Overcoming shyness is a vital life skill

Credit: Victoria Rieter/ Credit: Victoria Rieter/
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Being shy is cute when you are still five years old and people are pinching your cheeks and giggling with glee while watching your face flush as you tuck yourself behind your mother’s dress. But when you’re all grown up and off to college? Not so much.

I have been overshadowed, and would even go so far as to say “plagued”, by this personality trait of timidity my entire life — and I just can’t seem to get entirely rid of it.
I am not alone — nearly half of all Americans report feeling the same way. Yet when working my way through a throng, it can still feel like I am the only one.

People always seem to say you should “remain true to yourself” and “don’t ever feel like you have to change,” but when a large chunk of your own self holds you back from seizing opportunities and enriching your life, then I say it’s time to reassess the conditions under which you operate and re-wire your circuity a tad.

At times, it often ends up feeling like I have two different people bashing heads inside of me; one an extroverted being and the other a massive introvert, who overpowers and muffles the extroverted personality for fear of being too loud. Sometimes I feel limited by it, but I believe that we are all capable of overcoming our internal limits to begin to climb to the external, seemingly-unbounded ladder of our own futures that awaits if only we can free ourselves from an incessant, often random, and unrelenting fear.

When this slightly irrational fear occurs, a conflict of interest happens right inside of you. On the one hand, you want more than anything to feel relatively at ease confronting large seas of unfamiliar faces and settings. But at the same time, as you step into the wave of people, it sucks you down, your stomach drops, and your smile is really a half grimace as you feel your insides lurch. You feel like part of you is betraying yourself, holding you back, an angry and poor emotion. Being angry, though, is nothing but an idle feeling unless you use it as a spurring motivator toward change. Simply remaining upset at yourself will only further drag you back.

Yes, it is a part of my personality and my quirks and a part of what makes me “me”. But when it begins to interfere with what I desire and my life in a larger context, when it surpasses that threshold and begins to affect me emotionally in a manner that is detrimental rather than constructive, then that’s the point where it’s no longer just a part of my personality, but more akin to a parasite living on my shoulder pulling me away from the things that are a finger’s width from my reach.

But why is shyness so difficult to overcome? Why is it such a powerful emotion, and why does it have so much control over our lives?

Shyness is complex and often misunderstood. As largely social creatures, humans may perceive the act of drawing away from other fellow human beings can be perceived as unnatural. In our brilliant age of a technological revolution, it has become even easier, increasingly so, to then isolate yourself, succumbing to the tendency to draw away and fare on one’s own. But retreating is not a remedy and only further contributes to the issue, pulling you further from the possibilities of the world.

Perhaps there was a point long ago where shyness wasn’t such a bad thing — maybe it was to a Neanderthal’s benefit to err on the more timid side and avoid grunting brawls. Maybe the shy ones lived a little bit longer. But the times are no longer prehistoric and now, if you want to ever make it to the history books, you have to be able to put yourself out there, network, make connections, and talk to people — it’s a large and hungry power game. But if you’re hungry, even if you’re starving, and you don’t bring the right utensils (read: life skills) or etiquette (read: people skills), you can’t have a piece of the cake.

Social structures are not accommodating for the shy. But in order to succeed in our “go-go-go” world of today, it is a barrier that must be surmounted. I’ve adapted to encompass the “fake it till you make it” mantra as a successful strategy. When faced with gut-wrenching unfamiliarity, I envision the persona of a successful and charming character that I would aspire to be in the certain context. In molding myself into the personality I would like to exude, life becomes an acting exercise, almost enjoyable, and I proceed under false confidence that slowly solidifies into a tangible one. Things become more approachable and opportunities stop slipping past my reach as I break forward and take the push to firmly, and somewhat confidently, grasp them.

That is not to say that shyness is entirely negative. There are varying degrees and shades of reservation and various elements at play. You just have to make sure shyness does not begin to govern and dictate your life.