For most of my life I’ve been known as the shy girl. The quiet one. The one who doesn’t talk…
Every single one of my school reports said I was “very quiet” but I don’t remember my shyness being a particularly big problem until I was around 10 or 11. Our new teacher wanted to get to know us so asked each of us our names and which part of the city we lived in. I had just moved from one end of town to the other and didn’t know which area my new address was in. When I said I didn’t know where I lived the whole class burst out laughing at me and the ridicule continued for quite a long time before my teacher stopped it. I remember having to hold back tears from embarrassment. Even though it was all “friendly joking around” I felt so stupid- who doesn’t know where they live? As a child, those things stick with you and after that incident I became terrified to speak in front of others because I didn’t want to feel like that ever again. Every single tiny social interaction became a massive problem.
For anyone who has no experience with social anxiety- the best way I can explain it is a fear of being around unfamiliar people or a fear of being judged. If someone laughed near me I was certain they were laughing at me. If someone looked at me in the street I thought they were thinking negative things. Even if someone complimented me I thought they were doing it to secretly make fun of me.
The following year I started high school, without any of my primary school friends because my new house was too far from the one they all went to. Because I found it hard to let people in I made very few friends at high school and felt even more anxious being there. When my best friend moved school aged 13 I realised I actually had no other close friends.
I didn’t ever feel like I fitted in with anyone else at school and would just stand there awkwardly whilst they all chatted away. I felt I was annoying and that they were all secretly thinking how weird I was. It made me super uncomfortable and self-conscious so I started actively avoiding social situations. At break times I’d either leave school or I’d walk up and down the corridors pretending I had somewhere to be. At lunch time I’d sit in a nearby park by myself and read or I’d go home. Most of the time I wouldn’t go back to school in the afternoon. I started skipping classes more and more and never had the guts to tell my mum or teachers why. It was too embarrassing.
Eventually I just started refusing to go to school all together and I began to dread the daily morning battle with my mum because she so desperately wanted me to go. I became extremely isolated and depressed and I spent all my time alone, mostly in my bedroom because that’s where I was free from all judgement. Even though I made friends and lived a somewhat normal life after I left school, deep down I still believed I was a burden to anyone I interacted with. I thought I was just destined to live a miserable life. I always felt so different from everyone else and didn’t know what was wrong with me.
When I was 16 or 17 I was reading a magazine and came across a letter someone had written to the ‘agony aunt’. They were asking for advice on social anxiety. As I read her symptoms I realised that this is what I’d been experiencing all my life. I decided I would go to my doctor to get help- except I couldn’t talk about my problems without breaking down. So I took the magazine with me, pointed to the article and said, “I think I have this and I need help with it”. He didn’t understand the impact it was having on me and brushed me off by saying I should exercise more.
This completely crushed me and I sunk deeper into depression. But I managed to force myself to see another doctor a few months later- she was a lot more sympathetic and referred me to therapy. I was in and out of therapy for the next few years and although it helped greatly I never felt ‘cured’.
As it’d helped in therapy, I started setting goals for myself. Except this time I was setting goals that I didn’t need social confidence to achieve. Climb a mountain, start eating healthy, give up drinking alcohol for a year, pass my driving test…and a whole list of other things. The more I did the more confident I became. Then I had the craziest idea yet- to travel alone. I had always wanted to travel to places like Thailand, Australia and the USA but never had anyone who was willing to go with me. Although I was still quite shy, I could easily talk to strangers one-on-one. So what was stopping me? I could either be shy and travel the world or be shy and stay in my bedroom…
I was a bit nervous about my first big trip so I booked onto a group tour in Thailand. This meant I’d fly there completely on my own but I’d be with a group of 15 other people once I got there. This trip completely changed my life and made me see that there was so much more to life than living in my little safety bubble. My social anxiety didn’t (and couldn’t) affect the beautiful things I saw in Thailand nor the life lessons I learned just by observing. That trip made me determined to go on more travels and I’ve since been to many other countries on my own. I’ve found it comforting that in many countries, shyness is seen as a beautiful thing. So I guess I only ever hated my shyness because western society does.
As I travel I meet so many others who feel like they’ve never quite fitted in and it helps build a really special bond. These relationships that are built whilst travelling are my favourite thing. Of course, I don’t ‘click’ with everyone. Sometimes I meet amazing people who I travel with again, sometimes I hang out with someone once or twice and never see them again, and sometimes I spend my time in a city totally on my own. But the difference is that I’m OK with being alone now.
I genuinely enjoy my own company and appreciate the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want. I’ve gained confidence in so many other ways that I no longer need to validate myself based on how popular or unpopular I am. I still struggle to let people in but the connections I do make go very deep. I now realise that being cautious, shy or introverted isn’t a negative thing just because the society I live in favours extroverts. It’s kind of great to be different. I’m still known as the quiet girl but have learned to accept and embrace the way I am and stop trying to force myself to be something I’m not. And it’s made for a much happier life.