I still remember one horrible day in high school when a math teacher called attention to my quietness. He told the whole class that I was the quietest student he'd ever had in his 22 years of teaching. Of course, everyone turned around to look at me, as if I was some kind of freak. I felt humiliated and ashamed. I truly believed there was something wrong with me. It didn't even cross my mind that there was something wrong with a teacher who would make such a statement.
Unfortunately, I received more feedback like that from teachers, and it almost cost me my career.
I made it though my undergraduate years, not having to talk in classes. I was smart, and easily made good grades. But when I got to graduate school, everything changed. I was in a doctoral level clinical psychology program. Most of the classes were small discussion groups. During the second semester of my first year, the clinical director called me into her office and told me that if I didn't participate more (i.e. stop being so quiet), my standing in the program was in jeopardy.
Of course, I freaked out. What was I going to do? I daily experienced intense anxiety in these classes-my stomach hurt, my face felt hot, my heart raced. I would try to think of something to say, but usually by the time I got up my nerve to make my point, someone else would have jumped in ahead of me. I wasn't good at interrupting, that's for sure. And no one really paused long enough for me to get a word in.
So what did I do? I did what any good psychology graduate student would do: I went into therapy. Fortunately, I found a wonderful female therapist who was supportive and encouraging. We worked together individually, but she also mentioned that she had an ongoing women's therapy group that I could join. I was apprehensive, but also intrigued. I joined the group and attended weekly. Each Wednesday evening I listened intently to the other women in the group share what they were working on, and each week I didn't say a word. I truly don't remember for how long this went on. My memory says it was months, but maybe it was only weeks. One night, though, it was like some sort of intervention you'd see on a reality TV show (but in a really nice way). None of the women would let me leave until I said something-anything. I don't remember the details, except that I spoke. After that, the ice was broken, and I didn't shut up.
The trick, though, was how to generalize my talking in the women's group to talking in my classes in school. It actually didn't happen until the next year when I started over with new classes, new teachers, and a different combination of students. It was easier then to be the "new me." I remember having one professor who thought my insights about clients/cases we discussed were brilliant. It was thrilling to begin sharing my thoughts and ideas and have them validated as being important contributions.
Fast forward. I have successfully finished graduate school, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at St. Louis University Medical Center's Anxiety Disorders Center, and have co-authored Dying of Embarrassment, the first self-help book ever written on social phobia (now called social anxiety disorder). When I proposed the book idea to my colleagues and the publisher, I never dreamed of telling anyone about my own lifelong struggles with shyness and social anxiety. After all, I was now an "expert." How could I have difficulty with public speaking, participating in meetings, or going to social events? I thought it was okay to help other people face their fears, but it wasn't okay to admit I'd struggled with these same situations myself.
After the book's publication, I promoted Dying of Embarrassment and received much satisfaction from knowing I was helping people learn more about this neglected and misunderstood problem. I continued to feel, however, as if I was doing others with social anxiety a disservice by not sharing my own experiences.
It wasn't until years later, when I wrote Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life, did I muster the courage to share my own story. I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to let people know they are not alone. Most of all, I wanted people to know there is hope. In addition to writing Painfully Shy, I participated in a documentary called Afraid of People, in which I talked openly (not to mention I cried on camera-ugh) about my experiences with not only anxiety, but also depression.
Aside from one negative book review in which the writer said my personal stories were "distracting," the majority of feedback I've received is positive. I'm not sorry I crossed the line from being simply the "expert" to being a human being with real-life problems. I now realize, I can be an expert AND someone who still struggles from time to time.
I feel like I've rambled a bit-thank you for indulging me! In closing, I want to leave you with a few take-away points:
- While there may be some careers that will suit your personality better than others, you do not have to let shyness hold you back from doing whatever you want to do.
- Remember, the world needs your ideas! As much as I dreaded and hated participating in classes, once I did, I realized I had valuable contributions to make. If only the naturally outgoing people speak up, we're going to miss out on some important perspectives.
- Find support wherever you can. For me, it was that women's therapy group. (With managed health care, such long-term therapy groups are a rarity these days.) But you might be able to find a support group. And now there are plenty of online options for getting support, such as blogs like The Shyness Project!
- The path is not a straight one. I still have days where I want to crawl in a hole and not talk to anyone! That doesn't diminish how far I've come.
- And finally, it is only by sharing our vulnerabilities that we can truly connect with others in a profound and meaningful way.
"Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn't change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging."
- Brené Brown
Copyright 2011 Barb and Greg Markway
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