Sunday, June 26, 2005

Overcoming Shyness

By nature, I am introverted and shy -- I suspect I may have Aspergers, though I've never been diagnosed. Yet I teach for a living, and I also act and direct (theatre). I was TERRIBLE at both when I started, but I forced myself to persevere. If you're like me, you have to MAKE yourself interact with people. It doesn't have to be big interactions at first. Work on meeting people's eyes as you walk down the street -- but FORCE yourself to do it. If it freaks you out, stop for the day, but then force yourself to do it again the next day. It will gradually get easier.

One thing that worked for me -- silly as it sounds -- was to make a game of it. I would set goals (today I am going to meet ten people's eyes and not look away before they do; today, I am going to get ten people to smile at me; today, I am going to start conversations with ten strangers...)

Some people are born with a gift for understanding others. I wasn't. Yet I now regularly help other people do just that. When I'm directing plays, I help the actors understand the psychology of their characters. And, of course, I must be very quick and expert at reading my actors and students. It's funny -- I always get praised for how insightful I am and how good I am with people.

How did I get this way? It was totally mechanical. I didn't understand people, so I made it my life mission to overcome this defect (even my choice of occupations relates to this). I read every psychology book I could get my hands on (scholarly work and self-help), I studied people, I read a lot of character-based fiction. Now I am sort of an expert on people in the way a Frenchman can become an expert on English literature. I'm good with people, but I'll also always be a bit of an outsider -- which gives me an interesting perspective.

[By the way, when I first started down this path, I was helped by Eric Berne's books (i.e. I'm OK, You're OK). Berne's model of human nature is over-simplified but compelling (it's awesome for fiction writers), but the over-simplification makes it a good starting point.]

Also, don't be afraid of "putting on an act." For years, I held myself back from interacting with people, because I hated falseness and realized that I would be pretending to make smalltalk with them -- or whatever. But ALL social interactions are, to some extent (some of the time), an act. If you keep acting, eventually the act will sink in and become real. And in the meantime, give yourself the permission to act.

Of course, there was a time when I would have said, "fine, act. HOW should I act? Make smalltalk? WHAT ABOUT? I can't come up with topics!!!" Eventually I learned that it doesn't matter. The point of smalltalk isn't the actual information being communicated. It's the meta-message of "I find you interesting enough to talk to." So you can free yourself to talk about complete drivel: that's a nice tie you're wearing; it sure looks overcast today; etc.


simpleblob said...


I really like your posts at metafilter, and eventually follow your link to here.

What you described matches me perfectly. I'm not necessarily shy but more like my most natural states is being 'alone'. I found your post (essay?) very personal and insightful, and since I'm quite younger than you, this is a gold mine of experiences.

At the risk of sounding like a crazy fan, I'm perplexed by your blog's low visibility. Your writings are great! It was very enjoyable to read considering how long each posts are. I hope you get picked up by more blog-reader.

Marcus said...

Hi. Thanks for the praise!

I don't really mind that my blog is low-profile. As to why this is, I can think of a few reasons.

As you mentioned, I'm long winded. I like writing longer-form stuff, and it's awesome that you like to read it, but it's not the fashion nowadays (see Twitter).

Also, I do nothing to publicize the blog. I've always been interested in seeing what sort of traction it gets on its own. Also, I'm too busy/lazy to promote it.

Finally, I don't update it very often. For a blog to be popular, the owner needs to constantly add new content. That's fair enough. But I only write when I have something to say. Which is not all that often.

Thanks again for your kind words!