By Lisabet Sarai
People who know me now may find it difficult to believe, but when I was young, I was painfully shy. Talking to strangers terrified me. My parents urged me to get out and “make friends”, but I was far more comfortable with my nose in a book than interacting with people I didn’t know well.
I recall being almost overwhelmed by anxiety when I had to take a public bus by myself to get to Girl Scouts. High school parties found me huddling alone in a corner, squinting to try and figure out if I recognized anyone. (I’m severely myopic, but didn’t want to wear my glasses to social events.)
One of the most extreme demonstrations of my shyness involved a library book. With my tenth grade English class, I traveled to a school in a neighboring town for a performance of “Twelfth Night”. I slid my school books under the seat during the play. Only when I got home did I realize that I’d left a library book behind.
My father and mother instructed me to telephone the other school to ask if the book had been found. I absolutely could not do it. The very notion paralyzed me. I went into hysterics when they pressed me. I would have rather reimbursed the library for the lost book from my meager weekly allowance than make that call.
Somehow, though, along the way to my current self, I’ve lost that debilitating shyness. People who meet me now, I think, come away with an impression of a self-confident, assertive individual who’s comfortable with the unknown. I greet people on the street, in shops and in restaurants. I can get up in front of a crowd of strangers and lecture extemporaneously about almost any subject you might choose. I can even telephone commercial establishments to ask questions or make reservations (though I still dislike using the phone—partly because my hearing isn’t as sharp as it once was).
How did this happen?
My first lover (during the late sixties) had a major impact on this aspect of my personality. P was six years older than I was and the quintessential hippie, with flowing blond hair, peace signs on his tee shirts, and the sweet face of a fairy tale prince. A college student and amateur photographer, he was contagiously friendly. He used to start conversations with everyone: the cashier in the supermarket, the old lady waiting for her bus, the other members of the audience at a concert. He seemed to assume that everyone in the world shared his somewhat innocent and benevolent view of humanity.
I must have absorbed some of his spontaneous friendliness. I started to become less afraid of others. Then he disappeared from my life and I descended into anorexia (the two events not in my opinion related, though my mother thought differently). For several years I lived in the dark cave of my own distorted perceptions.
I spent a lot of time with my therapist during that period. That, too, helped me let go of some of the fear. Unlike the stereotyped Freudian psychiatrist, Dr. R encouraged and nurtured me. As awful as my years of self-starvation might have been, I count myself fortunate to have had the chance to sort out some of my emotional issues at a pretty early age.
During my last year at university, I worked Friday and Saturday nights as a waitress in a restaurant where the local party crowd would go for breakfast, after the clubs closed. This might seem like a strange job for a shy, skinny college girl afraid of her shadow. When I put on my bright red, form fitting uniform, though, it was like donning a costume in a play. I became someone else, a cute, sassy young woman who smiled, joked and flirted with her customers—and did surprisingly well in tips. When I got home at three AM on Sunday mornings, I felt as though I were coming out of some kind of dream.
I was still somewhat shy when I went to graduate school. My next serious boyfriend helped to further unwind some of my anxieties. J was an easy going Midwestern guy with none of my hang ups. In his company, I hitchhiked halfway across the US and slept on the floor of a New Orleans church during Mardi Gras. For J, life was an journey of adventure. The new people you met along the way were part of the fun.
Each experience, each relationship, has made me more self-confident and open to other people. Working as a teacher taught me how to speak to strangers. It took a while—when I first started, I created detailed notes that I more or less read to my class—but now my lectures are far more natural. I use my slides mostly to keep me from wandering too far away from the topic.
Traveling with my DH has also contributed to the loss of my shyness. In a foreign country, if you’re not willing to communicate with strangers, you may starve! At very least, you’ll miss some of the most memorable aspects of the experience.
Moving to Southeast Asia was a final positive influence. People in my adopted country are far more sociable than many Americans. It’s normal to talk to people you don’t know, to greet shopkeepers, to smile at strangers. (P would fit right in here.) I’ve absorbed the local customs, to the extent that when I visit the U.S., people look at me oddly because of my overly exuberant friendliness.
I started life as a shy little girl, scared to step outside her limited circle of friends and family. Over the years, bit by bit, I have lost that fear and social awkwardness.
I definitely do not miss it.