Thinking About Shyness

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I was a painfully shy kid. One of the earliest examples I can give comes from a kinder experience. We were rehearsing for a Christmas play for the first time and I was allocated to the red group. There was a frog, fairy, yellow and red group. I, of course, wanted to be a fairy being the girly-girl I am but plain, boring red it was for me; at least it was better than yellow, which is my least favourite colour.

The second time we rehearsed the play, my teacher asked me if I was in the red or yellow group. I didn’t say anything because of my shyness; I rarely spoke up to people who weren’t my family. I knew full well that I was in the red group and that I wanted to be in the red group, but I feigned that I didn’t remember and the teacher put me in the yellow group. I wasn’t very happy about this but this just shows the level of shyness I had as a kid. I didn’t speak up when I knew the answer to a question, and I didn’t even speak up when it would mean I’d get something I wanted.

It’s a common symptom of not speaking up: not getting what you want. When I ask people what they want, it frustrates me when they’re all polite and won’t say what they really want. If I ask what you want, I really want to know what you want. But I can’t blame them when I still fall into silence at times and don’t let people know what I really want.

I’m a lot better at speaking up for myself as an adult, and I think part of the reason is because I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a person who won’t speak up. You feel for the person but at the same time you almost want to shake them to make them speak up; you want them to speak up for their own good. Seriously, so much self-torture can be avoided if you just speak up.

If it matters to you, speak up. If someone is asking because they care about you, they will want to know your answer and do what they can to help you get what you want.

Perhaps the best example of my shyness as a kid comes from my visits to the milk bar down the street with my dad. Tony, the milk bar owner was a friendly guy and he’d say hello to us. Dad would always tell me to say hello to him but I never did; I was too shy to open my mouth. It would always frustrate my dad and one day he was so angry about it that he said I couldn’t have the packet of jelly beans he’d bought me at the milk bar until I said the word hello.

Now, any normal kid would just say hello but not me. I went to bed that night stressing over how I would get those jelly beans. I resolved that the next morning I’d say hello by simply saying it to dad when I saw him as though it wasn’t a calculated plan but a simple greeting.

So the next morning I put my plan into action except it didn’t work. I couldn’t bring myself to say the word hello and I ended up yelling “Hi.” I made up for my lack of hello by yelling hi to each family member and finishing with a, “Hi everyone!” They must have all thought I was nuts. I did!

Eventually, dad just told me to say hello and he’d give me the jelly beans, and so I grudgingly said hello and got my prize.

Now when I think back on this, I wonder why I was so shy. Was it actually shyness? Because I knew in my head there was nothing wrong with saying hello or speaking up in general. What I hated, though, was what my family would think of me if I spoke up. I don’t get it. They thought poorly of me when I didn’t speak up and I knew they’d think better of me if I did speak up; so why did I never speak up? What was my problem?

I’m still not sure to this day, and there are occasions even now when I won’t speak up for fear of what people will think of me. And in these types of situations, I’m never worried what the person receiving my words will think; it’s the people watching me, expecting me to say something, that has me worried. I didn’t care what Tony thought; I cared what my dad thought. But what am I afraid of? That they’ll think I’m a well-spoken person? That I’m normal and speak just like anyone else does? It doesn’t make sense, does it?

One of the areas I struggled in besides saying hello and good-bye to people was being served at a restaurant. If I sat with my family, I would always feel so uncomfortable when the waiter asked for our orders and gave us our food and drinks. I could never say, “Thank-you.” Mum would tell me it’s polite to say thank-you and expect me to say it. I rarely did and the times I did, it was so very awkward and I wanted to crawl in a hole and never come out.

Now why was that so hard for me to do for years? I’m very conscious of it even now when I go to a restaurant. I always say thank-you now and can do it with friends easily, but when I’m with family, it still feels awkward. It’s like all I can think about is what my family is thinking of me. They’re probably not even giving it a second thought since who makes a point of noticing when someone says thank-you to a waiter? But for me, I am incredibly conscious of it.

This is one area I don’t quite understand about myself. It doesn’t seem logical at all. I’d love to know an explanation for my strange thoughts and behaviour. All I can work out is that it has something to do with the expectation. If my family didn’t expect me to say hello, good-bye and thank-you, maybe I would have just done it because there was nothing attached to it, no pressure.

I’m not sure if this fully explains it, though, because usually I live up to expectations. Usually I’m so busy trying to find out what’s expected of me so I know how to behave and if I get no cues, I feel lost. So why then did I not live up to expectations in the case of hello’s, good-byes and thank-you’s? Why did I struggle with it so much?

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