My shyness is a season. The cold sets in gradually—I don’t even notice until it defines the atmosphere entirely and all I want to do is stay indoors, away from the outside elements. When I go inside for long stretches, I acclimate to lonesomeness. I become used to not speaking, defaulting to my notebooks, and ignoring communiqués from those I love and vice versa. I hate that! It feels like I can’t help that! I’ve had to figure out, though, that I can, and that it’s up to me—and not any abstruse weather systems I invent to shrug off responsibility for my responses to life—to unfreeze myself.
Choosing to hang out with yourself because it’s what you’re into at that particular moment is usually a sure sign of confidence. What we’re talking about today is something else. An unwanted introversion that winds up icing people out entirely (including yourself!) is usually the work of fear, the opposite of the aforementioned self-possession. The fear that closes and locks my particular bedroom door feels like this: I CAN’T KEEP UP, I CAN’T SPEAK UP, I CAN’T HOOK UP, NO ONE IS GONNA BE NICE TO ME!!! Notice, my divine hammers, how the first-person overpopulates that sentence. When I’m a hermit, this is how selfish I become. The world = one treacherous, unkind vagueness, and I = its victim, but even more so, its out-and-out subject. Once I winnow the problem down to that basic one-to-one, I know how to contradict it. In order to go back outside, I make a practice of inverting that thinking: The world = a fascinatingly rendered, teeming complex system. I = its lucky companion, and its audience. This flipped-over tautology leads me back to what sustains me: absorbing the thoughts, feelings, and talents of other people.
Sure, human society is a complex system, but that’s because our brains are, too—meaning that, even when I remind myself that I’d do better to see my surroundings as worthy and interesting, it can be hard to enact. That’s because it’s me doing the telling, instead of fucking finding someone to prove it to me. Do you know the word autopoiesis? It refers to natural phenomena that keep themselves going without any external intervention—they make themselves, and keep themselves going, alone. One of the biologists who came up with it, Humberto Maturana, made the case that cognition exists only “to the maintenance of itself.” THAT IS NOT A GREAT TACTIC IF YOUR BRAIN HAS SOCIAL ANXIETY, which makes your head into an Easy-Bake Oven popping out half-cooked fear after fear. Again, I have to solve for its contrast: Allopoiesis, where two disparate “machines” (what they’re called in like every article I read about this, delightfully) create another distinct product together. This is what I’m into right now: Teaming up with anything other than myself in order to forge something new.
I have always been a VIGOROUS ADVOCATE for wanting attention, credit, and the like, especially among people who aren’t given it unless they insist over and over and over that it is their right and property, and sometimes not even then. Going through periods of prioritizing others is not a negation of that vigilant belief, but an acknowledgement that my most abysmal depressions stem from self-centered thinking, which has a tendency to bloat up. It turns my brain into a Rube Goldberg machine producing only thoughts of ME-ME-ME—autopoiesis at its liverwurst. I am trying to see timorousness as not antisocial, but instead as motivation to redouble my interests in politics, pointing to the output of skilled and heartfelt people, volunteering, snugging on my friends, and voraciously taking in music and literature (you can substitute these with whatever you’re all about) and letting it change me into whatever it wants. Instead of curling into an isolation-vacation from the world entire to manufacture even more of my own lackluster shyness, I want someone else to be the subject for a while. What’s the alternative? More intra-ARS surveillance of an unhappiness that, as soon I make anything but MYSELF!!! the single cynosure of my thinking, I can already feel thawing?
What follows is a…however-many-point plan comprising pragmatic and specific strategies to defrost your brain by supporting and promoting others, and the plenitude of benefits that can have, writ large, for all of ya. Rooting for and assisting the world will soon find you chasing it around all but clutching a bouquet for how romantically you feel about it—the opposite of shyness! Instead of staying inside, you’ll fit your life inside of everyone else’s. Together, you’ll make new and better systems. Here’s how to try:
1. Set out a podium at which others can stand and speak. My most recent shyness-onslaught came from writing a book, a task which, coupled with a more-than-full-time job, seemed to require that I do my best to affix a convincing projection of a cApTiVaTiNg & sPuNkY pErsOnAlyTyy! to 250 sheets of paper in a row. In isolation. Which would exist forever after as a document of my own unworthiness, probably. BORF. IT PROFUSELY SUCKED. Notice, though, how I didn’t feel compelled to mention anything about the actual subject of my work there! Again, when I’m alone, my self-centeredness prevails, and, like most people, I care a lot about what I do. The thought of not doing it well was emergency-level terrifying.
I wanted so badly to calm down and remember what I loved to read, and why I loved to read it. Plus, I missed my friends. In the middle of writing the book, and without consciously linking these two thoughts, I started a website where all different people, from all over, write down exactly what happens to them, as it’s happening, on a Saturday. I diverted some of the energy I reserved for sitting still and loathing myself to a project that’s all about other people, and thank god, because their generosity made something beautiful: an ongoing observation of what others think, care, worry, and dream about. It reminded me that, regardless of whether a person believes that they’re cApTiVaTiNg & sPuNkY, there is literally no way for me to find ANYTHING that they do mundane, as long as they’re describing it as honestly and accurately as it’s shaped in their head.
Is there a particular part of your life that’s exacerbating your feelings of uncertainty? Are you having a sublime bug-out about not being good/smart/worthy/skilled/true-of-heart enough to accomplish what you’re fixing to do? While I obviously am far from that feeling’s #1 biggest fan, I want to reassure you that it likely means you care very deeply about your mission, and so will be successful at it—the times I have worked myself into a tears-fueled nerve machine over whether people are going to HATE ME for being SO DUMB as I anticipate the publication of this or that essay are the times that have directly preceded the most successful reception of my work, with very few exceptions.
You can’t let your perfection-anxiety totally possess you, or else you will come to see the goal you supposedly have so much fondness and zeal for as HELL-TOIL-STYLE DRUDGERY. Remove yourself from what you’re doing within your chosen favorite thing and promote others who share your love of it. Are you practicing super-doggedly to make first-chair violin? Take some of the time you’ve set aside to devote yourself to that and help a fellow musician pal with the part of the concerto they’re having trouble with, or arrange a little after-school concert where other people can play their work, or give informal lessons to someone who’s brand-new to stringed instruments–as–chin accessory. Let someone else benefit from how hard you’ve worked, and it will likely reinvigorate your sense of pride and appreciation from that work—and, more important, allow someone else to demonstrate a new way to appreciate what you’re doing. Are you FUH-REAKING THE FUH OUT over whether your college application screams “future president of the whole solar system” loudly enough to land you in the space-college of your choosing? Review and give notes on a friend’s personal essay, or study for the SAT with someone who’s uncertain about how they’re going to do on the math section, or otherwise tutor someone. Get all allopoietic. Treating perfection as the result of self-punishment leaves no room for love. If you don’t set out to partner up with others just to ease your own anxieties and, instead, truly care about what you’re doing and the people with whom you’re doing it (which you will, because you’re sharing your mutual most-loved activity, and that’s just how it goes), that love is always more productive than self-hatred.
2. Pay extra-close attention to the people you appreciate. Maybe you feel unequipped to socialize with anything other than Netflix right now. I understand that. That skittishness signals, to me, that I am likely not being a phenomenal pal to my near-’n’-dears, though, which means I’ve got to scrape myself out of my brain and check on my people. If you’re like, “HAH, funny that you think I would EVER want to leave the house and tremble among other sentient beings in this trying-ass time,” I get that too, but you can absolutely send a text that says, “I miss you—how are you?” You can send an email. If you are being very brave, you can even use your phone for TALKING IN REAL TIME (eep!) by calling your cohorts. Do whatever you can to transmit to those you love or at least like a lot that you do, in fact, care about them.
See how their lives are progressing, and tell them about what’s been happening in yours. This last part is critical: It might seem that listening to others is the only way to remove yourself from total introversion, but self-abnegation by way of demurring when it’s your turn to say how you’ve been is actually a way of upholding shyness. Plus, your friend wants to know! Say at least a little something, and your friend will have opinions about it, because they’re into you and take your life seriously, and you, in turn, will be interested and grateful, because your friends rule and are probably saying something that reminds you of that fact. And, OK, yes, listen. Listen with the intent you bring to practicing the violin/filling out a college application/watching yet another episode of Bob’s Burgers. Paying close attention to what others are saying often results in the conjoined joy of learning more about the inner workings of person you find rad and worthy and also NOT HAVING TO TALK (yesss). Don’t get nervous and back up into your own head when the other person is talking out of the dread that they might stop and then it’s YOUR turn to fill air. Also, don’t see the other person talking as filling air. Instead, see how they’re doing today. Absorb what they’re saying and how it matters to them—and to you, because they matter to you; it’s the transitive property, bruh! Ask questions about it. Assuage them if they’re uncertain about something. Look: There you are, and it’s FINE. The directive of my life is this bit from St. Augustine’s Confessions: Dilige et quod vis fac, or, “Love, and do what you will.” If you’re being kind, you can also be self-sure.
Once you’re ready to venture into the outside world—honestly, before you’re ready, because, as with every part of life, if you wait until you’re “ready” to do something, it will probably never happen—make a point to spend time with as large an assortment of super-trusted companions as you can. Even if that’s just one person. Let each of the people you’re hanging with choose where you meet, or what you do together, or what the conversation orbits around. Settle into their world sans the horror of having to make a decision, and make mental and verbal notes of what’s rad about their selections! Nothing will landscape your overgrown timidity into a more manageable shape than spending time with people whom you feel loved and comfortable around, and you’ll naturally reciprocate those feelings, both of which will help keep your uncertainty trimmed after you leave. You entered someone else’s world, and it was great. Don’t you kind of want to do that again sometime soon? ♦