I used to be brutally shy. I mean brutally shy. I once had a job at a grocery store in the meat department wrapping meat. I worked there for six months and didn’t say a single solitary word to a soul. I got by with nods, shrugs and head shakes and it made my life miserable.
When I was little, I would go over to a friend’s house and avoid saying a word to their parents. My mom would eventually come to pick me up, and she’d always stand at the door chatting with my friend’s mom or dad, and they would always, inevitably say, “She sure is shy, isn’t she? She didn’t say one word to me!”
In school, I avoided raising my hand even if I knew the right answer. I would never contribute to class discussions and the only reason I ever made friends was that someone came and talked to me. I would use any excuse to get out of school presentations and I would be the one kid in the Christmas concert not really singing, just mouthing the words to the carols.
Between the ages of six and eighteen, I probably said a combined total of ten words in the presence of people I didn’t know. I was beyond shy. I was shyer than shy. I was like this-is-my-X-Men-mutation shy.
So, I got this job when I was twenty-ish. I was looking so forward to it. I got to work on the airside of the airport, on planes. I was fucking excited. I love planes. I loved planes. The thing is, all my previous jobs had been unbearable. I knew why, too. I didn’t get along with anyone at any of my previous jobs because I didn’t say a word to them. I didn’t want this job to be as miserable as the others I’d had. I knew I had only one opportunity to make this job different. I knew I had to force myself to talk to all the new people I met, despite the fact that deep, down inside of me, I was melting down with panic and anxiety.
The first day finally arrived, and I drove my beat-up old Skylark to the airport. I parked my car in the long term lot and made my way to the little blue building off to the side, as I had been instructed. I saw a small group of people gathering there and my body began to get rigid. I knew this was it. The moment that would determine whether this job was going to be as miserable as all the others.
“You can do this, Courtney,” I mumbled under my breath. Scanning the group of people, I tried to pick out which person would be easiest to approach. A short girl with a shaved head stood out to me. She probably listened to the same sort of music I did, and she didn’t come off as a girly-girl, which I’d always had trouble relating to. I decided she would be the one I approached.
My heart was pounding. I was sweating. I was sure my face was bright red. Each step felt like an Olympic feat, and I had to re-coach myself inside my head just to take the next. I felt like I weighed seven tons, was made of solid marble and every step was leaving a pothole the size of Lake Pontchartrain in the parking lot blacktop. After what felt like a fortnight, I was there. I was standing right behind the girl with the shaved head.
Come on, Courtney. Just say hi, I repeated inside my mind. You can do this.
“Hi.” It was barely audible. I clenched my fists, knowing I would have to say it again because she couldn’t have possibly heard that. She didn’t flinch.
Do it, Courtney. Do it. I could hear my heartbeat.
“Hi.” There it was. She turned immediately, smiling and my body temp was off the charts. I was burning hotter than the flames of Hell and I felt like my sweat glands were auditioning for the role of Niagara Falls.
What do I say, now? What do I do? I was on the verge of all-out panic. But then, something unexpected happened. A little voice inside of me managed to muster, “Just tell her your name. This isn’t fucking rocket science, you idiot.”
“I’m Courtney.” My pulse slowed. I began to return to a normal body temperature.
“Hey. I’m Michelle.” She held out her hand and smiled warmly at me. “I’m so glad you said hi, I feel like everyone here is an old man!”
I laughed as I shook her hand. It was true. Everyone around us was an old guy. Inside, I felt elated. I was abuzz with adrenaline and self-pride. I’d just conquered a beast that had followed me all my life. I was high on the feeling and I absorbed that feeling and I vowed to never forget it. From that point forward, I never avoided approaching new people, ever.
This turned out to be the best job of my life. There was a staff of 86 people and I introduced myself cheerfully to each and every one of them. They all adored me and I was a completely new person after that experience. Within a few years, I found myself standing in front of crowds, giving talks about search engines, digital marketing and web design. I was past the shyness. I was beyond my anxiety. I had defeated it on my own, with no help from anyone.
I still get anxious. My stomach turns to knots when I meet someone new. The difference now is that I don’t let that get in the way of me talking to them or engaging with them. My palms may still sweat. My face may still turn red. I may still be completely freaking out inside my head. I still feel anxious, but I don’t give it any authority in my life. I don’t let it get in the way of living.