The Courage of a Quiet Teen

They called me “the shy one.”

That’s it, nothing more. The shy one.

I’ve heard that I’m shy from peers, teachers, parents—even strangers.

What they said made me believe I was a shy person and that that was my biggest downfall. I never felt they were right, though, and I didn’t understand why they called attention to it. That awful, audacious question—“Why are you so quiet?”—always seemed so condescending, as if there was something wrong with me that needed fixing.

In 6th grade, I was bullied. My bullies made me believe I was a shy, boring loser whom nobody liked. I let these labels seep into my identity. They thought shyness and quietness was weird and pitiful. Whether they were embarrassing me in the car each morning when I didn’t sing with them to the latest songs or saying terrible lies about me online, I never felt comfortable and dreaded each day.

After middle school, I gradually became a much more self-assured person. I learned that nothing was wrong with me and that I was only made to feel that way because these bullies were acting out of insecurity. By putting the target on me, they made themselves feel safe from ridicule. Once I was away from them and made real friends, I learned to respect myself, to be confident, and to never let anyone walk over me like that again. I didn’t allow others to put me down anymore. If they did, I distanced myself from them and focused on the people who truly loved and accepted me.

Near the end of the first semester of my senior year of high school, I started thinking seriously about my future. I had just finished reading an inspiring book by Sean Aiken, who worked 52 jobs in 52 weeks, called The One-Week Job Project. I was amazed by his bravery and tenacity, and I decided then that I too wanted to do a one-year project.

But what was holding me back?

Shyness. Fear of failure. Fear of giving up. I felt like there were many things I would never be able to do because I was shy.

But New Year’s was approaching, and I began to feel excited by the prospects of change and self-improvement. Every year, I would set numerous goals for myself like exercising more, eating healthier, and helping out more around the house. Even though I always started these goals with enthusiasm, it wouldn’t take long before I would lose interest and give up on them.

This year was different. An idea hit me: What was the one thing that I felt held me back the most and was going to keep me from trying and achieving all of the things I wanted in life?

Shyness.

Excited yet uncertain, I started brainstorming how I could turn this into a one-year project. I researched how to overcome shyness as much as I could and mapped out a year-long plan to tackle my fears.

Then I started a blog to reach people and share my journey. I wasn’t doing it just for me; I wanted to do it for anyone who had ever been labeled “shy.” I wanted to educate people about shyness and show how simple tasks can be obstacles for a shy person. I wanted to express how it felt to be looked down upon for being shy and how labeling and jokes have a much more painful effect than most people realize.

I tackled goals to talk to strangers, to reconnect with friends, to participate in class, to dress confidently, to allow myself to be vulnerable, and to give public speeches. I opened up my once private life and disclosed the very thing I once purposefully never talked about—my feelings of shyness.

I doubted myself a lot in the beginning, and it was hard to leave my comfort zone as much as I did, but the passion I felt for my project and all the support I received from some amazingly kind bloggers pushed me to keep going, to keep challenging myself.

One of the most challenging tasks I pursued was to join Toastmasters and practice giving speeches. I was terrified of public speaking, but I’d heard that Toastmasters was a great way to overcome public speaking fears. I read how Toastmasters had even improved people’s lives. One quote really spoke to me: “Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.” I decided that if everyone I’d read about could do this, then I could do it as well.

In my first speech, I took a big leap and shared my shyness and bullying story. It wasn’t easy for me to talk about this sensitive subject, but I believed sharing my experiences would allow my group to better understand why I joined. They’d also understand more about the struggles that can come along with living a life of shyness.

As it turns out, my ability to give speeches and to do things I had feared has changed how I view myself. Before, when I was called shy, I believed I had to accept what others said as the truth. Now that I know more about introversion from books and articles, I’ve realized that much of my natural quietness has been mistaken for social inhibition. In truth, sometimes I just prefer to listen and take in more information than talk. I’d rather be in small groups than large ones. I do feel shy in certain situations, but those feelings aren’t central to my identity. There is much more to me than shyness.

I love how my introversion has allowed me to have strong empathy, think deeply, and genuinely connect with others. Introverts are valuable assets to society, whether or not they find themselves feeling shy in some situations like me, or not at all.

Every action I’ve taken to expand my comfort zone has helped me grow as a person. I realize that I’m capable of anything I set my mind to, and no longer will I let what others say about me hold me back. I have also become aware of the positives of being more inwardly focused, and I have learned that accepting yourself doesn’t mean that you can’t take steps to improve yourself.

When we feel like something is holding us back from living our lives to the fullest, it is important that we identify what it is that is limiting us and what we can do to take this weight off our shoulders. Until we do this, we will continue to feel powerless and overwhelmed. Through mindfulness and passion for the change we seek, however, we can begin to take back control of our lives and to start living the life we have always wanted.

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.