How I overcame shyness to lead a fuller life

  • Living
  • Monday, 30 Oct 2017

Are you brave enough to stand up and speak in public? Photo: Visual Hunt

I come from a long line of shy people. My mother was shy, as was her mother, and possibly her mother before her. Before I started school, I wasn’t aware of my own shyness. Probably because, living as I did on a farm in rural Scotland, I didn’t meet many strangers.

Maybe our groceries were squeezed one by one through the mail slot in our front door by a shy deliveryman, because I can’t remember meeting him. Similarly, the butcher must have chucked our meat over the garden fence. Either that or both these men showed up during one of my afternoon naps.

It didn’t occur to me that I would have to go to school one day, even though my brother had begun the year before. One minute, I was putting on a set of new clothes, and the next I was being led by my mother’s hand through the school gate.

I felt overwhelmed by all the strange people: the pupils, the teachers, the janitor, the cook ... I couldn’t wait to go home. I thought everyone else must feel terrified about interacting at school, but as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, I realised some of my classmates seemed to enjoy hanging out with their new friends.

My condition didn’t improve as I got older. By the time I was 13, my father had changed his job four times, with each new position necessitating a move, a new house and a new school. I had five “first days at school”. There were to be another two moves before I finally left school. It was like a recurring dream – a Groundhog Day that went on and on and on. As a result, most of my friendships were short-lived.

When I entered adulthood, I was so shy and self-conscious I couldn’t even pee in public. I would rather sit on the loo with a bladder the size of a football and listen to Niagara Falls in the next cubicle than run the risk of anyone hearing me.

I would blush profusely and hide behind my long hair whenever a young man cast his eyes in my direction. And if he dared speak to me, I would assume a startled expression, like that of a deer caught in the headlights.

When I was in my early 30s, I awoke one morning and decided that enough was enough. I was fed up with feeling self-conscious and tongue-tied around strangers. It was time for me to do something about it.

So I joined Toastmasters International, an organisation that helps members improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills.

On the day I was scheduled to deliver my first speech at my Penang club, I awoke after a restless night’s sleep. What had I just got myself into? My heart was beating loudly, my stomach was churning and I wanted to run away. Maybe if I fell out of a tree or got knocked down by a car, sustaining a severe injury in the process, that would be a good enough excuse not to attend the club meeting. But the thought of deliberately putting myself in harm’s way quickly changed my mind. I know I could have faked an illness, but I didn’t want to run the risk of being caught out, especially since my then husband would also be at the club to listen to my speech.

Despite my worst fears, the speech went reasonably well, and all too soon I was a regular fixture at the club. Over time and with a lot of guidance from my fellow club members, I fell in love with making speeches and entering speech competitions, and telling tall tales, and being the emcee for Toastmaster events. For a brief moment, I even thought about pursuing a career as a standup comedian.

About the same time as I took my first tentative step into the world of public speaking, I joined a community theatre group. Acting was also part of my “kick the shyness in the butt” strategy. My first role, a non-speaking part that involved me sitting on the edge of stage with a cup of tea was just as nerve racking as making a speech. It was all I could do to stop the cup rattling in the saucer and slopping tea all over the people in the front row.

Many speeches and speaking roles later I came to the realisation that I’d finally managed to kick my shyness in the butt. Still, once in a while, when I want to try something new, a little voice might whisper in my ear and tell me I can’t do it because I just might fail. And if I do fail, what will people think of me?

But I just tell it to get lost – using words that I wouldn’t normally use in public. Funnily enough, it listens to me.

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