People often say to me, “you’re not shy. You do [XYZ],” XYZ being things like open mic poetry readings, or my drunken antics (running naked down a street in Amsterdam, for example). But shyness has always been a problem for me. I don’t know where it came from, or exactly how it started, though I know when it did. I was eleven, and we had just moved back from Holland. Suddenly, conversations became difficult for me. My class teacher told my parents I was rude, because she had mistaken my lack of eye contact for rudeness rather than the shyness it actually was. I would blink a lot when people were talking, get nervous about how I looked to other people, self-conscious about the way I looked when standing on my own, anxious about the way I walked, or talked, or seemed. I remember being eleven at my great uncle’s pub (Christening, Communion, something) and being so scared that my breath smelled that I would talk only with my hand covering my mouth.
In secondary school I would sometimes do outlandish things, or naughty things (leading a small group of petty vandals) but those things were masking a real lack of confidence. As I grew older, the things I did to mask my shyness grew to look more and more like confidence: I would sleep around, I would sometimes be the life and soul. But when it came down to it, to really talking, to the morning-after-the-night-before, I was actually a bit of a mess of nerves. People I had met drunk and taken home would be surprised by how shy I could be in the morning. I could be the loudest person in a group (yes, alcohol “helped”) but when it really came down to it I couldn’t believe that anything I had to say was really worth being heard. My heart would thud every time I spoke up. My hands would shake under the table as I made jokes.
Today I realised I’m not that person any more, not really. I can still be shy, even around good friends if I haven’t seen them for a while. I don’t think that will ever go away- I am coming to learn that it’s a part of who I am, and not necessarily a Bad Thing (some people, I know, find it an endearing trait. I don’t). But I have a quiet confidence now, a growing self-respect that allows me to talk without wondering whether what I say is pointless, an ability to be the one who holds up a conversation between people without taking it over, or being drunk, or reverting to uncomfortable subjects just to make myself seem confident. I haven’t completely mastered the art of “being myself”- I feel the need to present a happy front even when I’m dying inside, I feel the need to be “bubbly” (hate that word) even when I’m scared. Before I do open mic- before the stage confidence takes over- I am a shaky, knee-buckled, heart-beating, nervous wreck. But I’m learning to experience the world differently, to accept that people do like me, and I am worth liking. I am learning how to make my confidence more than just a front, how to make it real.