Shyness and Social Anxiety: How Not to Let it Get in Your Way

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In my early 20s, I landed a job I’d long wanted to try: Camp counselor.

The set up was pretty perfect. Technically, this job was even better than being a regular camp counselor, because technically I’d be an “outdoor educator.”

I was working for Outdoor School, a special program of school districts in and around Portland, Oregon. It sends every sixth grader off into the woods for a week of experiential, environmental education during the fall or spring.

It’s a multi-generational set up, where the sixth graders are the campers, high schoolers are the cabin counselors, and paid staff (like me) are the instructors and supervisors.

Everyone outdoors together in Oregon’s invariably wet and muddy forest, at the foot of majestic Mt. Hood.

By day, I taught The Water Cycle to kids who stood around in full rain gear. We all ate mushy spaghetti in the mess hall. At night, we sang songs around the campfire. Sometimes my coworkers and I dragged our sleeping bags into the meadow and slept under the stars.

It was a grand time.

This was the perfect job for me, except for one big thing: All that standing up in front of everybody, doing skits, leading songs, and trying to be the most outgoing counselor that all the kids liked best.

Being among all these students pointedly reminded me of all the wiles I’d employed throughout my school career to remain safely outside the limelight. Quiet, shy, observant, reserved, studious, these were all the words that fit me when I was in the classroom.

Now I found myself in a position where I simply could not hide.

Working in a camp involves a lot of "team spirit." The paid staff especially were expected to model full participation to everyone: kids and high schoolers. There was no more copping out.

My job and my coworkers depended on me stepping out of my comfort zone.

So I did my best. I launched myself into skits. I tried out silly voices. I sang gustily. I attempted dramatics and gimmicks to get kids interested in the activities I led.

It was a great push for me, and here’s what I realized:

It was time for me to get over all this self-consciousness for Pete’s sake! Being in front of this mass of 12- to 17-year-olds reminded me that I was an adult now, and this hiding behind my shyness had gone on long enough. I needed to work on having basic public speaking and presentation skills.

I was never going to be like my charismatic coworkers who shone in front of the group – and that was fine, it was good even.

What happened was that despite all the effort I put into pretending that I was gregarious and outgoing, the kids who showed up to my activities were invariably the shy, thoughtful, introverted ones.

And we would get on just swimmingly when left to ourselves, folding origami, writing poems and crafting mossy fairy houses alongside the creek.

I was attracting my own kind – and you know what? That was wonderful, because they needed me.

Many were away from home for the first time, and feeling a little nervous and uncertain, especially in this new rah-rah, everybody-join-in-now environment. They could tell I was like them, and that’s why I was their favorite camp counselor.

That was an amazing lesson. I could be myself and my people would find me.

Over the years, I’ve kept working at becoming more comfortable with visibility. There have been stages in life where I’ve definitely focused on it more than others.

When I worked in humanitarian aid, I had a yearlong position in Haiti where I actually had to be the organization’s public spokesperson, which included a live NPR interview (fail) and a televised interview for NBC (slightly better).

When I took my sabbatical, I decided I wanted to be totally disconnected and out in the world without a thought about any sort of “public image.” I journaled. I didn’t blog.

Then, starting my own business, I never realized how much I would once again need to grow in this area.

Of course it makes sense: As an entrepreneur, you become the 24/7 public spokesperson for your business. And if you want it to grow and reach more people, that means that you’ve got to push yourself out into the public eye more and more.

There’s another big reason why I think often about this topic and want to learn more. Remember those thoughtful, quiet campers I attracted? Well, the same thing happens now with the people I attract in my business.

So here we all are working on the same project: Taking the brave and intentional steps toward our ideal life and work – without letting our fears, especially the anxiety of how we appear to others, get in our way.

This week, I listened to a great interview with Ellen Hendriksen that offered some wonderful additional insights into this topic.

Ellen is a clinical psychologist and the author of “How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.”

Here were some of the interview’s highlights for me (all italics are quotes from Ellen):

First, a useful definition: “Social anxiety is self-consciousness on steroids.” What we fear is “the reveal” – that suddenly everyone will see what we’re afraid is true of us and judge us for it. This becomes a disorder when it interferes with our everyday life, or when we have to “white-knuckle” our way through each day.

How common it is to consider yourself shy or socially anxious. Those of us who identify in this way often walk around like it’s our big secret. But guess what? So is everybody else!

If you poll a bunch of people and ask, “Are you shy?” (you don’t say socially anxious, the technical term), 40 percent of them will say, “Yeah, I’m shy.”

Then if you change the question in your poll, and say, “Have you ever been dispositionally shy? (Not have you had a shy moment, but have you ever considered yourself to be a shy person …) then 80 percent will say “Yes.” That’s the vast majority of us!

How, ten years ago, Ellen herself would have been very distressed before giving an interview like this one. She never expected to be out giving interviews, podcasting and in the public eye. Except that she realized the limitations of continuing to work solely in academia, and that if she wanted to do something more, she would need to conquer her own social anxieties.

In fact, before giving an interview, she likes to “rate” her anxiety quantitatively on a scale of 0-100 (she admits this is totally nerdy).

A “0” is hanging out on her couch, petting her cat, and watching Netflix while a “100” is the worst anxiety imaginable, like a panic attack.

As I’ve done more interviews, I’ve watched that number drop from 60s to 50s to 40s … today coming to this interview, it was 20s, I was looking forward to it.

It’s so interesting to practice something that you’re afraid of, do the thing before you’re 100 percent ready, to watch oneself get better at it.

How our idea of how we can move past our social anxiety and gain greater confidence is often in the “wrong order.” It’s through doing things that we build the confidence.

I have a lot of people come into my office, and say, “I really want to hit pause on my life. I want to go away for a while, work on myself and build my confidence and then reemerge into the world and then start living the life I want to live.”

And I say, “You sound super motivated! And let’s start in the opposite order. Let’s have you start living the life you want to live, and your confidence will catch up.”

When you start to see yourself doing it, you start to believe you can.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you as you continue to push the boundaries of your own comfort zone -- to keep creating the life and work you want for yourself.

Most recently I’ve seen these ideas proven again and again as I’ve stretched myself to start my own podcast. That was definitely a place where I had to act first and then my confidence caught up.

It’s amazing what can happen when we push our limits and then realize: Hey, that wasn’t that bad! Now what’s next?