The Solution to Shyness? Kindness and Curiosity.

“There are two kinds of person. Two ways to be. Either you turn towards others — or you turn inwards, digging yourself deeper and deeper into the lonely pit of your mind. It’s like directions on a screw. See what I mean?”

I think I do. The ways of turning the screw are perfect opposites. One direction undoes the other, and only one of them is worth anything.

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“I can tell that you’re the kind who turns towards others.”

This is the first time in my life I have shared a coffeeshop table with a stranger. Just a week earlier, I was living entirely in my head, weighed down by overwhelming shyness. My screw had been turning the wrong way.

But just at this moment, this stranger whom I met maybe 10 minutes before is right. It’s like a screw; once you know which way it needs to go, nothing is easier than switching direction.

This is the story of how I ended up in that café. If you struggle with social anxiety, I hope it helps you make your way to equally exhilarating places.

It all began 18 months before, when I decided to do something about my shyness. Following an approach borrowed from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), I made a list of intimidating social tasks and ranked their scariness on a 10-point scale. Some examples:

4. Saying things to myself out loud in an empty room
6 Terminating a conversation with a friend
7 Going to a party where I know almost no one (in US)
9 Taking a taxi on my own in Dakar (note that at the time I was living in Senegal and spoke almost no French)
9 Making a phone call to a stranger

Slowly, I made my way up the scale, choosing activities from the level just outside my comfort zone until that became the new comfort.

Nine months in, I’d made some impressive progress. As you can see from the list, I had a pretty severe phone phobia. I knew that if I just kept picking up the phone, I could get over the fear — but what was shocking was just how fast this happened. After each call, the scariness of the next one plummeted, and after a grand total of five calls I started preferring picking up the phone to sending an email for e.g. customer support issues.

But despite the early success, eventually I exhausted this approach. Structured interactions like ordering coffee, phoning my bank, even giving a talk became a piece of cake. What I was stuck on was conversations. I still found talking to strangers terrifying. Somehow, ranked lists didn’t help with that.

The scariness ranking was the first step on my path out of shyness. The second step was having my partner almost break up with me.

A mere week before that coffeeshop conversation, I was vacationing back in Senegal, where my partner Ben’s company is based. I’d been spending my time thinking, or trying to think, about my future, an activity which Ben and I call “staring into the abyss.”

I would be getting my PhD soon, and I needed to make some sort of post-graduation plan. I knew I didn’t want to work in academia. What I did want was anybody’s guess. I loved painting and writing, but imagining those things stretched before me for decades felt vertiginous, empty, lonely. Instead, I mostly looked away, drowning the days in mindless video games, promising myself that tomorrow I’d be brave enough.

And then I finally do feel brave. Ben has suggested that I start by thinking about my values; I open a career guide which might help. It instructs me to imagine an ideal day at work, so I visualize us sitting in our plant-filled apartment, Ben and I at desks on opposite sides of the living room. I’m polishing words, or threading a dozen ideas together until I get to the bottom of some experience. Or I’m in my studio, following my feelings until they find their most intense, most unified expression.

When Ben gets back from work, I proudly announce that I’m ready to talk about the abyss.

“Great, what are your values?”

“Expressing my experiences as vividly as possible. You know, getting to the bottom of my feelings, doing research if necessary, writing or painting about it.”

I regret the words as soon as they come out of my mouth. I think of Ben’s own core value: making the world a better place. Of how this guided his job choice, how his face lights up when he talks about the difference he’s making. How must I sound to him?

His expression is unbearably blank. My terror writes the worst across that blankness: distance, disappointment, disdain. He is, he remains, silent: stubbornly, terrifyingly silent.

I can’t take it anymore. “You seem disappointed,” I hazard.

“Yeah… Our values are… so different.”

The way he says it, the way I feel it, is the deepest abyss I’ve ever faced. It’s the feeling of standing naked in the darkness, alone.

It’s the feeling of being unloved.

He confirms my worst fears: “It’s very important to me that I date someone whose values I respect.”

I’m right at the edge of the abyss. It’s every insecurity I’d ever felt in this relationship at once. It’s wondering why he would date me in the first place. It’s looking in the mirror and finding my worst fears: selfishness, greed, self-importance. Worthlessness.

As if hearing my thoughts, Ben softens. “Look, I admire a lot about you. Your writing and your painting are amazing. You’re bold and ambitious. You never stop pushing yourself.”

“Pushing myself up the wrong tree,” I think bitterly. “Ambitious, yes; about something which is at best pointless, at worst selfish.”

I want to roll time back, swallow all my words. I want to press undo. It’s too late; I’m in freefall.

A second passes, an eternity. I survive.

At the bottom of the abyss, I hit my values.

Helping others. Connecting. Making the world a better place. It really is that simple. “Expressing my experiences?” That’s just a pale tremor, a ghost. Something I enjoy doing, nothing more. What I feel tugging at my heart with unmistakable insistence is only this: morality. The weightiest thing; the thing that binds us all.

Of course, “I want to make the world a better place” is just what I’d say to stop Ben from breaking up with me, whether or not I actually believed it. And since I haven’t actually been trying to improve anybody’s life, I have basically no credibility. Still, I try to explain.

“I just realized that I actually want to help other people, much more than I want to create things… It’s just that I’m introverted. I like people in theory; in practice they overwhelm me. I’m hopeless at group interaction. How can I help anyone other than indirectly, through writing or painting?”

Ben thinks for a moment, then asks: “Remember that caterpillar you saw at the meditation retreat?”

I do. Letting go of my disgust, which turned to overwhelming awe. The giant mandible, the legs, the dew-strewn, fuzzy back — all beautiful, all miraculous.

“What would it take for you to see people the way you saw that caterpillar?”

I had done that before. On my best days, a smile shared with a stranger brings me face to face with the precious particularity of a life no less worthy than my own. But how would I let such experiences guide my life?

“I don’t know… I’m shy. I’m introverted,” I repeat.

For the first time in this conversation, Ben meets my eyes. “I want to grab you and shake you and tell you: you can be so much more awesome than you think.”

The way he says it, I know we’ll be okay.

The next day, I meditate for four hours (almost) straight. Day after that, I go to a café.

The thought: “How can I make this barista’s” day better?” pops into my head. I test out the intention. I look in his eyes. I smile. I speak up.

As I sit down, it occurs to me that during that entire interaction, I hadn’t experienced a single moment of self-consciousness. I spoke French without thinking about it, without worrying about my accent or grammar. I made eye contact without feeling exposed.

I think I understand: It’s literally impossible to be self-conscious while focusing fully on another person. My attention can only be in one place at a time.

This might be obvious to you. In fact, you might have heard this fact trotted out as a neat trick for eradicating shyness: focus on helping your interlocutor and watch your anxiety fall away.

Sounds great in theory, but in practice I found this advice completely unfollowable. A typical conversation would go something like this:

Acquaintance: I’m feeling down today…
Me (thinking): Here it is! A chance to focus attention outwards! A chance to vanquish self-consciousness! This time won’t be like last week… No awkward silence at all… Last week… Gah, that really sucked… Nonono, stop, stop, STOP! Quick! Ask a question!
Acquaintance: Blah blah blah blah…
Me (thinking): @#$%!

When I realized that my fundamental goal wasn’t to vanquish shyness, but simply to help, my conversations started sounding more like this:

Acquaintance: I’m feeling down today…
Me: Want to talk about it?

It’s that easy.

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A few days later, a friend and I are at Village des Arts, an artists’ colony in Dakar. Baba Ly is telling us about using abstract art to express his emotions. His gaze drifts upwards, towards a vast utopia seemingly hanging from the ceiling. He speaks of inner riches, of going beyond the surface. This is the art for which he stays up at night.

During the day, he makes paintings of stylized women in colorful robes, with children on their backs and baskets on their heads — the “African art” that pays the bills. At night, he pours out his soul.

I hang on to his every word. I ask follow-ups. 18 months before, I spoke maybe 50 words of French. I had nightmares about having to direct a taxi driver. Now, the questions pour out of me with no sense of linguistic mediation.

Later, I realize I made some dreadful grammatical mistakes. As in, “I knowed”-level dreadful. Not too long ago, they would have mortified me, but this time, that doesn’t matter at all. I only want to know Baba Ly’s story, and my bungled grammar is perfectly adequate to that task.

I know two things about my values now: I want to help people, and I want to learn their stories, catch glimpses of their intricate interiors. Bear witness to their humanity.

That’s why I read so many biographies, interviews, novels, poems. That’s why I look at art, feel compelled to translate, in writing, that art to human experience.

For years, I thought that was the end of it. I was doomed to mediated experiences. As an introvert, I was horrible at getting strangers to open up. At best, I could learn the stories of long-time friends. Most people — especially extraverts — were bad about talking about their feelings, anyway. Better to turn to the poets. Better to turn to my own inner life.

Now, three minutes after meeting Baba Ly, the artists’ village is a vast utopia, made up of inner worlds I can’t wait to visit.

Simply realizing that I want to help others and learn about their stories cured me of 80% of my social anxiety. You may be thinking: that’s all fine and dandy. But what if I don’t want to help others? What if I just want to be less shy so that people like me?

If so, I commend you! Just realizing what you do and don’t want takes you 80% of the way there. And if what you want is selfish, it’s especially hard to be honest with yourself!

In fact, figuring out that I, too, want people to like me was an important part of my journey. I used to be convinced that I didn’t give a damn what most people thought of me, didn’t stoop so low as a need to be liked. (So why was I shy? New people were just… intrinsically scary!)

Last October, I went on a ten-day meditation retreat. Walking silently around the grounds of the meditation center among the other participants, I noticed something shocking. I had the thought “What are they thinking about me?” literally every time I passed by another person. So if you already know that you care about others’ opinions — good job! You’re further along than I was 6 months ago.

But also: I want to grab you and shake you and tell you “You can be so much more awesome than you think!” You do want to help others. Somewhere at the core of your being is a deep well of love. If only you knew how powerful it is! How powerful you are.

Your desire to be liked is a boulder blocking that well. You found the boulder — hooray! Now it’s time to push it aside.

But how do you do that? For me, meditation has been key. The traditional kind where you focus on your breath, mere calmness and concentration, was enough to help me catch glimmers of my better self.

Beyond that, loving-kindness meditation has been invaluable. In this practice, you make a series of wishes. (What follows is going to sound cheesy, but bear with me! Cheesy or not, it’s made a dramatic difference to my life.) Those can take many forms, but the one I use is: “May I be free from suffering. May I be free from ill will. May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be truly happy.” With each wish, I conjure corresponding experiences. Hiking through flower-filled meadows. The endless benevolence of a baby’s smile. I search for memories until they are so vivid that my desire for them becomes palpable. Then I direct the wishes towards other people, taking loved ones, acquaintances, strangers, groups of people, and difficult people in turn. Once again, I make sure to generate memories which recreate these feelings, and stay with one wish until it rings true.

That last part is harder than it sounds. More often than not, I conjure up bliss washing across an acquaintance’s face only to feel a pang of dislike. I sit with the feeling until something — usually a memory — bubbles up from underneath it. Once, I found myself swept back to a moment from middle school. “You’ll never get married if you don’t wear makeup,” my friend (frienemy?) had told me. It all came flooding back: anger, then defiance, then the resolve to prove her wrong. Years of wearing my unpainted face as a badge of honor. Bingo. I was trying to wish happiness onto someone who wore makeup — but a part of me believed such people didn’t even deserve joy!

This happens again and again. To my horror, I struggle to generate honest wishes for minorities, for older people, for those who superficially remind me of childhood bullies… Those are upsetting truths to discover about myself — but each time, simply bringing my biases into consciousness is enough to (at least temporarily) turn the truth to falsehood.

With every day of practice, I’m better able to see other people’s humanity — and I become more and more confident that seeing and honoring that humanity is something I deeply desire.

I know you do too.

Back in Boston, I decided that joining a CBT-based social-anxiety support group would help me on my quest towards gregariousness. Instead, the sessions made me feel anxious… about not having any recent shy behaviors to report.

But before I accepted that I had already cured my own shyness and quit, I gained some insight into why CBT had been a dead end for me. The therapist kept trying to convince us that it would be in our own interest to work on our anxiety. When the participants described avoiding parties or sitting dejectedly in a corner, he’d chime in: “Wouldn’t it be great if you could join in the fun and have conversations? You’re missing out, aren’t you?”

Thinking about what I’m missing out on only makes me feel worse. Like that time I went out dancing, fell out of step during the first dance, watched the second with tear-filled eyes, and ran out at the third. But when I think about what the other people at the party are missing out on, think about how I might help them have fun, I start feeling the desire to join in.

The therapist’s question was misplaced in another way too: a part of me didn’t think it was missing out on anything.

In the days when I was theoretically aiming to be more sociable but wasn’t really doing anything about it, I would state that aim in the voice of a popular middle-school kid. “You really should be more social, Eve.” But I wasn’t exactly an admirer of those kids! On some level, I thought it was important to be sociable. On another level, I believed that that way madness, nightclubbing, and sororityhood lies. Becoming more outgoing would be the first step down the slippery slope towards a life of binge-drinking.

And then there I was, my head mushy with alcohol, my words slurred and loud. It was past my bedtime, too. I was loving it.

I was out at a bar with a group of graduate students from my department, commiserating about the frustrations of grad life. For the first time, I was opening up about feeling like I didn’t belong. For the first time, I felt like I belonged. I felt connected.

Ironically, it was when I gave up aiming for connection that I found it. When I first stated my values to Ben, “connection” was on the list. By now, my conversational goal had shifted from “connecting” to “learning others’ stories.” This had two positive effects. First, I didn’t set my sights too high, didn’t conclude that an interaction was failed simply because we didn’t become best friends. Second, I was open to interactions with a much larger pool of people.

I had assumed that connection meant finding your twin in a crowded room. Armed with a detailed checklist of everything you know about your soul, you tick the boxes that others have on their lists. Soulmates are the ones with lists most similar to yours.

What if I know nothing about my soul? What if my checklist is a series of questions? What if connection is adding to each other’s lists — union, not intersection?

At the bar that night, we needed the humor and honesty that alcohol can bring. Look, my “drunk” is one beer and my bedtime is 9:30 PM. I wasn’t headed down any slippery slopes. But it was a big shift. As long as I was trying to be sociable, without asking why I wanted that in the first place, I remained torn. I paid lip service to gregariousness, but in my inner narrative the quiet nerd was the hero occupying the moral high ground, and I would balk at any activities that bore even superficial resemblance to the behavior of a sorority girl. It was only once I realized when and why sociability was valuable that I could reach for it even when it wore a cloak of sororityhood.

Shifting my focus to helping others has dramatically improved my experience of large-group interactions. I used to be filled with dread during conversations I found uninteresting. I was uninterested, so I had nothing interesting to contribute; I was bored, therefore I was boring. I didn’t belong.

Now, If I’m bored but everyone else is engaged, they don’t need my help! Since my primary aim is helping others have fun, I can simply sit back and enjoy everyone else’s enjoyment.

In the past, once I got bored, I was done. I would spend so much mental energy ruminating about my lack of belonging that I would lose the thread completely and never get back in. This only confirmed my suspicion: I was really boring.

When I cut out the rumination, I realized that boring conversations almost always return to interesting topics — and when they do, I’m refreshed and ready to jump back in.

At another department event, I’m joined by a friend I chatted to the previous week. Our conversation is nice enough, but I see new people on the other side of the room and I’m aching to meet them.

This is an entirely novel experience. In the past, during social events I’d corner an old acquaintance and hope they wouldn’t abandon me. (If there were no acquaintances, I’d go for the shyest looking person in the room.) In those days, “I’m gonna go mingle” were the words I most dreaded hearing.

Now, I felt the urge to utter them myself.

Remembering the old feeling of abandonment, I don’t do that. What if my interlocutor is like my past self? What if they’ll feel rejected and uninteresting? I stick to this conversation.

Later, I hatch a plan for next time. Instead of “I’m gonna go mingle,” I’ll say “I’m curious about those people over there. Want to come meet them with me?”

That’s one of the great things about overcoming shyness: there will always be a next time. But it cuts both ways: realizing that there will be a next time — “abundance mindset” — decreases shyness.

There are 4.6 million people in the Boston area, where I live. Even if only ten percent of those people are kinder than me, or smarter, or more interesting, or just worthwhile friends, that’s almost half a million people. Even if I were the world’s biggest snob and only wanted to make friends with Harvard professors and graduate students, that’s still a pool of 16 thousand people! If I screw up a social interaction, it doesn’t matter. I won’t be left friendless; I’ll learn something and apply it to the next person I meet.

Everyone knows this in theory, but it’s hard to put into practice. It helps to really viscerally feel the enormity of your city’s population. Once again, meditation is an asset; during my retreat, I had a profoundly beautiful sense of my insignificance in the face of the world’s 7.5 billion people. If you don’t have time for a ten-day retreat, just pushing yourself into a lot of interactions (using the ordered list of scary things I mentioned above) can help you gain this visceral understanding. You screw up, screw up, screw up… but, miraculously, there are always new people to meet.

Of course, feeling your own insignificance can be scary. There’s a degree of selflessness required to fully grasp the world’s — or your neighborhood’s — populousness. It can be even scarier when you’re counting the neighbors who are wiser, kinder, smarter, more knowledgeable, more skilled — all the people you most want to meet and impress. There are so many of those that being disliked by any one of them still doesn’t matter.

It’s scary, but think of the payoff! Now that I know how many awesome people there are, I can keep meeting new ones without worrying what they think about me. Eventually, I’ll get good enough at social interaction that I’ll make friends with some of them.

Okay, I cheated a bit. Sometimes individual interactions do matter. You might live in a tiny town. You might have a precarious job or an interview for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (You might be in middle school. If so, I’m sorry; it will get so much better than this!) But there are almost always other venues for meeting people where an abundance mindset is appropriate — if not in person, then online.¹ And if you practice putting yourself out there in those contexts, abundance mindset will become second nature even in contexts of scarcity.

The standard story about social anxiety is that it arises out of low self-esteem together with a desire to be liked. If that theory is right, then there are two cures for shyness: increasing confidence or decreasing the need to be liked. How come most advice focuses on the first cure?

“No need to be shy; you’re awesome!” People used to tell me that all the time. It made me want to scream. “You don’t understand: I know I’m awesome!” Low self-confidence was never my problem.

Well, actually, I did have low confidence about one thing: the impression I made on people. I was constantly terrified that others wouldn’t see the specialness glowing inside. But trying to increase my self-confidence in that domain would have been a huge mistake; I would never have full control over what others thought of me, and some people would never like me. That’s just what it means to be separate human beings; everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

My solution to shyness wasn’t increasing self-confidence. If anything, it was decreasing it. I had to face the fact that I wasn’t all that special, that in my town alone, there were probably hundreds of thousands of people who were much more interesting than me.

Instead of self-confidence, I tackled my need to be liked. (First, I had to realize that I even had that need! That was the insight from my meditation retreat.) I didn’t try to eradicate it. Instead, I let my other needs drive my actions: the need to help and to learn about others.

In the end, maybe it is about confidence. Not confidence that you’re already where you need to be — but that you’re capable of getting there. Not that you’re better than others — but that rankings are beside the point. Not that you’re special — but that there is beauty in your insignificance.

Not that you are awesome, but that you could be so much more awesome than you are.

So how do you cure your shyness? That’s the wrong question. There are so many how-to books, but the crux of the matter isn’t “how to?” but “why to?” That’s the hard part. Once you find the why — really feel it in your gut, dig it up from under piles of internalized expectations, you’re 80% of the way to the how. At least, that’s been my experience.

The “why” takes you 80% of the way there, but the 20% can be a struggle too. The scenes I sketched in this essay are al set at the start of this year. Since then, I’ve had my ups and downs. It’s hard to undo decades worth of habit, and some days — just this weekend, in fact! — I find myself wrapped in fear again. But it’s enough to know how much I’m capable of, to remember the days when my head bobbed above the waters of ego-building, to start making my way back to that beautiful place. When I notice myself thinking “what are they thinking about me?”, I don’t try to eradicate the self-consciousness. I simply take it as a cue: time to turn on the kindness. Time to twist the screw.

I recently found a document with notes I took from Aziz Gazipura’s book The Solution to Social Anxiety. I jotted down:

Before social interactions, check in about purposes, asking e.g. “How can I help this person feel at ease? What does this person really need right now? How can I give and receive even more love now?”

Something about that idea spoke to me already then, but it took another 18 months for that advice to make any real difference to my behavior. 18 months, 3 weeks of excruciating abyss-avoidance, and one terrifying conversation.

Finding your “why” is a life’s journey. I hope this essay helps you on your way.

I really mean that. Writing, it turns out, isn’t as selfish as I once feared.

Myung-suk² and I are in the same painting class. Within two sentences of our first conversation, she tells me about her parents’ disappointment at her marriage (he wasn’t a Korean), her near-death during childbirth (due to malpractice), the difficult feelings that feed her art.

How did I get her to say these things? Merely by having the intention to learn others’ stories. As soon as I knew what I wanted, I only needed to reach out my hand.

The next week, Myung-suk tells me that she’s found the perfect career for me.

“With your personality, you should be a therapist. It’s so rare for a young person to be this interested in other people’s stories!”

“I’m not sure I believe in personality,” I chuckle.

But you, my reader, who beneath a layer of fear possesses a soft but unshakable confidence: I believe in you.

Thanks to Ben — for holding drafts of this post to the same high standards as he holds me.

[1] I’ve grown a lot through the practice of circling. (I’m a member of this online circling community for wannabe circling facilitators, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it.) A friend also recommends Skip the Small Talk events, though I haven’t been to any yet.
[2] Not her actual name.

Originally published at http://evebigaj.com on July 9, 2020.

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Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

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