreciation to someone, instead of safeguarding that mental note.

I promised to be aware of the shyness of others and try to make them at ease. I would speak first instead of always waiting to be spoken to. I would realize that everyone wants to feel charming, so I would focus on what the other person had to say.

I woke up that morning painfully shy. I went to sleep that night an extrovert.

I had always admired one of our female customers at the restaurant where I worked. Joy was beautiful. She had softly slanting eyes, short dark hair and a perfect set of teeth. Had I heard of Laura Bush at the time, I would have compared Joy to her. She was elegant, impeccably dressed and spoke with a delightful southern accent.

One day I was walking across a grocery store parking lot, ready to shop after work. As I got closer, I saw Joy exiting the store. I felt slightly jealous. Joy, even in the middle of winter, looked beautiful. She was wearing a white coat and gloves with a white furry hat. She looked like a First Lady, I thought, or perhaps some visiting dignitary.

As she stepped off the curb, a car came careening through the slush, into her path. I was too far away to do anything so I watched helplessly as Joy stumbled and lost her balance, trying to get out of the car’s path. She was able to right herself, but the car’s tires splashed mud on her as it continued past, Joy now safely out of the way.

We are all the same, I thought. Even someone as poised as Joy will lose her dignity and her bearing in an effort to save her own life. Strange how a few seconds can change your perspective.

I Changed + My Life Changed= I Changed My Life

It seems odd to say that my life changed overnight, but it did. I stopped being shy in a day and started living a whole new life.

I got asked out on dates—lots of them.

I made so many new friends that I actually had to turn down fun things to do.

I got asked to speak in front of large crowds (300+.) No fear.

Celebrities or community leaders no longer intimidated me. (I knew that if a car was coming at them, they would still look ridiculous trying to save their own lives, right?)

Yeah, I got my teeth straightened and got contacts, but my face still really looked the same. The changes in me had nothing to do with how I looked. The changes came because of how I “out-looked.”

I realize that not all shy people are shy for the same reasons. Many enjoy their shyness and really have no desire to overcome it. Others are shy and not self-centered. But for those who would like to become less shy, I ask you to think of the statement that I read so many years ago, and see if it applies to your life in any way.

If it does, I challenge you to ask yourself if you are mostly thinking about yourself in social situations. And if you are?

To quote Mohandas Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

And yes, the hot chick in the pink cat-eye glasses is me.

*Name changed to protect me, not him


  1. Randi: This is a wonderful piece. And by the way, in addition to all your good qualities, too numerous to mention, you look like your mama, and we know she had the pretty genes.

  2. Auntie M: What a sweetheart! My mama did have a whole lotta pretty going on, didn't she? And all her lovely sisters do too!

  3. Great post!
    And who is that goofy, shy little girl on the other end of the couch?!

  4. Jill: She's cute, huh? She grew up to be an amazingly beautiful woman (inside AND out) who has a hunky hubby and three adorable little bees. Of course it couldn't be otherwise---she's a Sagittarius.

  5. Randi,

    Yes, this is a wonderful piece. You have hit a universal chord here, and I doubt that there is anyone who will read it without a keen sense of having been there and wishing they had done as you did. Hopefully, it will change a few current self-perceptions.

    For me, it's a treasure of ideas that I'll look to distill as a collection of thoughts in the next few days. I'll post with a thanks to you and a link back to this article.


  6. Robert: Thank you so much for dropping by again, and especially for your very kind comments. You made my day. I look forward to seeing what thoughts you have--reading your site is always a treat.

  7. Randi,

    Great post that I've been anxiously waiting for. I have something to say.. but not the time.. so I will be back to comment further about this!


  8. Daisy: I will hold you to that! :) Take care!

  9. It's all about me me me... yesirree. I'd have to agree that shy people are very self-centred.

    I too had my issues (well, I still have some issues, but they're different!) when young, and to this day, I still think I am a shy person, yet when I tell people that, they think I'm being ridiculous.

    What I tell them is that in spite of my shyness, I have found other strategies to deal with it and the situations I find uncomfortable.

    What I have found over and over again (like you mentioned) is that there is always someone more shy than you nearby! Yes, I find myself volunteering for something, speaking up, taking a leadership role, etc etc.. yet when young, you would not have noticed me since I was a wallflower trying to disappear into the background.

    Now my turnaround did not happen as quickly as yours, however, it happened for me too and I'm amazed at the world that has been opened up for me because I have strategies for dealing with it!

    I see the same shyness in my son and I try to show him what's worked for me. I hope he learns the lessons a lot sooner than I - there is no need to go through school years as a wallflower.

    One last thing, you've inspired me to write a post related to this... we'll see when I get to it! :)


  10. Daisy: I like the way you put it---that you can still be shy, but have developed strategies to deal with it. My transition was pretty dramatic. Most people don't get over shyness that quickly. It's more like you have said it--it's about learning strategies to help you cope and function in the world. I think your perspective will help your own son then with his shyness. Thanks for contributing some valuable comments.

    I'll check in to see your post!

  11. This post = awesome. Simply incredible.

  12. Hayden: Thank you! And thanks for stopping by. I always love seeing what you have to say over at Writer Dad's hangout!

  13. Thank you so much for sharing. When I read that quote of yours, it resonated very much with me. I think I've heard similar statements before, but never quite so clearly put. I have always been quite shy and very anxious when asked to do anything public. After reading this I already feel chastised, yet empowered to be different, to be better.

    Keep posting great articles. Even your small ones have been uplifting to me.

  14. Ben: What an inspirational comment! I am glad that the quote from so long ago has helped you feel empowered to alleviate the pain of shyness. (For those who have never been shy, it is excruciatingly painful.) I know not everyone has such a dramatic experience, but for me, it was such an eye-opener, mainly because I had always thought of myself as a good person. I realized that for me, I could no longer be "good" just by thinking about it. It required action.

    Good luck Ben, on your endeavor to ease some of your anxiety and shyness. We know what you're going through.


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