Among my family and friends, I have a reputation for being loud. Not obnoxious (at least I hope not!) but - shall we say? - boisterous. I'm the one who walks up to a stranger at a party, introduces myself and starts to ask personal questions. I'll be the first person up on stage when they start the karaoke. I love to dance and you'll find me shaking my booty as soon as the DJ puts on a song I like.
Of course, most of you have never met me face to face. If you had, you'd be startled by the confession I'm about to make. I used to be shy.
I'm not talking about a little bit shy here. I mean shy almost to the point of pathology. I wouldn't talk to someone I didn't know under any circumstances, regardless of the need. Having to make a telephone call inspired a level of anxiety that made me physically ill.
I'll never forget the time I went with my class to a play at a school in the neighboring town. I managed to leave a library book in the auditorium. My parents tried everything to get me to call the school and ask if the book had been found. I just couldn't do it. I was willing to pay the library the cost of the book rather than get on the line with someone I didn't know. Neither threats nor bribes could induce me to rise above my painful diffidence and insecurity. Ultimately, my mom made the call. I was unbelievably grateful to be saved from the ordeal.
I had no problem speaking up in class. In an academic context I could be confident and assertive. But put me in a social situation and I'd wither. I shrink into the background, terrified that I'd be called upon to interact with people I didn't know.
So what happened? Several experiences helped me to get over my fear of people. I had a boyfriend in high school, an older guy, who was the most sociable, friendly individual I'd ever met. He'd talk to cashiers in the supermarket, people waiting with him at the bus stop, pretty much anyone who crossed his path. I loved him dearly, and I guess he became a bit of a model. I didn't deliberately set out to emulate him, but unconsciously some of his warmth and comfort rubbed off on me.
Another factor was the job I had in college, as a waitress at a local restaurant. If you want to succeed waiting tables, you've got to chat with the customers and make them like you. Somehow I managed to be a totally different person at work. I felt as though I was in a play. When I put on my uniform, I was assuming a role, becoming someone else entirely. In fact I made enough waitressing two nights a week to pay for my rent in a group apartment. I was still shy in the "real" world, but somehow the lively, flirtatious young woman who did so well with tips became a part of my personality.
That was decades ago. I've really gotten much better at dealing with social situations. Sometimes I still feel uncomfortable, but most people probably never realize that fact.
The legacy of shyness does linger, though. I still dislike telephone calls. I can feel the old anxiety in my reluctance to send out too many promo messages, to advertise my books too loudly. I don't want to bother or bore people. I'm afraid they'll think I'm annoying or conceited. Deep down, I'm still shy.