How To Overcome Shyness And The Fear of Looking Stupid
Long ago when Seinfeld was telling a joke about giving a speech at a funeral he quoted a statistic about how people feared giving a speech more than death. The joke went that more of the crowd would have preferred to be in the coffin than in Seinfeld’s place at the podium. How ridiculous we all say. But it reveals a fact of human nature that is often overlooked by self-help types. The fear boils down to a fairly simple thing: the fear of looking stupid (sounding stupid, too). I know I struggled with this fear for most of my life without even being aware of it. I was afraid to say my mind except in the company of close friends and family. Only a lot later in life did I wonder why I would say what I wanted to friends but not to strangers. My slowness to open up to strangers and coworkers meant most people had no idea who I was. It hasn’t helped that I have a very dry sense of humor which people don’t get or find funny until they’ve known me for awhile.
Then one day at work I began to wonder: was I confusing shyness with introversion? I remembered the times I was with friends and how extroverted I was with them. I knew I needed time to myself to recharge my batteries but I didn’t actually like to be completely alone and away from people when I’m at work, especially if there is a coworker whose company I like. At one of my jobs I could talk to the boys for hours and not tire of it. So was I shy to strangers and extroverted to everyone else? Aren’t I an introvert? What gives?
My wondering increased as I observed some of my extroverted coworkers and bosses. I noticed that extroverts don’t seem to care what people think of what they say or how they look. They would say whatever was on their mind and didn’t get embarrassed if something fell flat or went ignored. They could yammer on about almost anything and freely told their stories without any thought of how comfortable or uncomfortable their audience was. I knew there must be something to this because I often have things I want to say but then I suppress the urge to say them (and I would have definitely said these things to friends if they were around).
I used to take my conversation too seriously. It was difficult and agonizing to force conversation because it had to be meaningful, it had to have good substance. Therefore I never said anything unless it was gold. It also had to be well timed, God forbid I say something and then someone talks over me or starts talking as soon as I do, because when you need perfect timing for your joke to land, it’s death when it doesn’t and someone asks you to repeat what you said.
So I further deduced my shyness and self-suppression were from a fear of sounding/looking stupid. I put a lot of stock in my intelligence and humor and I would be devastated if I came across as inadequate. I had taught myself through many years to hold back lest I look like an idiot and be rejected by others. It was definitely a silly thing to do but I didn’t know any better.
Now queue how to get over the fear of looking stupid. It’s simple, really, a basic exercise you can do at work or school. It’s nothing more than this: speak your thought when you get the urge. Just say what you would normally say to a friend (I shouldn’t have to do this, but to point out the obvious, don’t say anything offensive or creepy or psychopathic). I started to say my mind when an urge to say something came about. Whether I said it to a customer or a colleague, I would say my thought, maybe there’d be a laugh, or they’d say something, and then I’d go on about my day.
It didn’t take long for me to start losing my fear of sounding stupid. I realized almost everyone was open to a little discussion or exchange and some even welcomed it, probably because they are shy and need someone else to help break the ice. As a result I’m now friends with several other people at work I used to never talk to. I started breaking out of my shell and having discussions or small talk with a wide variety of people and the feeling was exhilarating. I wish I had started talking to people like this a lot earlier in life and not placing so much importance on every little thing said. I was so afraid of coming across as an idiot that I rarely had conversations with anyone unless it was in privacy. As a result of this thinking, I was, in fact, an idiot.
So do yourself a favor if you suffer from shyness or the fear of looking stupid. Practice saying what you are thinking in a safe and neutral environment. It won’t be long before you open up to others and they open up to you as your brain realizes it’s not such a big deal and you can be yourself around anyone. Even if you are introverted it’s easy to make connections with people when you want. (Backtracking a little bit, when I was contemplating extroverts around me saying stuff and not caring how they sounded, I realized I too didn’t care what they were saying. In fact, I was happy they were talking and sometimes entertained by what they said. I also would forget what they said because none of us were placing that much importance on it, so there was no lingering feelings of negativity.)
The benefit and power of no longer fearing to look stupid is it will open up new worlds of connections to people you would otherwise never know. You never can tell what sort of benefits unlocking new friendships or strengthening acquaintances can do for you. Maybe you aren’t writing and publishing because you feel like you’d come across as stupid. That’s actually why it took me over a year of membership on Medium before I started to write. At some point you have to start putting your thoughts out there, in person or over the internet. Take your time with it, just speak your mind when you get the urge and don’t hold back. Your goal is not the reaction or connection you make with people, but to simply speak/write your mind. Once you start to do that, people who like you will eventually come to you. Good luck out there, and keep it civil please.