“Does she talk at home?”
I found this question puzzling. My daughter talks all the time at home. She even talks in her sleep.
“She doesn’t speak at all here. It’s okay; I’m not worried. If she speaks at home, it’s fine. She obviously hasn’t got an issue with speech. I think she’s just shy.”
My heart sank. I looked down at her and felt disappointed. I didn’t want a shy child. I scooped her up and sat her on my hip as I heard myself saying “That’s ok. There is nothing wrong with being shy!” But I was lying. Inside I was pleading “Don’t let her be shy. Don’t let her end up like me.”
I believed shyness had plagued my entire childhood. I was born to very outgoing parents who came from outgoing families. As a result, nobody understood me. My shyness was seen as something that needed to be fixed.
I have vivid memories of being yelled at for being shy. My mother would stop and chat to people on our way to school, in the supermarket, or with cashiers in shops. Even if she didn’t know someone, she could easily strike up a conversation as if they were best friends.
“Say hello to the lady.”
The words would get caught in my throat and I would look away in shame. I struggled to talk to people I didn’t know. And I had been taught I should never speak to strangers. These people were often strangers, or at least strangers to me. And now I was being told to speak to them. I found this very confusing.
My mother would apologize on my behalf, explaining I was shy. Then as we walked away, she would launch into her usual lecture:
“That lady thinks you are rude! She tried to say hello to you, and you ignored her! You really embarrassed me!”
This didn’t help my shyness because now I was being taught to worry about what other people thought of me, even people I didn’t know. And I was being taught to hate a huge part of my personality. I was asked why I couldn’t be more like my outgoing sister. I began asking myself the same thing as my indifference to my shyness turned into shame.
Without fail, my shyness would be flagged in school reports. Teachers would write that I needed to put my hand up more and contribute verbally. At parent’s evenings, they would comment that I was too quiet. This would always disappoint my parents, even though the rest of my report would be positive. My shyness was also blamed when I reported any bullying at school. It was suggested it made me an easy target because I appeared weak. My parents would echo these suggestions, and then vent to each other about why I had turned out like this.
I hated myself. I wanted to be outgoing. I wanted to be the child my parents wished I was. I wanted to find life easier instead of feeling like I was being drowned by bigger personalities at school and even in my family.
“I’ll grow out of it,” I told myself, echoing the sympathetic comments that were often directed at my mother when I didn’t speak to strangers. But I didn’t grow out of it. The older I got, the more socially conscious I became. This made is hard to stop being shy because I was becoming more aware of social hierarchies and how other teenagers, particularly teenage girls, talked about each other. It was no longer just shyness. It was full blown social anxiety.
I grew into a shy adult who felt deeply ashamed of that part of myself. Whenever things went wrong in my life, I would blame my personality. I convinced myself that if I was louder, bolder, or anyone else but me, I wouldn’t have any of these problems.
When my daughter was a baby, I was relieved that she seemed outgoing. She smiled at strangers and seemed comfortable around people. I fondly referred to her as “my little extravert” and felt safe in the knowledge that she hadn’t ended up like me. But as she got older, her personality began to change. At nine months old she became very aware of who was a stranger and the sort of relationship she had with people she knew. When I went back to work, I enrolled her in daycare and thought it would help her to gain social confidence and stop her from being shy. But every time I picked her up, it was reported she was too shy to join in with the other children and would leave an area if there were too many people.
I cried myself to sleep the first time I heard this. I asked myself what I had done to make her this way. Had I sentenced her to a life of being bullied and struggling in social situations? Then I was told that she wasn’t speaking, and my heart shattered into a million pieces. I was exactly the same as a little girl when I was anywhere other than the family home. And I was put down and punished for it.
I was put down and punished for it.
I couldn’t believe it. My shyness had not been to blame at all. My shyness had never told me I was an embarrassment. My shyness had never pressured me into situations I wasn’t comfortable with. My shyness had never called me names or apologized to other people for my natural personality. My shyness wasn’t the reason I lacked resilience when coping with bullying and difficult situations. The lack of support, acceptance, and love from my parents were to blame.
In realizing my daughter could be shy but also confident, assertive, resilient, and happy – I realized I could too. As I began to support her and make conscious efforts not to “correct” her behavior, I began to accept myself too. It became clear that my initial disappointment in her was misdirected. I was actually disappointed in my parents. I was disappointed that I had never been taught I was okay just the way I was.
I felt a huge sense of loss during these realizations, but with it came a sense of all I had to gain. I could do things differently as a parent. I had the power to ensure my daughter didn’t grow up feeling ashamed of her personality. And I had the power to heal my childhood wounds so I could be an example of self-acceptance and resilience. It didn’t have to hurt anymore to be shy.
The last time she was collected from daycare, it was fed back to my husband that although she is shyer than the other children, she spoke a lot that day and joined in without being prompted. It made my heart sing when I heard this. It is proof that love, support, and acceptance works. My daughter feels safe and seen at home, and that has given her the foundation to develop confidence outside of the home.
Now I don’t refer to her as my little extravert. And I don’t refer to her as my little introvert. When adults defined me by my shyness, it created a little girl who hated her natural personality. I’m in the process of creating a little girl who loves her natural personality and has no desire to change herself to please others. So, I don’t mention her shyness unless it’s to compliment her or reassure her she doesn’t need to change.
These days when I hear myself say “there’s nothing wrong with being shy,” I believe it and I mean it, because not only am I telling my daughter what she needs to hear, I’m telling my inner child what she has needed to hear for a very long time. So if my daughter does end up just like me, I’m okay with that, because there’s nothing wrong with me and there never has been.