I have spent most of my life battling against shyness. When I was at first school, I remember wetting myself because I was too scared to ask the teacher to be excused to visit the bathroom. When I was a teenager I would often cross the road or duck into shops to avoid being seen and spoken to by people I knew – even my friends. I was scared to make eye contact with people, scared to speak, scared to do anything. I grew my hair long and would wear it over my face in lessons so that the teacher wouldn’t call on me to answer a question.
New jobs were a nightmare until I got to know a couple of people – and then that was all thrown into turmoil when I went on training courses with people from other areas of the company, who I didn’t know, and who didn’t know me.
Later, as a mother, I avoided going to mother and baby groups because I was scared nobody would speak to me. That fear was confirmed the few times I did go, and nobody spoke to me.
Just recently though, I listened to a podcast by Chalene Johnson that made things much clearer for me and helped me to do something about it. I was already working hard to chat to people and make eye contact but it was a struggle. Then heard a question that made me understand…
When you meet someone in the school playground or at a group or event, and they don’t make eye contact, what do you think?
Perhaps they turn away, they don’t smile – or if they do, it’s fleeting before their face shuts down and they seem to ignore you. Perhaps they avoid coming near you, and if you do push them to talk, you only get two-word answers.
Be honest. When I encounter that – and it has happened recently – my first thought is, what a bitch!
These are all traits of a shy person.
A shy person avoids eye contact, is scared to speak to you, turns away to avoid being drawn into a conversation.
When you meet a small child who is shy, and they hide behind their mother’s legs, avoid eye contact and won’t speak, you think it’s cute and don’t try to push them to engage with you.
In adults though, we see it as rude.
This is not a blog post about how we should all be more tolerant of shy people. Yes, realising that shyness is often mistaken for bitchy aloofness did make me think twice about a person I met recently who I had previously written off as a mega-bitch. More importantly though, as a shy person, it’s made me realise what people must have thought of me for all these years.
I (and hopefully my friends too) find it laughable that anyone could consider me aloof or bitchy – but the fact is that they probably do. All those times I went for nights out with friends and was scared to speak to anyone, they probably went home thinking what a bitch I was. Staff training at my old job: she’s so up herself. Parties and events I went to under duress because I knew I wouldn’t speak to anyone: who does she think she is.
This, more than anything else, has helped me to overcome my shyness. Not because I’m terribly worried about what people think – though I think we’re lying if we say we don’t care at all what people think. More because I think that at the age of 34, shyness is not a valid reason to not speak to people.
And because I’m not a bitch, and I quite like to meet new people so it seems silly to have them go away thinking I am aloof and uncaring.
Leigh - Headspace Perspective · 07/10/2015 at 16:33
I’ve struggled with shyness too, Vicky, and had a similar bathroom incident when at school! You’re right, we can be too quick to judge someone as bitchy or aloof when, in fact, they’re just shy. I’m a lot better than I was, but can still get overwhelmed at occasions with lots of people. xxx
Vicky Charles · 07/10/2015 at 17:04
Me too! It’s a constant battle to force myself to be “out there” as I’m quite introverted and happier at home on the sofa!
Pen · 09/10/2015 at 08:47
I often get feedback at work that I am aloof and intimidating. It’s not that really… Thanks for this post.
Kimmie · 11/10/2015 at 10:16
I’ve always struggled similarly to you…as a child, and as an adult. I’m not sure Iv’e wondered if people think I’m bitchy (because I’m never that) but I do wonder/worry what people think of me. Even if things seem to go well at time of meeting…afterward I’ll worry/ruminate about what they think/thought…really. Usually that they might have found me hard work, a little strange, rude.
Vicky Charles · 12/10/2015 at 18:02
Thanks Kimmie, I do that too. I think it’s useful to try and remember how shyness can often be perceived – it makes me try harder to get over that hurdle!
Jen · 12/02/2020 at 01:39
I am new to the public school system with my child. I am shy but I push myself to make eye contact and smile. A lot of the other moms seem very shy. They look down at their phones. No eye contact. If I actually get to talk to someone they look terrified. It is very discouraging and I wish people could open up a bit. I should be more understanding but I am shy too and I am putting myself out there to be judged. Chalene’s podcast on shyness really hit home to me. I wish more people could hear it.