When I was young, I was a dreadfully shy child; the kind of shy child hiding behind my mother’s legs when strangers came around; the kind of shy child who wouldn’t talk to relatives on the phone; the kind of shy child who only opened up to friends after becoming comfortable with them. Opening up to someone usually took several meetings. In high school, I was routinely upset when I heard people refer to me as ‘stuck up’ because I wasn’t bubbly and easily open with new people. I painfully remember one time my mother drove me to a school dance and I sat in the car for an hour refusing to go inside. I know it sounds absurd and doesn’t make sense to non-shy people. Those of us in the know, know.
I also know, counter to popular research, I was not shy due to a lack of confidence or self esteem. On the contrary, I am very confident, accomplished and competitive. I know I can compete and excel in virtually any course or project, including sports. Just try me! My shyness was due to feeling uneasy with small talk and being uncomfortable with strangers. Once I met you, however, I would open wide up and become “Chatty Cathy.” (Do you remember the Chatty Cathy dolls?) This is probably why people who did not know me well thought I was a stuck up or a snob!
My mother forced me to compete in beauty pageants as a way of combating my shyness. It didn’t go exactly as she planned, though. I did compete in three pageants and I placed as runner up in all three, typically winning the scholastic award as well, but it didn’t stop my shyness. I suppose my mother thought being forced to stand up on a stage and perform would make me confront fears. As I wasn’t a dancer or singer (singers always win pageants, don’t they!) and I refused to play my bass clarinet as a talent, I performed stand-up comedy skits. My shyness did not interfere with my performance, much like it never affected me at work. Ask a shy person and they may agree that their shyness does not hinder them at work whether running a meeting or meeting new clients. And performing on stage did nothing to quell my shyness around people.
A lot has changed since my high school days. No, I still wear the same size clothes! But now when I tell people I am or was shy, they are flabbergasted. In fact, during my MBA program at the University of Florida (Go Gators!), a statistical analysis correlating traits from a personality test actually ranked me as the second most extroverted person in the class! How is that for a transformation? And, did I mention that I am also an engineer?! (Engineers are typically labeled introverts. Clearly, I am not!)
I remember the exact moment when I realized that being shy was stupid. I was standing in line at a bank in Fullerton, California flush with a paycheck from my new engineering job and feeling quite happy that I was not a broke college student anymore. (Boy doesn’t that conjure up memories. But I’ll save that for another blog.)
Anyway, I was standing in line going through the usual routine of doing things to look normal. Yes, that is what I wrote, “doing things to LOOK NORMAL.” I had a list of activities that I would do to look like a normal, i.e., non-shy, person. Activities like filling out my deposit slip or checking my watch while I fidgeted in line. Mind you, this was before cell phone days! Boy you guys got it easy now. All you have to do is look at your smart phone! But in pre-cell phone days, if you were shy you had to do something to keep busy. Something to fill the time to avoid the anxiety.
So I was doing my time-filling activities and that is when it happened. Standing at the front of the line was a woman whose slip (yes, we also wore slips back then too!) was showing. But she didn’t know. Or, she did and didn’t care. And that is when it occurred to me. It occurred to me that nobody cares. And, it didn’t matter. Nobody knew what she was thinking or for that matter what I was thinking. It was a powerful and freeing realization. I walked out of that bank free of limitations and free of a fear of judgments. My mom would say that is when the dragon was unleashed!
I have bouts on occasion, but I have conquered shyness for the most part. I still have moments when I have to push myself to walk into a networking event or force myself to attend a party because I just feel like I don’t have the energy to deal. I am aware that it is simply my shyness coming back and usually I am able to conquer it and move forward.
I now know that EVERYONE has a bit of shyness, especially at networking events. For the most part I have conquered it and, in fact, play with it at events now. I use it as an icebreaker. Also, as I am a realtor now, I am out meeting new people constantly. (Realtors throw better parties than engineers!) The practice of meeting new people has given me more experience and an increased sense of confidence. If you have difficulty with shyness, I encourage you to go to more networking events for the experience. Also, I found that teaming up with a partner at events helps build courage. Learn to tag team at networking events and help others be comfortable and open up with you and others. You will be surprised how many more people will open up with your encouragement.
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