by Niall Doherty

As a teenager and into my early 20’s, I was the shyest person I knew. I was the guy sitting in the corner waiting for others to come talk to me. I had to be around someone for a long time before I would open up and act natural. Only two things saved me from having no social circle whatsoever: my huge passion for basketball, and my uber-social cousin (thanks, Cuz).

I was especially shy with girls

I remember once when I was about 15, my Dad and I were visiting relatives. I was getting along reasonably well with my cousin (a different one) and his guy friends as we hung around the neighborhood, but then we were joined by a group of teenage girls. I clammed up and faded out. I remember sneaking back into my Aunt’s house and sitting down to watch the Grand Prix with my Dad. I’d never really been interested in the Grand Prix before, but I feigned fascination so when my friends came looking for me I’d be able to explain my disappearance: “Sorry fellas, but I can’t miss this!”

Yup, I was willing to endure two hours of fancy cars going round and round a big track just so I wouldn’t have to talk to those terrifying teens with the female body parts.

Shyness = fear

My shyness lingers until this day. I don’t believe we humans can ever fully overcome it. Even the most courageous and self-confident people can become embarrassed, even if they don’t display that embarrassment outwardly.

This makes sense since shyness is essentially a form of fear, mostly the fear of what others will think of us. Some people say they don’t care what others think of them, but I think, at best, they don’t care what most people think of them. We all care what certain people think of us, whether it be a spouse, parents, close friends, peers, whoever.

When you’re really shy, like I was, you care what everybody thinks of you. And that’s bad. Because, for the most part, what other people think of you is none of your business. If a stranger in a nightclub sees you out dancing and thinks you look stupid, well that’s his business. If a steak-eating, deer-hunting, Hummer-driving nihilist reads my blog and thinks I’m wrong about everything, again, that’s his business. Nothing to do with me.

Not everybody has to like you

This realization was one of the big leaps I took in overcoming shyness. Not everybody has to like you. In fact, it’s better that some people don’t like you, because if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. So the best course of action is to figure out what you really want, and then work at pleasing yourself (and I mean that in a non-alone-in-the-bathtub-feeling-frisky kind of way).

Figure out what your values are and what you really want out of life, then work hard to live those values and make your dream life a reality. In doing so, you’ll find that you’ll please many people who share your values, and you’ll probably piss off a lot of people who don’t. And that’s okay. If you really want to make a difference in the world, you’ll need to create a movement, and it’s as important to keep the wrong people out of your movement as it is to make the right people a part of it. (Seth Godin writes a lot about this in his book Tribes, which I highly recommend.)

Plan of attack

Okay, so let’s get to some practical things you can do to overcome shyness.

1. Join a social group (or several)
Practice meeting new people and you’ll get better at it. Obvious, right? One social group I’ll give special mention to is Toastmasters. If you want to grow, you have to get out of your comfort zone regularly. Toastmasters is great for that, not only because you get to meet lots of new people when you join a club, but you also get to practice speaking in front of a crowd at each meeting, something most people are uncomfortable with. I’ll write more about Toastmasters soon, but if you’re in New Orleans and want to check it out, my club is currently meeting at the JCC (Jefferson and St. Charles) every Monday at 6pm. If you’re not in New Orleans, you can find a club near you via the Toastmasters website.

2. Whenever you’re feeling shy, view the situation as an opportunity for growth
Realize that the fear will never go away. You just get better at handling it. Try to recognize when you’re feeling shy, and say to yourself, “I’m feeling shy now. If I can push through and do the thing my fear is trying to keep me from doing, next time it won’t be so hard.” I’ve noticed over time that my most rewarding experiences tend to occur when I turn towards fear rather than running away from it. Short term pains, long term gains.

3. Put yourself in sink or swim situations
The biggest leap I made in overcoming my shyness was to head off on my own and spend 10 months working in the US. I lived in a New Jersey trailer park with another 300 internationals during the summer of 2004, working at Six Flags Great Adventure. It became obvious soon after I got there that I had two choices: I could either be the shy kid all summer and not have any fun, or I could get out of my comfort zone, start taking the initiative to talk to people, and have the time of my life. I chose the latter, and proceeded to explode out of my shell that summer. That experience remains the biggest leap I’ve ever had in overcoming shyness, and it only happened because I forced myself out of my comfort zone.

4. Environment is stronger than willpower
If you want to overcome shyness, it makes sense to surround yourself with lots of confident and outgoing people. It’s just like any sport you might play: the fastest way to improve is to regularly compete with an opponent who is better than you. If you only practice with or play against people who are weaker than you, you’re not likely to improve very much. Of course, you should try to find someone who is not only better than you, but who is also willing to support you in your efforts to improve. I’ve played basketball with lots of guys who are better than me, but some of them have been complete assholes who loved telling me how much I sucked. Not the best learning environment. When it comes to overcoming shyness, the best people you can surround yourself with will be confident and outgoing folks who desperately want you to succeed. They’ll act as your cheerleaders as well as your coaching staff.

5. Learn to love yourself
It’s hard to let the real you shine if you don’t much like who you are. As such, you might want to go about accepting your imperfections (some of them will never go away, so you better make peace with them) and working on your character before concerning yourself too much with overcoming shyness. You’ll find that as you become more accepting of yourself, you’ll no longer seek permission from others to act natural.

6. Develop new skills
Competence helps build confidence. Find out what you’re passionate about and become really good at whatever that is, then build up skills to supplement that passion. So if you really like fashion design, put in the time and effort to become a kick-ass fashion designer. Learn how to sketch designs, learn how to mock up those designs on screen, learn how to make your own clothes, learn how to build a portfolio website, learn how to market yourself online, learn how to catwalk, learn how to put on a fashion show, dabble in other creative habits that help you come up with new designs, learn about self-employment… and on and on and on. With each new skill, you grow more confident in your abilities. You start to believe in yourself. Shyness takes a back seat.

Your turn

What am I missing? What tips can you share about overcoming shyness?

If you have a specific problem with shyness that you’d rather not discuss in the comments, contact me privately via this page. I’d love to hear from you.