When I was a kid, I used to wish I could shrink down so small that I could fit into a hole in one of the walls of the family home. Not even a mouse could squeeze its way into this hole it was so tiny, and the inside was dark, cold and filled with more bugs and beasties than an Indiana Jones film. It was hardly a nice place, but when I was scared – when I had to give a presentation, or work as part of a group, or speak to anyone I didn’t know – that cold, dark hole seemed like paradise.
I was back then, and remain today, incredibly shy, and I find myself struggling to do things that most others seem to find easy. I’m too scared to make new friends. I shrink away from nights out. I can’t quite push myself out on a date, or join that interesting club, or say hi to that person wearing the T-shirt of a band I like. The dark hole is more appealing than ever as an adult, but also more perilous: it’s a black hole and the last thing you want is to get sucked into it.
Shyness seems easy to understand because it’s regarded as pretty common. Most people are shy to some degree and so it’s seen as more of a personality trait than a serious affliction: she’s funny, he’s an optimist, this person’s a bit shy. I’m not trying to downplay the shyness we all feel, but the perception that shyness is a common thing has led to it being seen in the same way as learning to ride a bike. If you fall off, don’t get discouraged, just jump back on and try again.
Sadly, that’s not the nature of the beast. Speaking from experience, I know that if a shy person fails when trying to push themselves out of their comfort zone, it’s not as simple as just trying again. The real difficulty for the shy person isn’t just the moment they’re feeling shy in; it’s the before and after. Preparing for something you know will make you feel shy is an agonising and exhausting process of rumination as you pick apart pressure points. The same is true of the aftermath, where you deconstruct everything you feel has gone wrong. It doesn’t matter if anything actually did. All that does matter is that you feel like it did.
Like most anxiety disorders, shyness is a mismatch of perception and reality, but it does eventually come to colour your reality. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and a vicious circle rolled into one: by removing yourself from the positions you might feel shy in you become less able to deal with them and consequently, you feel more shy. At 33, I’ve let my shyness dominate my life for so long that it’s become my defining trait and cut me adrift from a lot of key experiences. I’ve never had a girlfriend, rarely go on nights out and struggle to verbally articulate myself. It’s why I write. Behind a keyboard, I feel much less panic-stricken than I do in person.
All that sounds pretty depressing, but it’s not all that bad. I’ve got a good life and a small group of great friends. With help from them, I’m working on being more social, I just wish I’d done it a little sooner. So, if you’re in a similar position (especially if you’re younger than I am), try to do the same. It’s not easy, and I’m certainly not going to use the same cliches you’ve probably heard incalculable times already. But I will conclude this piece by offering some hints and tips.
1. Talk to someone
Try to find someone a little more outgoing than you and who you’re comfortable with, and talk to them about your shyness. It really is true that everyone feels shy at some point or other, they’re just better at hiding it. An outgoing friend may have some advice on how to hide it, and even if they don’t, or that advice doesn’t quite work for you, they can act as a confidante and maybe even someone you can go on nights out with and creep out of your comfort zone alongside.
2. Accentuate the positives
You’ve probably been told time and again not to think about any negatives you may have perceived about your performance in a social situation. I’m not going to say that because I know what you know: it’s hard to stop yourself. Instead, I’m going to suggest a different approach. Look back, but do so positively. For any negatives you perceive, try to think of a positive. Maybe weigh them up against each other, because I bet the positives outweigh the negatives. And don’t forget: the fact you put yourself in that situation at all is a positive in itself.
3. There is nothing wrong with you
Being shy can make you feel like an outsider: you struggle to fit in and people’s genuine attempts to help make you feel like you’re an abnormality. But you’re not. It takes all kinds of people to make up the world. You have every right to be shy, you have every right to be quiet, you have every right to be you. Indeed, there are plenty of people out there who’ll love you for who you are. Finding them is harder when you’re shy, but the process begins not by feeling you need to change, but by learning how to deal with the situations you struggle with.
It’s daunting, it’s scary and I can guarantee that you’ll want to climb into a small, dark hole at some point. But step by step it can be done.
Thanks, as always, for reading…