Struggling with Shyness as an Adult

When I was in elementary school, every time there was a snow day at school I would accompany my dad to work. Although he worked in a cubicle, I was a quiet kid and an only child who was already well adept at occupying myself for hours on end. While, for the most part, I enjoyed these days because I didn’t have to be at school and could instead play computer games and draw on whiteboards all day, there was still one part of the day I always dreaded. Before settling into my dad’s cubicle, he would drag me around to say hello to a few of his work friends. I would hide behind my dad’s legs and mutter a quiet “hi” or simply shake my head when these strange adults addressed me.

Ever since I can remember I have been scared of talking to strangers, especially people older than me. But that’s not even half of it—I hate talking in class so much that I’ll let my grade drop a few notches rather than speak up; I deal with distracting anxiety over saying hi to acquaintances on daily basis; I am uncomfortable in groups larger than seven people, even if they’re all people I know; I still can’t initiate and sustain a conversation with my extended family even though I’ve known them my whole life. I am afraid of sounding dumb, asking an insensitive question, being boring, or bothering someone. All these fears are amplified if the person is even a year older than me.

Often I think people conflate shyness and introversion when, in fact, the two are unrelated. People who are introverted thrive and recuperate through alone time, as opposed to extroverts, who are energized when they interact with people. Shyness, though, is a fear. It’s a fear of other people, of judgment, of misrepresenting yourself and being misunderstood. Extroverts can be shy and introverts can be outgoing. There’s a difference between being tired of talking to people and being so afraid of them that you don’t know what to say.

When I was little, people told me I would grow out of being shy. I spent a lot of my energy in high school trying to push myself to become more outspoken. I went on a three week trip to China with a group of other students in order to push myself out of my comfort zone. I joined the cross country and track teams because I enjoyed running but also in order to meet new people. After a while, though, I realized being shy is something I can’t change. Being a shy person has shaped the way I live my life, and whether or not I try to change myself to act more outgoing, shyness controls my behavior. I do feel like I’ve missed out on things because of being shy, but for me to act any differently is difficult to impossible, even if I like to imagine myself acting braver and not being held back by shyness.

As a senior who is going to graduate from college in less than six months and must face the real adult world, I’ve recently been becoming more and more concerned about what the future holds for me as a shy person. Probably the most frequent advice I’ve heard about finding the right job is to network. In order to obtain whatever job I end up applying for, I’ll most likely need to have an interview. I’ll have to attend and maybe even speak at meetings, whether one on one or in a larger group. And, for some reason, being recalcitrant among coworkers seems even more socially stunted and infantile, at least to me, than being the quiet one among classmates. Outside of a work setting, if I ever want to get married or just be in a committed relationship, I’ll have to go on dates with people I don’t know well. I’ll have to make new friends.

In order to be a real adult, in order to garner respect, people expect you to be able to speak up for yourself. In order to get what you want, you have to ask for it. I hope that in the future I will learn better to use my shyness to my advantage. Though I may be afraid of strangers, I am still intensely interested in them. Instead of talking, I like to watch and often I notice things that some people overlook. Although I may speak up less, what I do decide to share is all the more meaningful.


Image credits: 1, 2, 3