I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou
In the 1949 classic, The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland, de Havilland’s plays Catherine Sloper who is homely and painfully shy, spending most of her time slumped over her needlework. She stands to inherit a pot-load of loot once her father, Dr. Sloper, played by Ralph Richardson, finishes his stint in this world in which he spends a great deal of his time berating Catherine for her lack of style and wit.
Enter a dashing opportunist, Morris Townsend, played by Montgomery Clift. Morris is persistent in his less than sincere attentions, but Catherine is duped by the constant flattery and is soon madly in love. She agrees to elope with Townsend. In the meantime, Dr. Sloper makes it clear to all, that if his daughter marries the social-climbing Morris, she will be disinherited. Naturally, she’s stood-up on the night of the planned elopement. Shyness limited Catherine’s options so drastically, that she was now resigned to a lonely, empty life, with needlepoint one of her few pleasures.
When I was a teenager I remember watching Carol Burnett parody the movie on her variety show. I remember watching The Lady Heiress, now so shy her father, played by Harvey Korman, reports that when company comes to call she hides in the grandfather clock. By the time “Norris Townly” shows up for a visit, she is so insecure, she retreats to the inside of the grand piano.
But being shy is no laughing matter if it cripples us to the point that we shun learning new things that might enrich our lives, causes us to hide the talents we already possess because we’re too self-conscious to promote ourselves for fear of drawing the spotlight to ourselves, or avoid social situations where we might encounter new and unfamiliar people, places, and activities that might prevent us from having to settle for our own version of Morris Townsend, with all that that implies.
I was painfully shy as a kid, and so I know from first hand experience that shyness always makes things worse, not better. I probably missed out on a lot until the day I had a little epiphanette that changed everything.
It was in Junior High and I was in a class where we were divided into teams of two in order to do some project, the subject or purpose of which I no longer remember. What I do remember is that I finally encountered an individual who was shier than I, and this kid was so uncomfortable trying to have a simple conversation with me that I really felt just terrible about his discomfort. I wanted to make him feel better. That’s when it hit me. Forget my own discomfort and concentrate on making the other person feel better.
Through trial and error and a lot of intervening years, here’s what I remind myself to do when shyness strikes:
Step One — Go into empathy mode. This means I drop caring how I feel in the situation in favor of caring about how the other person feels. This shift in focus takes me out of self-conscious mode because I’m no longer focused on poor little me. So, say I’m in the produce section at the grocery store and I see some kind of vegetable I’ve never seen before. I go over to the guy unpacking a crate of apples to ask him what this exotic bit of agricultural product is that I’m holding when I realize he has a pained expression on his face somewhere between “Please don’t ask me something” and “I wish I was in the backroom.” Too late not to say something, so instead, in empathy mode, I can ask something like, “How’s your day going so far?” That’s a question easy to answer, and a simple ice breaker.
Step Two — Go into curiosity mode. This mode is really good for me because it gets me even farther away from being self-conscious. The trick in this mode is to keep the topic of discussion away from anything heavy. This isn’t the time to discuss anything controversial or personal. Instead, I can maneuver the conversation around to questions like, “When you’re not working, what’s your favorite pastime?” If you’re a naturally curious person, you can learn a lot this way, such as learning about a neighborhood haunt you knew nothing about. Or you can give the other person a heads up about a neighborhood haunt they didn’t know about. It’s all good!
Step Three — Go into host mode. I remind myself that even the simplest encounter is actually akin to being a good host or hostess. If we invite someone over for dinner we want to make them as comfortable as possible, right? So even if it’s just standing in line at the bank, we can be gracious and go into host mode with a light-hearted comment to relax the people within earshot. That it isn’t on our own turf matters not! So if the line is exceptionally long, and there are lots of people in front of us, I might say something to those immediately around me like, “They must be having a sale!”
I guess it all boils down to which is more comfortable, feeling like a lonely, isolated, scared little child when one is supposed to be all grown up, or taking a few easy steps to get outside of one’s own discomfort and in the process, help another human being do the same.
Please share your thoughts about overcoming shyness in the Comments section below.
In the meantime,
Bestest to all,