The Other Side of Shyness: How I Stopped Being Shy

As far back as I can remember I was shy. I was scared to speak with strangers, even for something as trivial as ordering food at a restaurant. My heart would race, my throat would clench, my mind would spin on how I’d be perceived… how I’d be judged. Now, I don’t care.

I remember one afternoon circa 1993, when my mom stopped the hunter green minivan with the faux-wood paneling, handed me money, and told me to run into the convenience store to get milk. I curled into myself and shook my head. I was NOT going. Give me a tetanus shot, make me do dishes, heck have me scoop dog poo… anything but have to talk to the cashier. No. Way. My sister — two years my junior with not one ounce of social anxiety and lax impulse restraint — leapt from her seat reaching for the $5 bill. “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” She clamored. “No,” my mom said, yanking the money away from my sister’s reach, “your sister needs the practice.” My sister balked. I crumbled. I survived the 2-minute errand, but it was far from a cure. Bless my mother

Decades went by and I was still shy. Cashiers and waitstaff no longer made me shrivel, but I would never dream of entering an unfamiliar room and striking up a conversation. Making friends was hard. Really hard.

More often than I’d like to admit, there were incidents in my early life when a close friend sought to expand the social circle, not wanting to end our friendship, but simply wanting to add to the group. Anxiety and ego inevitably overwhelmed me, and I would foolishly take the request as a traitorous dagger (which it was not — at all — but just try telling me that back then!) Because I couldn’t fathom reaching out to gather more friendships, I was jealous of others’ ability to do so. I felt vulnerable and defensive. Lesser. So I would get angry and end the friendship. Stupid, right? Yep.

Come young adulthood, the first years of corporate life were challenging. Most of my coworkers were at least a decade my senior and in different life stages than recent-college-grad me. I made myself even more guarded with a “work” me and a “home” me, hoping to off-set my obvious youth with professionalism. Needless to say, that level of detachment paired with shyness was not conducive to numerous work friendships.

Then I got engaged. People I barely knew would approach me with wedding-related questions throughout a workday. My shyness was waning with the increased socializing. One wedding and a few years later, I was pregnant. My world changed.

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Being pregnant granted me access to a secret club that was constantly seeking members: parents! That baby belly was like a beacon to any parent — young, old, first-time, or seasoned — and even grandparents to immediately strike up conversation. And once I was really showing, the world had a talking point in full view. As long as I kept a sense of humor and viewed awkward questions and others’ verbal diarrhea as fodder for my mental “shit people say” list, it was all good.

Then, I had my first child. I was set on giving her a variety of experiences, getting her socialized, getting her out. I took her to mom meet-ups and baby-and-me tumbling classes, story times and swim classes. We did something every day.

One day, as I entered a mom meet-up, I felt the anxiety and internal concerns over others’ perceptions bubble up within me. Then, I looked down at my chubtastic baby and thought: “but I have a built-in buddy!” And I was at ease. Being alone in a busy room without someone to talk to wasn’t so scary anymore because I had my daughter beside me. I was OK.

Not too long after, I had my middle son. I was so busy nursing my newborn while chasing my toddler, I didn’t have the time to worry what others thought. Instead, I sought out friends who resonated with me, who shared perspectives and viewpoints with me, who could relate to my present life stage. I still hesitated before reaching out, but I was getting better.

Two years later, I had my third child and by then I was comfortable with myself. I was so focused on my own standard daily chaos that I could hardly care less if you gave me the side-eye for having a tantruming toddler (that says more about you than me, afterall) or balked at my snot-smeared yoga pants and breastmilk-spotted nursing cami. I had way too much stuff to wrangle to worry about that. Even more, I realized most other people were like me and had too much going on in their own heads and lives to give me much thought! So why assume they’re judging me harshly when I may not even be on their radar or, if I am, maybe it’s positively so. If they are actually being mentally critical of me, why should I care anyway?

Less shy, I began conversing freely with fellow moms at playgrounds, classes, story times, and in the grocery store. After two incidents when I let my fear stand in the way of asking, “Want to do a playdate sometime?” (The mom version of “Wanna grab a drink?”) and subsequently suffered missed-friendship regret, I decided to do better.

I began listening to my gut, honoring my intuition. If I was drawn to connect, smile at, or chat up someone — even if I didn’t immediately understand why — I did it. And that is how I began making some of my dearest, strongest friendships: listening to my inner self, not my fears.

I was now on the other side of shyness. I could easily enter a room with confidence, seek out a person with whom I could relate, and start a conversation. I became the human shepherd, constantly aware of those on the periphery, gauging shyness verses disinterest. If I sensed shyness, I tried to bring them into the fold. If I felt a group with whom I was talking appeared unwelcoming or closed-off to others, I changed my positioning and body language to open the circle. I never wanted to make others feel the way I had so long felt: judged, alone.

I had not realized how far I’d come until recently at the playground. A mom I’d only met last year was floored to hear I was ever shy. I was floored she was floored! Little did she know, I spent more of my existence shy than not. I surely have changed. And for that I am grateful.

The world is a brighter, friendlier place when you’re on the other side of shyness. I like it here.

My Amoeba and Me

“You’re an amoeba; you can fit in anywhere.” My husband told me. As it turns out, our 5-year-old is an amoeba too.

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“She does well socially in the classroom” my eldest’s kindergarten teacher said during our parent-teacher conference, “she finds friends easily in here. It takes her a little while on the playground to find which group she’d like to join. I think the playground environment is a lot for her with the big equipment and all of the children running. She has many choices at her disposal.” I nodded deeply in distinct personal recognition of this tendency. “Sometimes she chooses to play alone,” the teacher explained, “but, more often than not, she joins different groups after getting acclamated. As long as she’s not always playing alone, it’s not of concern. She gets along well with others.” I was not worried. I understood.

As a person who is anti-clique and pro-inclusion, I rarely allow myself to settle comfortably into the boundaries of a clique. Our daughter, it seems, is the same way. I knew I needed to talk with her so that she knew this nomadic social tendency was ok. That, though stressful at times, it can be a wonderful trait.

On our way to the playground that afternoon, I brought up the parent-teacher conference. I turned off the car radio and glanced in the rear view mirror at her as I talked. “Your teacher said you behave beautifully in class,” I said, “Daddy and I are proud of you. Good job!” She smiled. “I heard you have an easy time finding friends when you’re in the classroom. That’s nice!” She listed some of her favorite classroom friends. “I heard that sometimes on the playground it can take you a bit to choose which group you’d like to join. Do you know why you hesitate to join a group?” I asked. “Sometimes I don’t know what I want to play, so I don’t know who to play with.” She explained.

“I know it can be hard sometimes not knowing right away what group to join,” I said, “it can make you feel nervous and lonely. But it’s also really good to be like that too. Do you know why?” She shook her head. “Say you’re on the playground and want to play ‘family.’ If you were only friends with one group of people and they were playing ‘My Little Pony’, you’d be stuck either playing by yourself or playing what the group was playing. But, if you’re friends with people from different groups you may find one group is playing ‘tag’, another is playing on the monkey bars, and one may be playing ‘family.’ You’d get to choose which group to join because you weren’t stuck with just one group. Then, the next day, you may feel like playing ‘My Little Pony’, so you’d know exactly which group to find that day. Does that make sense?” She said it did and rehashed the lesson in her own words, telling me which group she enjoyed joining for which games.

“It’s ok to play alone sometimes too,” I said. “Mommy liked to play alone a lot as a kid. It’s good to be able to entertain yourself. As long as you’re not always playing alone.” She agreed. “And we never exclude. Do you understand?” She got it.

My little amoeba. Like mother, like daughter.

The Non-Clique Mom

I suck at cliques. I know why people like them, how they develop, and the benefits of being a part of one. I wish I could, but I can’t do it.

As a kid, I was shy. I would have a few very close friends but I often felt lonely because of my tiny selection of friends. So, I became adept at amusing myself when they were unavailable.

In middle school, I actively left a clique when I was instructed to shun someone who had done no wrong to me. Even then I considered such a demand inconceivable.

Then, as a teen, I branched out. I became a part of a clique. That was comfy in the new high school setting but, soon, I began reaching beyond the clique’s boundaries. I had a pal or two from various social circles. The diversity was lovely but I felt like a man without a country. I had no tribe to which I belonged.

Still, being free from the melodrama, the pledges of fielty, and the petty skirmishes of cliques was nice. I also felt morally at ease because I was not participating in (intentional or unintentional) exclusion by way of participating in clique culture.

As a college student, I was so focused on my studies that I didn’t put much effort into making friends. As in grade school, I had a few close friends, but certainly no herd. However, I was so busy that I didn’t put much thought into it.

As a mom of a baby and two preschoolers, I developed a variety of beautiful friendships with moms whose paths never intertwined. The friendships were selected and nurtured without societal pressures. The relationships developed naturally and grew organically. What wonderful mom friends these ladies are! True treasures.

Now, as a mom of an elementary schooler, I am entering familiar territory: the maternal version of high school. The parents are all friendly but you can see the cliques as they form on the sidewalk at pick-up. Circles of similarly attired women chatting, leaving untethered stragglers between the gabbing bundles.

Often, I inadvertently find myself amidst a herd. I enjoy the company, appreciate the individuals, and relish the community, but I feel the tug of my conscience (and by “tug” I mean choke-hold yank.) By standing within the herd I am silently signaling to others that they exist outside of the circle. That they do not belong. My conscience is such a party-pooper.

I note the free-floating mom at the periphery. I step away from the clique and engage the free agent. I want her to feel included, welcome, safe, and appreciated. If I could bring every shy, intimidated, and/or unfamiliar mom into the safe fold of a clique I would. Unfortunately, that’s not how cliques work.

I’ve found out the hard way that bringing in too many “strays” is unwelcome behavior. It’s not quite as bad as not agreeing to shun someone who has wronged a clique member (you, yourself, were not offended but one of your comrades was), but it’s still up there. I am guilty of both misdeeds and always will be. It’s who I am. Those are my morals. Take me  or leave me. And so I don’t do cliques, as lonely and irksome, yet conscience-pleasing as it may be. I can only exist as a honorary member… as someone with one foot inside the clique boundaries and one foot on the outside.

“Good for you!” “Do you!” “Way to be inclusive!” Some of you may be thinking. Yes, thank you. That’s lovely. “Make things simpler for yourself!” “Just abide by the rules!” “Be a part of the clique!” Some of you may be thinking. And you’re right. But I really don’t have a choice in the matter. This is simply the way I’m wired.

As much as I own who I am, my personal moral constructs, and my perspective, part of me wishes I could be the person who easily and comfortably acquiesces into a clique. The protection, the comraderie, the cohesiveness all seem so comfortable and safe. To walk into a room and immediately know: “I belong there,” seems so much simpler than reading a crowd. I see why people enjoy cliques, I see the benefits of cliques, I see why some thrive in and seek out cliques. I get it! It’s just not me, whether I like it or not.

Look for me floating about periphery bobbing from mom-huddle to outlier and back again like a pinball. A mom without a clique.