Shyness can be one of the most debilitating character traits. I’m not talking about the kind of shyness where if someone compliments you , you blush… I’m talking about severe shyness, the kind where you simply can’t approach people, you can’t talk to people, you can’t make requests and sometimes you’re too scared to even make a phone call.
It is self-doubt that leads us to being shy. It is very much related to how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us and the importance we attach to how others perceive us. It is not our personality, as some psychologists would have you believe. Self-doubt is a negative characteristic that can be eliminated, and shyness is a character flaw that nobody needs to live with if they are seeking help in overcoming it.
Individuals have an intense fear of being scrutinized by others. They expect to be humiliated or embarrassed. It is sometimes described as feeling ‘anxious about being anxious’. The anxiety is so severe that these individuals will avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable. As a result, there can be huge effects on their work, home and social lives. The social isolation brought about by their condition can be very depressing.
I remember my first day at university. In between classes, I went to the cafeteria. I looked around and was overwhelmed by the number of people surrounding me. A feeling of uneasiness fell upon me, and I wasn’t sure which direction to head in. I generalized each table in a few seconds and out of desperation, walked towards the first table that seemed the least threatening.
When going to lectures, I tried to arrive early. I didn’t like being late because that meant walking into a room full of people, interrupting the class and attracting too much unwanted attention. If I walked into a crowded lecture, I always sat at the back, not wanting to sit at the front and risk being asked a question. I was never the type to raise my hand in class and was extremely jealous of the people who had no problems asking questions and engaging in healthy debates with professors. If I didn’t’ understand something, I would rather stay quiet and figure it out at home, rather than ask the question and risk looking like a fool.
Although I was incredibly social in small groups, developed wonderful one on one relationships, I found it difficult to act naturally in large groups. For me, it was painfully uncomfortable to walk into a room full of unfamiliar people and simply blend in, especially when I wanted to be well received based on first impressions.
According to a study in New York Times (Dec 18, 1984), being in a room full of strangers is the number one social fear, even above the number two fear – speaking in public. Nobody likes to be put on the spot in proving themselves worthy to be accepted by their peers. It incites a feeling of anxiety, or as some would describe it, shyness. Studies have been done that conclude that 75% of adults experience anxiety when at a large gathering with strangers. The shyness I felt, it seems, is more common than I thought.
The fact is that the majority of people are in the same boat as me, perhaps not to the same extent as I was, but to a certain level. Some people are just better at hiding their insecurities and fears, making them appear to never exhibit shyness.
With my first job, I was thrown in the deep end and luckily for me, it worked to my advantage. When I started working as a journalist, I had no choice but to overcome my shyness. I had to go and interview people I didn’t know. In press conferences I had to raise my hand and ask questions, otherwise my articles would be weak. I had to push myself and sell myself. It was a very big challenge. Once I began to understand the concept that “the spider is more afraid of you than you are of it”, I began to relax.
Shyness comes from self doubt. Self doubt and fear of rejection come hand in hand, and when I realised that rejection was not such a big deal, I began to take more risks and to accept the fact that perfection was just not going to happen.
In the beginning I had to keep telling myself “what is the worst thing that could happen?” Nobody has ever died from being ignored or frowned at, and a bruised ego heals in time. Nothing tragic can happen when you face the fear of mingling with unfamiliar people. At worst, they can “furrow” their brow and act as if you don’t exist. Conversely, if all goes well, the rewards are simply wonderful.
I look back to my university days now and think how silly I was to have been so afraid. I think of how many conversations I didn’t participate in and I want to kick myself! I think of how many activities I could have been a part of and I want to slap myself! But at least, I’ve managed to change that. I am no longer afraid of speaking in public, no longer worried about rejection, no longer nervous about having a debate.
In fact the only problem now is that my friends can’t shut me up!