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My Journey With Shyness

Not all introverts are shy. Not all highly sensitive introverts are shy either. Shyness is, to put it simply, anxiety in social situations and while there may be a correlation at times with introverts and highly sensitive people, it does not mean that if you are an introvert and or highly sensitive that you are also shy. I talk more about the differences between these three things here (Simple Definitions of High Sensitivity, Introvert, and Shy).

I am shy though. I have been since I was a child. I probably will continue to be shy throughout my life. I have not grown out of it, though some people do. And I do not think that I will grow out of it though if I did, then parts of my life might be a little bit easier. 

I am thankful for the experiences that I have had with my shyness though. Maybe it would be easier if I wasn’t shy, but I also would not have become the person I am today if I had not been shy in the first place. I am cautious by nature but my shyness is more than that. It is anxiety in social situations. 

My parents, knowing that I was shy, decided that they would put me in a Montessori kindergarten. They wanted me to be in a school environment where I was not looked down on for my shyness and where I could learn and grow in a place that accepted who I was and focused on how I could learn. My parents found such a school. I am thankful for it and I have several fond memories from it. In fact, I ONLY have fond memories from it.

I did not talk at school. My teachers probably questioned at times if I could even talk. Then one day, one of my teachers walked into the room I was in and heard me talking to the school’s cat. Yep, that’s me. Talking to a cat. Not to my teacher. At some point I felt comfortable enough to start talking to my teachers and to the others kids at the school. 

From then on, the first day of school was always nerve racking for me. I didn’t know who would be in my class, what to expect about my teacher, or what we would be learning that year. I enjoyed school though, I enjoyed being with my friends, I had good teachers. And I talked. But, I also had my own solitude at home to recharge.

When I was twelve, I was asked to speak in front of a large group of about 100-150 people. I had the option of saying no, but instead I said, “Yes.” With my heart pounding, I sat at the front of the group waiting for my turn to speak. When it was my turn, I could not open my mouth to speak. Fear paralyzed me, I turned and sat down. Luckily it was a large group of people who were familiar with who I was and with my family. There are three things that I’ve gained from this experience: 

  1. Determination – I was determined that that would not happen to me again. The next time I was given the chance to speak to the same group, I did. I was still extremely anxious about it, but I did it. And I felt so accomplished after I did. I pushed through the fear and felt good about my efforts. 
  2. I Can Succeed – It taught me that I was capable of doing something that I had failed at before. One of the amazing things about success, is that it usually comes with trial and error. It is also much sweeter after the bitterness of failure. Because of the determination that I had from this experience it taught me that I could do it. I hope that this experience can show others with shyness that they too can push past their fear and succeed, even if there have been failures in the past. I hope my daughter understands this as she too struggles to speak to her peers. She is capable, she just needs to believe it.
  3. Understanding – Now whenever I hear a youth speak in front of a large group, I am amazed at what they are accomplishing. Many people have the fear of public speaking, whether extrovert, introvert or shy, it is a valid fear. And when I see anyone overcome that fear, I am proud of them. I am honored to know them. As a leader in our church’s youth program, there are times that the youth tell me about their experience of speaking in front of groups of people. They are usually concerned with how they did and I tell them they did great. I usually try to tell them why as well, giving specifics, but I also tell them about my first time. Because, if they spoke, they did better than my first time. So, my experience as a 12 yr. old, has taught me greater understanding for those who are also afraid to speak up.

When I as in high school I was enrolled in a class that pretty much focused on success. I had an amazing teacher who cared about his students. He pushed us to succeed, but did it in a way that made it feel that it was possible to succeed. Also in this class there was a lot of work that was done in groups as well as class presentations. Both of these things brought me anxiety, but my teacher was understanding, supportive and inspiring. He helped me see some of my strengths, in fact he focused on the positive mostly, while still being able to instruct on ways we could improve. When I look back now, the comments that I remember were positive even though I know that he gave constructive criticism as well. When I was 15, my younger brother passed away. I remember giving one of my presentations after this and being really emotional as I shared an experience I had had with my younger brother. I paused to gain control of myself before continuing on. I remember the comment that my teacher gave, as he pointed out a strength in being able to recognize the need to pause, being okay with it and gaining the control that I needed to continue in my presentation. He did well at guiding me because he did it in a way that showed that he cared.

After high school and a few years into college, I decided to serve a mission for my church. This was a big step for me and a huge decision. The idea that I would talk to strangers every day about something that was so important to me, terrified me. That is also what terrifies me about writing this blog, I am sharing experiences and thoughts that are important to me. To be vulnerable in such a way, scares me. Yet, as I have now come to see, being willing to be vulnerable is courage. BrenĂ© Brown describes this so well in her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.” Sharing the things that are close to my heart is not comfortable for me, but moving past the uncomfortable is a strength.

I decided to be courageous and share something close to my heart with people I didn’t know. I went on a mission. I went to a place where I would be giving tours of a church historical site. I would at times have to give tours of over 25 people at a time, or just one. It was actually the tours of just one or a small number that terrified me more. My shyness kicking in. I actually changed at some point after my experience as a 12 yr. old and started to enjoy public speaking. That’s not to say that it didn’t still terrify me, but when I started to speak that fear would leave. It’s the smaller groups that scared me more, because I was more likely to make a connection, and I was more likely to get hurt. But I continued and persisted in talking to people both one on one and in large groups. My anxiety of opening myself up to total strangers did not leave but I became better able to deal with that anxiety. I conditioned my body to push through the initial fear and I was happier because of my ability to better deal with it. And the connections that I made were priceless. I do not regret the decision I made to step outside of my comfort zone. I am thankful for the many amazing and beautiful experiences that I had for that year and a half.

As mentioned earlier I am a leader of the youth in my church congregation. I teach the 12-13 young women and I am so thankful for this opportunity. I still am scared and anxious, I still shake with fear, and my heart still pounds. But as soon as I open my mouth to speak it goes away. The more I get to know these young women the more comfortable I am around them. It gets easier the more I know someone, but it still gets difficult whenever I dive deeper into a friendship, opening up myself so that others see a part of me that I would not normally let them see.

I never grew out of my shyness. It is still there. It still exists, while it may be true that some do outgrow their shyness, not everyone does. I think that there is a stigma that “oh she’ll just grow out of it” but the truth is, I didn’t grow out of it. I am still shy. But, I’ve learned to live with it. I came to understand that I was shy and to not use it as an excuse to not live my life. In fact I became determined that I would not let it rule my life. I face the feeling and move through it. I am still not perfect at this, I still often don’t do things out of anxiety, I still often keep myself at a distance from most, and I still am not the best at keeping in contact with others because of the anxiety I feel. But, I do not let it keep me from living my life.

In some ways, I’ve come to see, that those who are shy but continue to live, are some of the most courageous people I know. They are constantly stepping outside their comfort zone. And they are rewarded for doing it.

So, my hope in writing this is that those of you who are shy will see that you are capable of living your lives. Your life can be full and rich. You are able to succeed.

Shyness is not an excuse. It is a tool that helps those of us who are shy to understand our anxiety. Once we understand this we can push through our fear and succeed. Yes, there will be times that we will fail, but failure is part of the learning process to success. We use failure to become more determined to succeed the next time. When we learn why we failed, we apply what we learned and we become better for it.

While we, who are shy, should not see our shyness as an excuse it is also important that others understand that the struggle with shyness is real. It is not something easily overcome and for many, it continues to be a struggle. But it is possible to live a full, happy, and connected life as someone who struggles with shyness.

My other hope is that if you are the parent of a shy child that you can see their potential. That you teach them that they can push through their fears and anxiety and succeed. I hope that at the same time you don't blame them when they fail. It is hard. But, continue to inspire hope in them. Share with them my story, how I live a full, connected life. Share with them others' stories that you have heard. If you struggle with shyness, be an example, share your story. I hope that you teach them that failure is not the end but part of the path to success. And I hope that you teach them with love.

Just a quick note: There are more severe forms of social anxiety. Professional counseling may be beneficial in these cases.


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