Have you ever felt shy? Have you ever felt like you wanted to crawl into a ball and shrink from the crowd in front of you? Have you ever felt that you weren’t up to the task at hand? If so, then you are not alone.
There is an important moment in The Odyssey where Odysseus’ twenty-year-old son Telemachus has to speak to a king of another island for the first time. He complains to the goddess Athena that he feels like he can’t go through with it and that he will make a terrible fool of himself.
Athena’s response to his complaint is profound:
“Telemachus, no more shyness, this is not the time!
…some of the words you’ll find within yourself,
the rest some power will inspire you to say”
(The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles, Book III. lines 16, 29-30)
The message is essentially “Get over yourself and trust yourself. It will be okay.”
(If you want more of a synopsis, check out the summary here.)
This quote from Andrew Dubus III is another important (but challenging) balance to this.
In my experience, shyness comes from two powerful beliefs.
- That I have nothing of value to offer.
- That people actually think more about me than they do about themselves.
Both beliefs are misguided and delusional, while also being powerful and seductive.
If we understand that shyness comes from these two beliefs (feeling unworthy and a lack of perspective), then we can begin to do the real work.
So before we do anything more, let’s acknowledge one major fact of life:
Everyone has value.
If your immediate response to this statement is that some people are better than others at doing things, then you are confusing value with talent. Everyone brings value. Not everyone has talent:
(Yeesh! That’s why you wear a helmet)
This is the premise of improvisational technique in theater and why authenticity is so important to leadership and communication. At the end of the day, trusting your own value will communicate confidence, presence and calm, while doubting that value will create dissonance, anxiety and uncertainty.
If you are a particularly shy person (I am, even though I have been an actor on stage and given talks to large groups of people) then you might be able to use some of these tips for overcoming that shyness and making stronger connections.
- Act like you belong. Scott Adams (the cartoonist who draws Dilbert) writes in his book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big that the most important key to overcoming his own shyness was to pretend to be someone who was confident. Think of someone you think of as being confident, preferably someone you admire. and pretend that you are that person at the party or event. How would that person feel in that moment? How would she/he act and see herself/himself there? Imagine for a minute that everyone at that event loves you, they just don’t know it yet. This thinking will radically change the way that you approach social settings.
- Ask questions and be interested. The biggest mistake that many shy people make is that they believe they have to be interesting in order to keep people interested. You don’t. While it is nice to share an exciting or wonderful new story with a group, it is much more valuable to people if you can relate or connect with them. To be interesting you only need to be interested. If you aren’t sure what to talk about, ask questions. Be curious. Fact is that most people are fascinating if you give them half a chance. And they will be so grateful for the opportunity to talk about something other than their job or politics. Active listening is the secret weapon of shy people everywhere.
- Learn to tell your story. Scott Adams also talks about this in his book, and storytelling is one of the oldest and most important ways to connect and to communicate. Storytelling is a skill that can be learned and mastered, but you need to understand the spine of it. If you want to tell a story about how you got engaged, how you moved to your house or how you got your job, you need to set up the story. Here is a good TED talk about the elements of story and how it works. The important element is that you are succinct, that the conflict is clear and the resolution is something people understand (needs to make sense). Practice telling the arc of your story and you won’t feel so self-conscious when you are asked questions about your life.
- Know that you’re not alone. Walk into a crowded room full of people and you might feel awkward and self-conscious. You might become overly self-conscious and believe that everything you say and do is being scrutinized, judged and found unworthy. Welcome to the rest of humanity.
(Speaking of awkward)
Pretty much everyone feels awkward all the time. The difference is in how good they are at acting like they belong. You can act like someone who feels comfortable even if you don’t feel comfortable. You may feel like an impostor, but to the rest of the world you look like this:
(More or less)
In all seriousness, when we project calm and confident behavior, we can both resonate a calm presence and (this is the key bonus) ultimately feel more confident in the end. Act calm and people will project confidence on you. Project all that anxiety you feel internally and you will only get that anxiety reflected back at you. The most important fact for any shy person is that no one can see how you feel.
If you can have the courage to step through your fear and trust that you are enough and that you belong, then the world becomes a bigger and more welcoming place for you. If you are a leader, your ability to persuade, connect and inspire will be increased. You will begin to feel more confident, learn new things about people and grow into the person you are meant to be.
Just like Telemachus in The Odyssey, you will begin to trust the voice within you and only good things will come from that.