Written by Nadia Finer
In her new book, Shy And Mighty, podcast host and shyness coach Nadia Finer is on a softly spoken mission to give shy people a voice. Shy people have unique qualities and skills – here’s how to own them in the face of the loud, outgoing idea of success.
When I was a little kid, I watched a black-and-white film called The Invisible Man. It frightened me to death and gave me bone-chilling nightmares for years.
Scary dreams aside, however, the idea of being invisible is very appealing to a shy person like me. Imagine being able to slink around without having to engage in small talk or worry about people looking at you. We could just lurk in the background, doing our thing without being picked on or put on the spot. Perfect.
In the absence of a fully functional invisibility cloak, I’ve had to resort to alternative measures. Sliding under tables, diving into bushes, hiding in bathrooms and wearing disguises. Being shy can get pretty weird.
We shy people love to blend in. We don’t like confrontation and we find standing up for ourselves trickier than walking a tightrope in a high wind.
Hide and say nothing. That was my solution. In fact, it was my whole approach to life.
I was fourteen when I first realised there was something a bit odd about my voice. It was in a French lesson, and we’d just got these fancy new cassette machines. You spoke into the headset and recorded your voice onto the tape so you could listen back to yourself and check your pronunciation. I loved French, despite my appallingly British accent. So, I happily recorded myself and then pressed play.
All I could hear was this little kid talking. Who the heck was that? And how come they were saying exactly what I had just said?
It took me a moment to understand that it was me. What the …?!
I sounded like I was five years old. How on earth had I not known this before? Why had nobody ever mentioned it?
I felt like my world had imploded.
I was devastated. I was a freak.
If I was shy before, things were about to go next level. From that day on, I vowed to keep this little voice of mine under wraps. Essentially, I hit the mute button on my life. Under no circumstances would I put myself out there to be exposed to potential public ridicule. If I could have communicated solely through the medium of mime, I would have done.
I hate getting into situations where I have to speak.
Over the years, I’ve avoided so many things. I’ve avoided phoning people I don’t know, leaving voicemail messages, having difficult conversations, standing up for myself, negotiating, sharing my opinions, saying yes to opportunities. I’ve avoided making videos, doing interviews, giving talks, entering competitions and pitching my ideas. It’s a long list!
I’ve carried my shyness around with me like a heavy blanket, slowing me down and keeping me hidden. Dragging this blanket around is not conducive to meeting new people, sharing brilliant ideas and opinions or having crazy amounts of fun. It’s debilitating.
For years, I have let my shyness control me. It’s squashed and silenced me and kept me locked inside my own head. Rather than leaning in, shyness has caused me to stand back and watch as other people achieved great things; things I knew I was perfectly capable of doing too. Life under the blanket of shyness is safe and warm. But it’s also sad and lonely. And boring and frustrating.
If you are shy, you struggle to speak up, to convey your ideas and to get involved. It can feel like you’re creeping around in the background of your own life. Like you’re the invisible man (or woman).
Shyness is a bully.
Like a bully, shyness controls and isolates us. It causes us to miss out on fun, opportunities, friendship and success. We miss out on life. It keeps us small. It makes us feel like we are not good enough, that we are broken. And shyness also makes us feel alone.
Until now, being shy has been like being in some kind of secret society – so secret that not even the people in the shy society talk about it.
But we are not alone. Turns out, there are loads of us. Around half of all humans are shy. I bet you didn’t know that. Still, we don’t talk about shyness. Because we’re shy!
For years and years, I didn’t understand my shyness. I struggled to articulate what I was feeling, or why. I just knew that some things were not for me. And that even basic interactions could be a struggle, from ordering food to making phone calls.
And, of course, I never spoke about my shyness either.
Shyness needs a rebrand
Shyness has had a lot of bad press. Until now, it has been the shameful little secret we keep tucked away. Owning up to it feels like an admission of weakness or a childish lack of social skills.
But, why? What if, instead of seeing shyness as a flaw, or a personality blip, we start to see it as a quiet strength instead? What if we actually embraced our shy power? Because we are not broken.
Shyness does not need a cure. I mean, how can half the population be broken? Why should half the population need to change their personalities to fit in with the ideal of being outgoing and confident?
Rather than going for a full-on personality transplant, what if we learned to work with our shyness instead?
We shy people have so many skills and talents. We have sleuth-like abilities to understand complicated situations, ninja-level concentration skills, amazing amounts of empathy, creative brains buzzing with ideas and finely tuned listening skills. And that’s just for starters. If you’re shy, you don’t need fixing. Or to change who you are. You need to be more you.
Success is equated with confidence, and the people held up as being successful – those who speak in public and on TV, launch new endeavours, get promoted, lead teams, organisations or even countries – are portrayed as extroverts, comfortable with visibility and self-promotion. And because these attributes don’t resonate with shy people, success can seem elusive to us. But shyness can be an advantage. It’s rational and sensible to want to observe and listen and pay attention before you jump in with two big toe-capped boots and stomp all over everyone. Maybe instead of us becoming more like them, outgoing alpha-type people could learn from us?
I think it’s time we hit that unmute button because, honestly, there are enough loud, dominant voices out there. And there’s not much listening going on.
Unleashing the silent potential
In a culture where the extroverts dominate, quieter people stay, well… quiet, and our brilliant ideas and thoughts are lost. Quieter voices are missing from the conversation in business, politics, organisations, institutions, and society as a whole.
Unless we feel safe and supported, shy people will continue to hide, and the silent potential in our society will stay silenced. The world needs a mixture of personalities, perspectives and skills to function and get things done. If shy people are under-represented in society, the only voices we will hear are the loud, shouty ones.
We need a range of voices, not just the loudest.
Shy And Mighty by Nadia Finer (Quercus, £16.99) is published on 14 April.
Images: Getty, Jeanette Lendon, Quercus
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