I used to be very shy. I would usually avoid interacting with people unless I really had to, and when I needed to be around others I’d be quiet and reserved.
I didn’t want to be shy, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. Every time I’d want to come out of my shell, be more outgoing and meet new people, I’d feel as though my body wouldn’t cooperate. A tension would grip my back and shoulders when I’d start to take action to be more social, as if a giant, invisible hand were grabbing me and pulling me away from people.
For a long time, I thought my shyness resulted from my fear that others would harshly judge me. I thought I was afraid that, if I tried to meet new people, they would ignore, ridicule or even physically attack me. One day, however, I had an experience that convinced me that rejection by others wasn’t what I was actually afraid of. Instead, I was afraid of my own feelings.
My friend and I had an argument. I don’t remember what we were arguing about, but it’s not really important to the story. All I recall is that I was steamed at him afterward—so much that I felt like I couldn’t face him for a few days. I didn’t want to see him in person because I was afraid that, if I were in his presence, I’d lose control of my anger and attack him. And when I thought about talking to him face-to-face, I experienced the same sensation that arose when I contemplated meeting new people—that invisible hand holding me back.
The sensation, I recognized, occurred when some part of me was trying to keep me from being in a situation where I might be unable to control my emotions. On some level I believed that, if I allowed myself to experience anger around others, I might physically hurt someone. This feeling emerged when I was contemplating being social because I was afraid I’d get angry at the people I was interacting with. If they were rude or dismissive to me, I was afraid I’d fly into a rage and harm them. In short, I wasn’t afraid of other people’s rejection—I was afraid that I would react destructively to it.
Although I got the intuitive sense that I’d hit upon the truth, my realization seemed strange. I had never lost control of my anger and physically hurt someone. In fact, I rarely expressed anger at all—I’d never been very comfortable with telling someone I resented them. But after pondering the issue a bit more, I realized that my discomfort with anger was actually the source of the problem.
Because I was unfamiliar with expressing anger, I didn’t know what to expect if I allowed myself to get angry at someone. For all I knew, I might fly off the handle and punch them. Or maybe I’d use words so incisive and cutting that I’d ruin my relationship with them forever. Or maybe I’d explode into a million pieces. I was afraid of the consequences of getting angry because I was so inexperienced at doing it. Anger was uncharted, dangerous-looking territory for me.
With this newfound understanding, I recognized that, if I wanted to overcome my fear of socializing, I’d have to tackle my fear of anger. I started working toward this goal by taking time alone in a quiet place to practice expressing anger. I would yell, howl, pound on my couch, and generally fly into a rage until I was exhausted or had to go do something else. Gradually, I became more comfortable with experiencing and releasing anger, and my fear of it began to subside.
Once I’d done this for a while, I noticed that the grip of the invisible hand that used to stop me from interacting with people seemed weaker. Being at social occasions actually started to feel like fun, rather than hard work. In a very short period of time, I developed an enriching, fulfilling social life.
Of course, people didn’t always respond to me the way I wanted. Inevitably, it seems, some people we meet will be hostile or dismissive. And sometimes, I would feel angry about it. But because, in my training, I became accustomed to feeling and expressing anger, the unpleasant sensations associated with anger seemed to pass more quickly. And I didn’t find myself losing control—instead, I felt peaceful and accepting of the situation.
If you see yourself as shy or afraid of interacting with people, consider the possibility that you’re actually afraid of feeling some emotion that being with people is likely to evoke. Perhaps you’re afraid talking to people will make you uncontrollably angry, sad, euphoric, or some other emotion. You probably haven’t been allowing yourself to experience the feeling, and it’s begun to seem alien and threatening to you—even though it’s a natural part of human life.
To get back in touch with the feeling you’ve been blocking off, find a quiet place, and allow yourself to fully experience the emotion. Do whatever you need to do, short of hurting yourself, to feel and express it. If you feel the need to cry, scream or jump around the room, for instance, try to let yourself do those behaviors without judging or shaming yourself. If you regularly connect with the feelings you’ve been refusing to experience, you’ll likely find your shyness and fears of social rejection fading away.