Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Once shy, twice bitten ... wait, that's not right

My professional association is having their international conference in Vancouver next month, and I've volunteered to help out, because volunteering is a wonderful way to give back to the community and … oh, who am I kidding? I get to see some sessions for free and add to my resume.

One of my assignments is to introduce the speakers for a session on online marketing. Now that I've researched and written the intro, I'm beginning to remember that I will need to actually say it in front of a room full of hundreds of people, all looking at and listening to me. So all I can focus on now is what the HELL was I thinking?!

But then that's exactly what I was thinking. I'm doing it because the thought of doing it terrifies me … but not as much as it would have years ago, since I keep doing things that terrify me. It's part of my homeopathic treatment against shyness, where doses of what ails me are used to cure me.

I was a scared, timid kid, and I moved a lot, so I have a lot of memories of painfully acute shyness. Adults who were shy as children tend to think of themselves that way long past any outward indications of it. (Then there are the ones who call themselves shy because they don't feel entirely comfortable in every social situation; that's called being human.) Though I'd still insist I'm not only very shy, but come across that way to others, enough people have told me I don't that I suppose I have to admit I'm possibly, finally, one of those adults.

My impression of my own shyness gets muddled by the fact that I am undeniably an introvert, which isn't the same thing, but has some of the same social limitations. We did a Myers Briggs exercise at work, and the facilitator divided us into the introverts versus the extroverts. He then got us to ask questions of each other. Mine was this: "Do extroverts feel pressure to be less extroverted, the way introverts feel pressure to be more extroverted?" My extroverted colleagues said no, but these are people who have chosen a career that has elements of public and media relations, so it's not exactly a random sample. Still, I think it's undeniable that extroversion is valued far more than introversion in our culture.

I do value introversion; I like a lot of alone time. But I don't value shyness. At all. It was a conscious choice in my late teens, to beat it out of myself. Since actual beatings seemed painful and counterproductive, I decided to put myself in situations where I simply couldn't be shy or I couldn't function.

That led to decisions like spending a month in high school living with a family in France; moving to a French area of New Brunswick to teach English in front of a class of skeptical teenagers; choosing that career involving public and media relations; packing my bags for a life in Mexico without knowing anyone and before learning Spanish; requesting interviews with people I was sure would scoff at me; taking on volunteer assignments with public speaking. The bonus has been that these decisions are the ones I look back on as some of the most memorable times of my life. That's memorable in the good way, not in the doomed-to-spend-eternity-thinking-of-past-torments kind of way.

Over 10 years ago, when I was taking an Arts Administration certificate in an attempt to put a practical veneer on my English degree, an obnoxious classmate told me shyness is a form of conceit. The comment still festers in the recesses of my brain. I was offended, I rejected the idea, but those brain recesses keep coming back to it because I keep realizing there's a morsel of truth to it, one I don't want to recognize.

Part of my shyness is - was? - the thought that people analyze every word I say and movement I make with the same scrutiny my critical brain turns on myself. There is definitely something egotistical about that, even if it's the ego of thinking everyone thinks I'm an idiot. Because the truth is, everyone isn't thinking anything at all of me. Part of it's also the thought that failure or rejection would be devastating. It's OK for others, but not for me - yeah, that's not conceited at all.

By forcing myself into situations outside my comfort zone, I have experienced enough failures and foolishness to demonstrate that I won't actually die of shame, and enough moments of realization that other people don't care as much as I do about me. The shyness is still there, every day, but I think I might have come to a place where it isn't really obvious, at least to strangers. I might have succeeded in turning it homeopathic - so diluted there's no detectable quantities of it left.