I have a shocking confession: I am a very shy person.
I know that there will be people out there who know me and will say:
“WHAT? You may be many things but you are DEFINITELY NOT shy!”
If you think that then you are definitely wrong. I have lived with this debilitating condition ever since I can remember. Even when I was born, from the very moment I popped out my mother, I cried because I was entering a world of complete strangers. My mum was a stranger and so was the midwife – and when my dad walked in the room to see his first born, I screamed in terror.
I have suffered as a consequence of my introversion.
I was the child who hid behind his mother.
I was the teenager who preferred to sit in his room than go outside.
I was the student who stood alone like a lemon at parties. It was ironic really that I was lonely in a crowded room full of people who were enjoying themselves.
Don’t get me wrong – I did have friends; the only problem was that I really had to work hard at acquiring them. I relied heavily on fearless people who would talk to anybody, particularly those who would talk to me. I envied folks who could simply walk up to others and say things like “Hi, I’m Mike. What do you do?”
I found myself hanging around rampant extroverts, those who had no qualms about talking to me. Even then, it was difficult because I didn’t know what to say to them. I am thankful that they persevered and managed to unlock the real me from my self-inflicted prison. You see, once they got to know the real me, the person inside the shell, they actually liked what they found. When I become a friend to somebody, there is a bond between us that never breaks.
I realised that I had a problem and the desire to overcome that problem was more important than the fear generated by it. The turning point for me came at university. In my first year, I was invited to parties by extrovert friends, possibly because they realised I was horrifically shy and thought that the combination of atmosphere, young like-minded people and alcohol would allow me to break out of my shell naturally. The first few parties were terrifying. It was like being asked to leap from the top of the Eiffel Tower wearing nothing but a fig leaf (I would have preferred to have done that to be honest).
At those parties I would find myself lost in a room full of strangers, all of whom were happily talking to others and completely ignoring me. I may as well have been invisible – at least then I could have had some fun. I was the solitary person stood in the corner desperate to hear from anybody. People thought I was aloof and weird. I would drink a large amount of alcohol in order to pluck up the courage to chat; the problem was that I would then butt into a conversation and say something totally inappropriate or just plain stupid and all this with a totally slurred voice. I would be dismissed as a goon and pushed aside like a piece of crap. Inevitably I would often leave the party in disgrace. My ego took a real pounding at that time of my life.
I couldn’t understand how people could actually simply walk up to complete strangers and start a conversation. I would rather have had all of my teeth extracted with a sledgehammer than talk to somebody I didn’t know. I even found it difficult to walk into a place full of strangers just to meet a friend. If I had arranged to meet a mate in a pub, for example, I would be late on purpose, just so that I didn’t have to sit down on my own waiting for them. And then I gained a reputation for always being late.
I decided to fight back. I still had a couple of years of university left and I was determined to make the most of them. I began to study more than just the academic course I was on; I started studying other people, particularly those fearless warriors who slap the face of introversion into submission. These guys had no shame and most importantly they had no fear. They would simply say the first thing that came into their heads as an ice-breaker – and ninety percent of the time it worked. There were occasions when they were slapped back but, because they had skins thicker than an elephant pie, it had absolutely no effect. The kind of people I am talking about are those who volunteer to be made an exhibition of themselves and don’t fear the consequences.
I decided to try my hand at being extrovert. I became two people.
The first was “Real Me”, the person who was still shy, still terrified and still scared to open my mouth in public. The second was a person who the complete opposite, the person who laughed in the face of shyness and used it as a punch bag. I began to grab every opportunity to meet new people with both hands. When I was in the company of close friends I was still “Real Me”, the “me” who had popped out of the shell of shyness. Close friends knew the real me so I didn’t have to pretend to be somebody else. However, when I was invited to a party or had to be in a scenario where I had to talk to strangers, I became “The Extrovert”.
I saw “The Extrovert” as a different person, somebody I admired, and somebody who had the courage to explode into a room and enthral everybody present with his charm, wit and amazing repartee. “The Extrovert” was great. Almost everybody loved him and he could do anything.
And it actually worked - sometimes. After a summer off, I started my second year at university and was invited to a party. I arrived with friends but I took it upon myself to march into a room where I knew nobody whatsoever. I unleashed “The Extrovert” for the first time and said, “Go and do your stuff.”
I was fuelled by a little alcohol, but I did it. I walked up to a group of three guys chatting and said “Hi I’m Dave. I’ve come with Chris. Is this your party?” And they actually started chatting to me. In the end, it was one of the most enjoyable parties I’d been to. “The Extrovert” broke the ice and as I chatted to these three guys “Real Me” came out and “The Extrovert” rode off into the sunset like the Lone Ranger.
I made three new friends on my own without anybody else having to make an effort. Now to most people that would have been as natural as going to the toilet. I can imagine extroverts reading this and saying “D’UH!!! Doesn’t everybody do that? Are you some kind of freak?” To me, however, it was a major, and I mean MAJOR achievement
It was an epiphany. It was liberating. It changed my life.
Of course, after I left university and joined the rat race, I simply had to change. Given what I do now, the shy version of me would have a seizure. I travel a fair amount but the thought of flying to Switzerland on my own would have filled me with absolute dread. Even the thought of sitting in a restaurant on my own would be a nightmare for that shy person. It’s absolutely true. He would rather skewer his eyeballs than ask for a table for one in a German-speaking restaurant. However, I do this all the time. I call on “The Extrovert” to do the honours and then I can relax and send him on his way.
It doesn’t work all the time. I am still afraid to be perfectly honest. There are times when I find myself in a situation that chills me to the bone. I stutter, break into a cold sweat and have enough adrenalin flooding around my body to make me take off in flight. But I breathe deeply, smile and face the issue in front of me. It works, most of the time.
I still don’t like walking into a pub on my own either, but I bite the bullet and do it. I prefer to face the fear than be regarded as unreliable. It’s the same with public speaking. I’ve posted about this in the past, and, although I still have the urge to run screaming from the room, I let “The Extrovert” tell me “What’s the worst that can happen?” before unleashing him on the people I have to present to. Sometimes he fails, most of the time he succeeds.
You may read this post and think that there is a lot of bravado and that I have succeeded in conquering my affliction.
I am still fundamentally shy. I still feel uncomfortable walking into a room of strangers, and sometimes, depending on my level of self-esteem, I will sit in a corner for a while speaking to nobody. Sadly there are still times when I am alone in a crowded room. The difference now, though, is that I know that I can talk to people if I want to. If I have a moment of supreme confidence I can walk into a room of strangers and become the life and soul of the party.
Are you shy, dear reader? If so, have you taken steps to try to fight this monster within? I’d be interested to know. Or are you a raging extrovert with no shame? If so, how do you do what you do?
As I said, people who know me don’t think I’m shy at all. They have seen me walk into a room full of strangers and charm the shoes off people. They have also seen me make a fool of myself in front of people I don’t know and then they have watched me laugh about it without a trace of fear.
They see “The Extrovert”. And thankfully, they also see the real me basking in his wake.