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Monday, February 23, 2009

Time to Break the Shyness Habit

So I'm shy. Not really in writing. I don't hold back much in my online world, but in real life I have a hard time in social situations. There have been a few brief periods of my life where I thought I had overcome my shyness.

One was after I started drinking. I noticed how confident I felt while inebriated, and I figured that if it's not hard to be confident while sloppy drunk, then why should it be so hard while sober? So I applied my drunken attitude to my sober self and managed to behave relatively confidently for awhile.

During this period, I presented a linguistics paper at my university's Student Conference in Linguistics, and felt very confident doing so. Part of that confidence could no doubt be attributed to the fact that I had worked several dozens of hours on that paper and knew it backwards and forwards and in my sleep. But the alcohol-attitude helped too.

Another time was when I got a new haircut that happened to look great and actually fit my personality. My outsides suddenly looked like how I felt inside, and that made me feel like I could take on the world and not be misunderstood. I think at the heart of every Shy is the desire not to be misunderstood.

So anyway, for the past few years I've regressed to my same old shy self, which is really quite a daily burden. It takes a lot of energy worrying all the time about what other people are going to think about you and whether you will look like a fool.

Nothing against medication, but I'm one of those people who likes to try to solve my problems on a psychological rather than chemical front. I know that medication can make it easier to tackle the psychological end, but I'm stubborn, and I don't just want to use medication and then use that as an excuse not to really solve my problems. So I haven't sought help in the form of Xanax or the like.

But I have got to do something, because it does not suit an attorney to be shy. There are shy attorneys, I know some of them, but it can't be easy to be shy in that profession, and I'd like not to be.

Ian started reading a book called Good-Bye to Shy. I'll give any book a try, and I'm definitely not too good for self-help books, but I was a little skeptical about the techniques Ian described from this book prior to my picking it up. Things like learning to make eye contact with people and paste a big phony smile on your face and -- eww -- learning to make small talk. Gah!

But as I've been reading the book, I've been a little bit startled to see myself in the author's descriptions of her previous experiences as a shy person. She was even terrified of the telephone when she was young! When it rang, she ran and hid in the bathroom. I was never that bad (and I'm much better now than I once was), but I still really hate talking on the phone. Placing calls is still quite difficult for me, while taking them is easier. I'm so thankful for email and texting, let me tell you. But maybe the better attitude would be to attack my telephonophobia so that it isn't even an issue. I could still email and text, but wouldn't be paralyzed at the thought of making a call.

So the method Good-Bye to Shy espouses is Graduated Exposure Therapy (GET). The idea is to take baby steps in exposing yourself to whatever frightens you. The book uses a woman with Arachnophobia to describe the method. First she is burdened with a relatively simple task -- writing the word Spider over and over again. (Doesn't seem so hard, but when you consider that thinking of the word can cause your brain to also think of the thing it signifies, it might not be very easy. Still, it's a start.) Later, she has to look at pictures of spiders, maybe even videos. And then she gets to stand across the room from a live spider in a glass cage. Eventually, she sits calmly on a chair with a spider sitting on the chair's arm. That's the idea of GET. I also have arachnophobia, but frankly I'd rather give a speech to 10,000 people than go through these heinous steps. I'll keep my arachnophobia, thank you very much.

But I stand to gain much in using the method to cure my shyness. I'm going to start with the eye contact thing. I tend to keep my eyes to the ground when walking down the street, and even avoid eye contact with my coworkers. But apparently people don't think you are very likeable if you don't look at them. So the book recommends starting by staring down a baby, because they are unassuming and less scary than developed humans, and they love to stare anyway. But even though I have a great many baby showers to attend recently, I think my friends might be a little weirded out if I asked whether I could come over to play the staring game with their babies.

But the book also recommends making eye contact with people for the amount of time that it takes you to say "I like you" in your head. This carries the added bonus of making you feel positive inside, so that might translate to a smile on your face. Who knows, I guess anything could happen. So I'm going to try that method, instead of the baby staring game. I will look at strangers on the street, and imagine to myself that I like them, and then I will look away and congratulate myself silently.

It actually kind of creeps me out just thinking about it.

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Trovan said...

I've fought this same battle, and it really does seem like a never ending issues,like alcoholism or gout.

Good luck.

Zac said...

I began practicing eye contact in college. Before that I had to train myself not to retreat to the far side of a hall or room when passing people. You get used to the eye contact and I don't find it a bother anymore. Give some thought to encounter distance. Some people are used to making eye contact further back than others. Of course in my job I have to meet and greet everyday. Good social training, that, but it only goes so far.

Small talk... (shudder) Haven't worked that out yet. I tend to seek situations where there's something specific to talk about. I think of myself as unable to follow social cues, but recently I'm led to think this may be more a self-esteem issue than an ability issue. Probably I can read a social situation about as well as anyone else, but I'm just never confident in that reading. Plus there's the little paranoid voice that wonders if my presence is merely tolerated rather than welcomed.

Erin said...

It's funny — I almost didn't pursue my career because I thought I was too shy. I worked a summer at my hometown newspaper, and I was terrified my questions would come off as ignorant or dense. It was so exhausting pretending to be confident. "No journalism for me!" I said.

Then I lived and traveled a few years in other countries, where I always looked like an idiot and never knew what the hell was going on. I had to ask dumb questions just to live.

Reporting was easier after that. I've discovered people have a lot more confidence in me when I seem confident in my right not to know or understand something. I think people are more impressed by someone who is sincere and curious than they are by someone who acts like she's already on top of everything. That's the case in my biz, anyway.

But I have some trouble with eye contact, too!

Sra said...

Trovan: The author of this book claims to be cured, but I wonder if it's possible to do anything more than manage your social anxieties. It was helpful to learn in the book that a lot more people out there deal with these issues than it seems.

Zac: I have the same feeling -- that my presence is being tolerated, and according to the book a lot of Shys feel that way. I think it started when I was younger and would notice that people's eyes glazed over when I talked to them. I started to assume that they didn't care what I had to say, and I still assume that, which is why I hate small talk. I know they don't care, and frankly I don't care either. But the book points out that small talk is a means of getting to deeper conversations, once you get to know someone enough. I suppose it can't hurt me to try. I will just think of it as practice for important conversations.

Erin: I felt more comfortable for the most part when I spent a few months in Germany on study abroad. My first trip my German was horrible, and I had a couple traumatizing encounters, but my second trip, I had passable German and felt rather more confident. It is easier for me to speak German in Germany than in America, because there I assume they forgive me for being foreign but trying, but here I feel like I'm being judged by other German as second language people. It's weird.

It makes sense that doing something really scary would make the easier things feel better. The book recommends working up to the scarier things, though, so that you don't end up holding yourself rocking in a corner at the first go. :)

SoMi's Nilsa said...

I'm not the shy type, but even I have eye contact issues at times. I think your eyes speak wonders about what's going on inside, so I like the idea of saying I LIKE YOU inside as you look up. Because then, maybe the words that go with the eye contact aren't necessary. Well, at least not yet.

Dena said...

Yes, I have counted many, many tiles on the floor while avoiding the living, walking people around me. I did hotel cold-calling for 3 years and came across sounding like I knew what i was talking about. In person, not so much.

Good luck with this.

B.R. said...

I left a comment here but then it got eaten by the program here.
The gist was that I did notice, when I first saw you interact, that you had a shy confidence about you that seemed truly academic and authentic. You're a thinker and that is clearly visible.
It's a good quality to have, I think. And at a time where there is so much purposeless noise out there, quiet confidence is such a great commodity to claim and nourish.
I'm sorry my initial comment got deleted but I thought I'd post a paraphrasing of it as I appreciated your post.

Claire said...

OK, so I guess I'll speak up for the hopelessly extroverted crowd. I seem to have the opposite problem - having been born a cockeyed optimist (among other things), I not only assume I will like another person, I assume they like ME (or will, if I can just fire up my schtick before they have a chance to form another opinion).

However, I went through a "pupal" stage on my way to being The Loudest Girl in the room. As a child, I was, like my mother, painfully shy. For approximately ten minutes, give or take, per person. Once I'd vetted them, however, they were aces in my book, and I treated them with the sort of familiarity normally reserved for ones parents and those who owe one money.

Then, in grade school, I learned that kids who think you're funny will not, as a rule, beat you silly. And that was the end of shyness for me.

Which, I realize, is another way of saying my entire personality is based on avoidance of rejection and physical assault by defining the dynamic of my interactions with others before they can come up with one I'm not programmed to handle.

I'll just be over here, making eye contact and avoiding any sort of genuine interaction if anyone needs me. :)

Sra said...

Nilsa: I think solid eye contact unconsciously communicates that you are confident, even if you aren't, thus I think it will be a good skill to develop. People who avoid eye contact look insecure at best and untrustworthy at worst.

Dena: It's funny how different modes of communication carry different levels of difficulty for us.

B.R.: I'm sorry your comment was eaten. I thought the comment eating monster had been slayed, but alas. I appreciate your impression of my quietness. Sometimes I am confidently quiet, and other times I am quietly shaking in my boots. But that you found me academic and authentic makes me feel understood, so thank you.

Claire: So what you're saying is that you're just as insecure as the rest of us, but you hide behind a wall of schticks and schtones. It's a good defense mechanism. My type of humor (and I do think I can be really funny) is dry and obscure, and a lot of people don't seem to get it, so the humor defense never really worked for me.

So I use the quiet defense. It doesn't work either, because then people prod me with words like, "Geez, Sra, give someone else a chance to talk!" Which is (1) really not very original, (2) counterproductive, because the goal is to get me to talk, but the effect is that you are pointing out that I am quiet as if it's a bad thing, and that makes me feel like I am not being accepted, and (3) actually belies your own insecurities, but I don't have the arsenal or gumption to turn around and make you feel bad about that.

Note to people who are uncomfortable with silence and quiet people: If you want them to talk, the last thing you should do is point out that they are not talking or ask them if they are shy. This is like asking someone who is uncomfortable with recent weight gain whether her pants are feeling a little tight today. /rant

Frank said...

A long time ago I heard a song that says, “I don’t like spiders and snakes, and that aint what it takes to love me.” I always viewed that song with religious reverence.

Number one: Throw the book away… Stare down a baby??? What kind of crap is that?

Number two: Picture your favorite actress in your favorite movie, now picture you are that actress. “Hello Daaaa ling.”

Number three: Become that actress and give the performance of a lifetime every time you are nervous. Think about it. Your fear is due to a fear of rejection. (BTW That is because you are a real person with others.) If you are acting a role and someone rejects you, they just reject that role, and you still go home as you, so who cares. When you stand in front of a judge, that advice will serve you well as you act out your favorite episode of Law and Order. Go get em Sra, I mean Olivia!!!

Sra said...

Frank: Now, now, don't say throw the book away until you read it. The baby thing sounds stupid (but if you really think that sounds stupid, wait till you hear the suggestion that you dance around whooping and hollering and making a total ass of yourself in the privacy of your home in the mornings in order to pump up your energy and get you used to looking foolish so you aren't afraid of it), BREATH but the idea behind the baby thing is to ease your way into eye contact by starting with something unintimidating. You could just as easily use your dog if you wanted. Then you work your way up to other people who are a little more intimidating, say elderly folk, or children. The most intimidating will probably be people around your age who you find attractive, or authority figures like cops or your boss. That's the idea taking baby steps. With a baby.

Also, I will point out that your excellent suggestion to act like someone else so that any rejection falls to that persona instead of your own identity is also espoused in the book.

So, you know, don't judge a book by snippets out of context. Context is everything.

Frank said...

The book espoused MY theory!!! I LOVE THAT BOOK!!! (I still think the baby thing is crap.) Since I don’t have my own baby to stare down, if I try that technique in a store or on the Trax, I can picture me trying to explain about the book to an officer, while his partner takes a statement from the hysterical mom.

In the future when you use the acting thing in court, think of me, smiling. : )

Leil Lowndes (the author) said...

Hey, guys, I am so pleased that "Good-bye to Shy" seems to be helping so many of you. Eek, I know how excruciatingly painful it is to be shy. But I know there is light at the end of the dark tunnel.
My next book coming out in June has a lot more on eye contact and confidence. It's called "How to Instantly Connect With Anyone.
If any of you read it, pleeze let me know if it helps. You can write to me directly at I hope to hear from you. Even more, I hope you overcome the pain of shyness. You will. Be assured.

B.R. said...

I left a comment here but then it got eaten by the program here.
The gist was that I did notice, when I first saw you interact, that you had a shy confidence about you that seemed truly academic and authentic. You're a thinker and that is clearly visible.
It's a good quality to have, I think. And at a time where there is so much purposeless noise out there, quiet confidence is such a great commodity to claim and nourish.
I'm sorry my initial comment got deleted but I thought I'd post a paraphrasing of it as I appreciated your post.

Dena said...

Yes, I have counted many, many tiles on the floor while avoiding the living, walking people around me. I did hotel cold-calling for 3 years and came across sounding like I knew what i was talking about. In person, not so much.

Good luck with this.

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