The Shyness Project

Successfully Shy: Sharing Her Story and Helping Others

I met Barb in late July after she found my site through some of the comments I’d made on Susan Cain’s Power of Introverts blog.  After she requested I send her an email, I sent her one without knowing what to expect.  Turns out that email started our lengthy constant email discussions from there on out.  We became very close through all we were disclosing and sharing in our emails and reading each others blogs.  We’ve talked on the phone as well and have sent some hand-written notes to each other. She has also posted about me from time to time on her WordPress blog and even interviewed me for her Psychology Today blog.  I am very grateful for her enthusiasm and support for my project as well as her endearing friendship.  Here’s her story:

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I still remember one horrible day in high school when a math teacher called attention to my quietness. He told the whole class that I was the quietest student he’d ever had in his 22 years of teaching. Of course, everyone turned around to look at me, as if I was some kind of freak. I felt humiliated and ashamed. I truly believed there was something wrong with me. It didn’t even cross my mind that there was something wrong with a teacher who would make such a statement.

Unfortunately, I received more feedback like that from teachers, and it almost cost me my career.

I made it though my undergraduate years, not having to talk in classes. I was smart, and easily made good grades. But when I got to graduate school, everything changed. I was in a doctoral level clinical psychology program. Most of the classes were small discussion groups. During the second semester of my first year, the clinical director called me into her office and told me that if I didn’t participate more (i.e. stop being so quiet), my standing in the program was in jeopardy.

Of course, I freaked out. What was I going to do? I daily experienced intense anxiety in these classes—my stomach hurt, my face felt hot, my heart raced. I would try to think of something to say, but usually by the time I got up my nerve to make my point, someone else would have jumped in ahead of me. I wasn’t good at interrupting, that’s for sure. And no one really paused long enough for me to get a word in.

So what did I do? I did what any good psychology graduate student would do: I went into therapy. Fortunately, I found a wonderful female therapist who was supportive and encouraging. We worked together individually, but she also mentioned that she had an ongoing women’s therapy group that I could join. I was apprehensive, but also intrigued. I joined the group and attended weekly. Each Wednesday evening I listened intently to the other women in the group share what they were working on, and each week I didn’t say a word. I truly don’t remember for how long this went on. My memory says it was months, but maybe it was only weeks.  One night, though, it was like some sort of intervention you’d see on a reality TV show (but in a really nice way). None of the women would let me leave until I said something—anything. I don’t remember the details, except that I spoke. After that, the ice was broken, and I didn’t shut up.

The trick, though, was how to generalize my talking in the women’s group to talking in my classes in school. It actually didn’t happen until the next year when I started over with new classes, new teachers, and a different combination of students. It was easier then to be the “new me.” I remember having one professor who thought my insights about clients/cases we discussed were brilliant. It was thrilling to begin sharing my thoughts and ideas and have them validated as being important contributions.

Fast forward. I have successfully finished graduate school, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at St. Louis University Medical Center’s Anxiety Disorders Center, and have co-authored Dying of Embarrassment, the first self-help book ever written on social phobia (now called social anxiety disorder).  When I proposed the book idea to my colleagues and the publisher, I never even contemplated telling anyone about my own lifelong struggles with shyness and social anxiety. After all, I was now an “expert.” How could I have difficulty with public speaking, participating in meetings, or going to social events? I thought it was okay to help other people face their fears, but it wasn’t okay to admit I’d struggled with these same situations myself.

After the book’s publication, I promoted Dying of Embarrassment and received much satisfaction from knowing I was helping people learn more about this neglected and misunderstood problem. I continued to feel, however, as if I was doing others with social anxiety a disservice by not sharing my own experiences.

It wasn’t until years later, when I wrote Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life, did I muster the courage to share my own story. I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to let people know they are not alone. Most of all, I wanted people to know there is hope. In addition to writing Painfully Shy, I participated in a documentary called Afraid of People, in which I talked openly (not to mention I cried on camera—ugh) about my experiences with not only anxiety, but also depression.

Aside from one negative book review in which the writer said my personal stories were “distracting,” the majority of feedback I’ve received is positive. I’m not sorry I crossed the line from being simply the “expert” to being a human being with real-life problems. I now realize, I can be an expert AND someone who still struggles from time to time.

I feel like I’ve rambled a bit—thank you for indulging me!  In closing, I want to leave you with a few take-away points:

  • While there may be some careers that will suit your personality better than others, you do not have to let shyness hold you back from doing whatever you want to do.
  • Remember, the world needs your ideas! As much as I dreaded and hated participating in classes, once I did, I realized I had valuable contributions to make. If only the naturally outgoing people speak up, we’re going to miss out on some important perspectives.
  • Find support wherever you can. For me, it was that women’s therapy group. (With managed health care, such long-term therapy groups are a rarity these days.) But you might be able to find a support group. And now there are plenty of online options for reaching out, such as blogs like Brittany’s!
  • The path is not a straight one. I still have days where I want to crawl in a hole and not talk to anyone! That doesn’t diminish how far I’ve come.
  • And finally, it is only by sharing our vulnerabilities that we can truly connect with others in a profound and meaningful way.

“Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”
- Brené Brown

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To read more of Barb’s posts, you can visit her wordpress blog or her Psychology Today blog. She is the author of four books on shyness and social anxiety and is a nationally recognized expert.  Not to mention, she’s extremely kind and thoughtful and she’s someone who you will be very lucky to get a chance to know.  She has a lot of great posts on shyness and social anxiety that you will enjoy reading if you can relate in any way or have an interest in that subject.

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31 thoughts on “Successfully Shy: Sharing Her Story and Helping Others

  1. You should both be very proud of yourselves; lives spent in the shadows and sidelines have resulted in strong, dedicated females who live to help others!

  2. Great post ,very helpful Brittany thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. great post! i think it should be differentiated between shyness and introversion. a lot of introverted people are labelled as shy when they are just introverted and don’t like being around a lot of people

    • I agree. I’ve never liked having the “shy” label attached to me. I am neither shy nor introverted. Just socially anxious.

      • Yeah all the different labels get mixed up a lot and people often have their own definitions of things. Unfortunately you can’t do a whole lot about what people call you, even though trust me I know it’s frustrating when you get labeled something that you don’t feel fits you or is right. Refusing to let yourself be labeled is something I have tried to do to not let those things get to me too much, though it can be difficult if it is something you hear repetitively. Thank you both for your comments!

        • I have started a post dealing with the issue of semantics. A little preview…part of the issue is that historically, Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst who pioneered personality type theory, himself tied shyness and introversion together. In a lecture he wrote: “One of the earliest signs of introversion in a child is a reflective, thoughtful manner, marked shyness and even fear of unknown objects.” It seems like it’s kind of cool now to say you’re introverted, but not so cool to say you’re shy. Still mulling it over…

          Thanks for reading!

          • Yeah that sounds like a really good article you’re working on. I agree that it seems to have become more accepted as well as respected to say you’re introverted now, but if you say you’re shy it’s not. I look forward to reading your post!

  4. The points you mentioned at the end were simply great. Every point was so true and importance. Great post with a honest thought behind it.

  5. Barb, I love this sentence: ” The path is not a straight one. I still have days where I want to crawl in a hole and not talk to anyone! That doesn’t diminish how far I’ve come.”

    when I was preparing to attend my latest class reunion this Summer, I could feel my old patterns trying to rear their ugly head. I secretly wondered just how far I had really come…I decided I was not going to let my high school peers (whom I rarely if ever see) define who I am, because I simply am not that same little shy boy they once knew. Can’t say I had a great time, but neither was it a total flop. I went for myself…to prove I could do it. personal growth can be painful and terrifying @ times.
    Barb, I appreciate your willingness to share your personal struggles. It makes what you say even more credibility

    • Congrats on even making it to your class reunion. I remember one time my husband and I had pulled up to the place where my reunion was going to be, and I couldn’t make it inside.

      I think you had asked in the comment thread for your post, how I managed to get the courage to ask my husband out on our first date. The same therapy group that I reference in this post was a big part of it. They encouraged me. Also, my younger brother had lots of dates and girlfriends, and he told me that the girls had always asked him out, so I figured it couldn’t be that weird. It was still scary, but the best risk I’ve ever taken!

      Thanks for saying that about appreciating my personal struggles. Sometimes I feel like as a psychologist I should have things all figured out by now. But I guess that’s like saying a doctor should never get strep throat.

  6. Just a FYI: The photo of me was the first time I saw Painfully Shy in a bookstore in NYC. It was a thrill!

  7. Greg Markway on said:

    And a shameless plug for our new humorous look at being an introvert during this most extroverted time of year…http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shyness-is-nice/201112/not-so-silent-night-guide-pretending-be-extrovert-day-and-getting-away-i

  8. Thank you for sharing the take-away points, Barb (and Brittany). I can’t wait to share this to my office mate who is a self-confessed social awkward. Just recently, I have encouraged her to sign up for WordPress and start writing. I introduced her to this site and I swear her face lit when I told a little bit about this girl named Brittany and her journey to confronting her shyness.

    Her name is Marz, she has just followed you, and soon she’ll be writing on WP. She promised.

    • That’s awesome Addie, thanks for sharing! I look forward to following her journey when she starts writing, be sure and leave the link to her site once she’s got it going. And thanks for your comment on my youtube speech, I think it’s really great that you both are going to be signing up for Toastmasters. If you can stick with it and refuse to let any initial fears scare you away from it, it really boosts your confidence. I’ve given several presentations/speeches in my college classes this semester and I’ve heard feedback that people think I’m a very confident, passionate, and poised person, and I don’t think I used to come off like that as much before. But I surprised myself in Toastmasters in that my public speaking was a lot better than I thought it was, so maybe what changed most was my view of myself and my speaking abilities. Thanks for your comments!

  9. A truly inspiring post! Thanks for sharing!

    Not letting shyness hold you back from doing what you want to do! Great advice and truly heartwarming!

  10. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. I love your blog and your approach to dealing with being shy. Love the comparison to The Happiness Project. Great concept and great writing! I look forward to reading more! And good luck with your project!!

    • Thank you Galen! You have a really great blog yourself and I look forward to reading more of your posts. Yes, after reading No Impact Man, The Happiness Project, and One-Week Job Project, I was inspired to do my own one-year project. I didn’t think I would actually follow through with that idea, but it’s pretty cool that I have! It’s amazing what we’re all capable of if we’re passionate enough about something. Thanks for reading and writing!

  11. I can’t emphasize enough how great a service you are providing for so many people. And Barb, thank you for sharing your experience, as well.

    So great to read the comments. And Addie, so sweet of you to reach out to your work colleague.

  12. Barb: I have had similar experiences with teachers as well. And like yourself, I thought there was something wrong with me instead then with the teacher. Teachers have so much power as we are growing up – we look up to them and this is what we get in return…

    “•The path is not a straight one. I still have days where I want to crawl in a hole and not talk to anyone! That doesn’t diminish how far I’ve come.” –> Well said, Barb, well said. I should see things like that as well. Perhaps I am too harsh on myself.

    A very inspirational story, it is good to see that having social anxiety does not necessarily stop you from having a successful career. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Great encouragement here! A terrific resource, and some books I’ll certainly have to read.

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