It’s not easy being the shy kid. Inside, you feel like you have so many things to share, but you can’t get them out of your mouth. And it doesn’t help when people say to you “Why are you so quiet? Speak up! Smile!” Your tongue gets more tied and even more pressure mounts on you to come up with something. Your mind simultaneously races and shuts down; you can’t get the thoughts to tie together enough to come coherently out of your mouth.
When you’re shy, so much of your personality gets stuck inside you, only revealed to those who are closest to you, the people who make you feel safe enough to truly let your guard down. My family and closest childhood friends knew that I could be chatty, spazzy, and excitable over the things I geeked out about: animals, TV shows, riding my bike, Disney movies, old musicals. I had so many interests, but 90% of my young classmates didn’t know that.
When I was in high school, I was determined to branch out, so I auditioned for the school musical, 42nd Street. I was cast as a chorus girl, and spent most afternoons and evenings in the school auditorium, rehearsing. The cast grew close after spending so many hours together, learning tap routines, getting measured for costumes, and sitting around snacking or gossiping in between scenes. Everyone that is, except for me. I would try to join circles of kids sitting around, slowly creeping up to the edge, trying to be invisible yet also trying to belong. I’d smile and nod as others told stories, laugh when others laughed, but I didn’t command the circle with my own stories or opinions.
Near the end of the rehearsal period, before opening night, we had a cast dinner in the auditorium and a few of the lead actors–mostly juniors and seniors who had been in every play since they started high school–handed out cast “awards” that they had printed out on computer paper using a certificate template. “Funniest cast member,” “biggest prima donna,” “Most dramatic,” “Most likely to perform on Broadway,” things like that. We all laughed and applauded as each person went to the front of the room to receive their award, all nodding in recognition at the inside jokes that had been cultivated during weeks of long rehearsal. Finally, my name was called. The blond, popular girl who was holding my award gave me a sweet smile with her head bowed. She held the piece of paper out to me. “Kim Nelson, Shyest Cast Member.” She continued to smile warmly at me, as if she were afraid of startling me. I felt my face flush. The thing I hated the most about that award was in that, in that moment, I realized that after weeks and hours of all hanging out together, none of my castmates had gotten to know me at all.
Over time, I gradually overcame my crippling shyness. Some of it happened during high school, when I had a close group of friends who made me feel funny and confident. Through them, I was able to branch out and be myself around others (though usually I needed them to be there with me as my security blanket. I knew they would laugh at my jokes, so I felt OK to say them aloud). I also discovered my love of theater, which may sound strange. But for some reason, being onstage in front of a crowd of people, performing as a character, was much easier for me than talking to someone face to face. Acting also helped me build my confidence while it continuously pushed me out of my comfort zone.
And honestly, alcohol helped too. For a naturally quiet person, a few beers was the perfect antidote to social anxiety. It may not be the healthiest cure, but it gave me just enough boldness to realize that I was capable of letting loose and fully joining the circle instead of hovering just outside. With time and practice, I became more comfortable with socializing and soon the alcohol was no longer needed to get the ball rolling.
As an adult, I’ve become much more comfortable in my skin and I like myself enough to let other people get to know me. Some situations can still bring back those childhood attacks of shyness–large group events where I may not know many people are a big one. I will always be more of a quiet person by nature, but I am OK with that. It’s just one small part of who I am.
So when you meet someone who you can tell is anxious in social settings, please be patient and kind with them. Know that they want to let you get to know them, but they need a little time and a little extra help. Just don’t ask them why they’re so quiet, and definitely don’t call them shy on a printed certificate.