When I was a teenager, I was afflicted with terrible shyness. Not in every context or with all people—mostly just with girls. Not unlike millions of other adolescent males, when in the presence of a girl I found attractive, I would become tongue tied, awkward, and lose all self-confidence.
As I grew older, this reaction gradually diminished, until (luckily) by the time I’d met my wife, it had largely vanished. I’d always explained this to myself as a simple function of maturation, but recently I realized that while growing older does indeed often result in increased self-confidence (we experience more, handle it, and realize we handled it), age wasn’t, in fact, responsible at all.
We are, all of us, fundamentally social creatures, able to function optimally, research and experience prove, when engaged to some degree in a community. Our community may be small, but having one seems to be what matters. (All we need do is observe what happens to inmates in solitary confinement for any extended period of time to recognize just how detrimental social isolation is to human beings.)
And yet at some level, interacting with other people makes most, if not all of us uncomfortable. Even the most gregarious and self-confident people remain aware of and influenced by the opinions of others—and specifically the opinions others have about them. Even if we tell ourselves such opinions don’t matter to us, if everyone in our community turned suddenly against us at once, even the most hardy of us would have a difficult time remaining unaffected.
When in the company of other people, our minds automatically construct a map of the minds that surround us. That is, we’re constantly imagining and theorizing what other people are thinking—and making judgments about and having reactions to those imaginings. If we think someone in the room finds us attractive, we judge them to have good taste and feel a buzz of pleasure (or perhaps, if we suffer from low self-esteem, we judge them to have bad taste and feel an increased sense of self-disgust). If we think someone in the room finds us overdressed for the occasion, we’ll feel embarrassed.
Shyness, in one sense then, represents a reluctance to engage with others for fear of being embarrassed. This explains why we can feel shy in one context and not another. In a room full of family members with whom we’re intimately familiar, it’s harder (though, we should note, not impossible) to feel shy, not because we know them but because they know us: they’ve already witnessed our typical behavior a hundred or a thousand times over, and we already know their reaction to it. So typically we’re not afraid to display that behavior, to express our opinions and say the things we want to say, because the risk of embarrassment in such company is low.
In a room full of strangers, however, no such track record exists. How, we wonder, will we be received? We don’t know. How willing are we to risk embarrassment? That’s what determines how shy we feel.
I’d argue the fundamental cause of shyness, therefore, rests on where we place our attention. If it’s on the reactions we might produce in others and how they might therefore view us, we risk over-analyzing every thought, word, and deed and may find ourselves, as the terminally shy often do, paralyzed by a painful self-awareness. If, on the other hand, we place our attention on everyone else, willfully ignoring our concerns about how they may react to us, we might find some room to breathe as ourselves.
How, then, can we shift our focus in this way when in some cases it seems veritably padlocked to our self-image? Though not by any conscious design, I found my attention gradually being pulled away from myself and toward others as I developed not only a genuine interest in other people (the more interested in a subject we become the more our sense of self seems to vanish), but a genuine interest in their concerns. In other words, the more compassion I found myself feeling for other people, the less I become concerned about how they saw me—not because I no longer cared how they saw me, but rather because I was paying less attention to it. It’s actually quite hard, I discovered, when facing even an entire room of strangers about whom you actually feel concerned or even interested, to simultaneously feel concerned about what they think about you.
Compassion, then, may represent the ultimate cure for shyness. It may seem odd to imagine upon entering a room full of strangers whom we not only don’t know but have no reason to guess are even suffering, that they’re in need not only of compassion in general but of ours specifically (being, as we are, a stranger to them). But to this I’d respond: who isn’t struggling with something? It may not be an enormous or cataclysmic something, but everyone hides, to some degree, a secret inner life in which they struggle on a daily basis (as I wrote about in a previous post, Your Neighbor Is An Alcoholic).
But you don’t need to know what everyone struggles with to come at them assuming they need your compassion. If compassion—the caring about another’s happiness as if it were your own—becomes the predominant emotion you feel in approaching strangers (or, at the very least, interest in them does), I’d like to suggest shyness will become for you a thing of the past, or at least far less of a problem in the future. The trick to treating shyness, in other words, isn’t in developing greater self-confidence. It’s in developing a greater love for your fellow human beings.
Many of us faced challenges in our formative years and we struggled with them. Some of those struggles might have changed who we are or how we later approached life. Marilyn Campbell is an overcomer. She wrestled with shyness in her young years. Before you read her essay, learn a little more about Marilyn’s background from an update she sent to me:
“I never did quite get the opportunity to thank you [for helping me develop my essay]. Regarding my college process:
I applied to three schools early action: Harvard University, Brown University, and Georgetown University; I applied to Tulane University as a backup school regular decision (it can be considered a backup for those people who reside in-state).
I am happy to say that I was accepted at Brown, at Georgetown (thank you very much!), and at Tulane; I was deferred from Harvard; I am not applying to any more schools.
If there’s something I learned about applying to colleges and watching my friends apply to them, I would recommend applying to as many early action schools as possible by the deadlines. This takes away the stress and work of doing several applications at a very busy time of the year (one is taking exams or they are hanging over our heads).
At the very least, if one applies to one school early action or early decision, s/he should not wait until they receive that school’s response to begin filling out all the other applications waiting in the wings. I know that it is very tempting to wait, but after seeing what this has done to several of my friends, I highly recommend getting an early start.
Finally, I suggest that students don’t blow off their freshman year. If that happens, one will spend the next three years trying to bring up those grades.
* * * *
When I was a young, awkward adolescent, I considered myself to be a shy person, especially around boys. Because of this, my experiences at a coed middle school intimidated me somewhat. So, for the past five years, I have attended an all-girls school, which has helped me to become a stronger person. I have overcome my shyness and insecurities and developed much more confidence.
Ironically, I believe that my shyness, something that I consider a communication barrier, has ultimately led me to focus on a field for my life’s work: communications. Despite my aversion to it early on in life, I now love speaking to and interacting with people, be it as a friend, teacher, or public speaker. I now have a passion for stimulating conversation, and that enthusiasm manifests itself in three different and important aspects of my life outside of the classroom: peer support, volunteer work, and music.
Peer support is a high school-sponsored program through which juniors and seniors are selected to work with eighth graders who attend Sacred Heart. It involves an intensive three-day workshop where student leaders learn how to listen effectively to and become mentors for the younger students. I love this work. Once a week, I get to speak to these impressionable boys and girls about anything that I feel is important. I enjoy learning about their lives and their issues and exploring possible solutions to their problems. We study today’s society and its impact on them. I see much of my old self in these young people and that memory has helped me to help them become more confident about their everyday lives.
My volunteer work centers on teaching, through a program called Summerbridge. After school, I go to a nearby public school and tutor learning-disadvantaged preteens. Instead of dealing with the students’ personal issues, as I do in peer support, the Summerbridge focus is more on communication through education. By working with these younger students, I have come to understand the importance of helping them comprehend and apply what they learn in the classroom. Their motivation, given their circumstances, is remarkable. We discuss in detail what they are learning so that I can keep them interested and motivated. Summerbridge is another example of how communication issues are very important to me.
Not surprisingly, music has emerged as another, perhaps indirect, avenue for me to communicate with others. Singing allows me to convey my deep and personal emotions with others. When I sing, I am transported to another realm. The mundane everyday world around me disappears, and I am enveloped in my own, new space, especially when I am performing onstage. When I act, I am transformed, feeling the happiness, sadness, impishness, or even confusion that my character feels. My performance taps into that part of me where those qualities dwell, and I love sharing it with my audience. Music is a very special form of communication for me.
Perhaps the person I am today is a compensation for who I was years ago. That awkward twelve-year old, however, is no more. Now I want to show the world what I can do. Communication has become my passion. It will be my future.