My Relationship With… Shyness, Confidence and Identity

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

Having autism and social anxiety meant that, in my case, relationships were never going to be easy. When asked whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert, my answer appears to change every other day depending on my mood, what kind of people I’m around and how I feel about myself. People often see the external personality and mask that is presented in front of them, but the truth is, at least in my case, that you can’t categorise people as either shy or outgoing. 

When I was younger it is safe to say that I was painfully shy, and that is no exaggeration. Looking people in the eye literally pained me. They say that eyes are the windows to the soul, and I definitely felt that. It felt so intrusive and uncomfortable to have someone looking right into my eyes, I felt too exposed and just wanted to shrink away from them. But why was I so bothered about the way these eyes just bored into me? The simple answer was that I was terrified of being seen, being visible. I didn’t want to be noticed by anyone because being noticed meant being communicated with which, in my experience, often led to me messing up somehow and feeling more ostracised than I did before. So, it was easier to shut off from people altogether.

I felt solidarity to fellow ‘quiet people’ in school, as we were constantly interrogated for not spouting constant garbage 24/7. It was like we were doing something wrong by preferring to think over constantly engaging with people, but it’s kind of counter-productive. If you’re constantly being berated for not talking enough, why would you want to talk at all? Why would you want to communicate with those same people who are constantly getting on your nerves? Especially when every time you did speak it was somehow ‘wrong‘ and ‘weird‘, reminding you why it was safer to remain silent in the first place.

So, from a young age, I felt as if my own company was the only form of company I could trust not to ridicule me and shake my already fragile confidence. Whilst I’m aware that kids aren’t always fully aware of how their actions can affect people, being constantly questioned about how little you speak at such a young age does have an impact on how you see the world. You learn to trust people less, see them as the enemy, and find safety in staying quiet.

Obviously, I grew out of that. I grew up with three brothers, and so learnt, in a house where softly spoken feminine people were very much the minority, that the best and only way to get your voice heard was to shout the loudest. There is no room for tiptoeing and sensitivity: you need to fight to be noticed, understood and valued.

I don’t know at what point I decided to apply this mantra to other areas of my life, but one day I just woke up and my pathological fear of people somehow dissipated into simultaneous resentment and the desperate need to impress them. My strange pendulum-self swung completely to the other side. At the time, I thought that I had lost all of my inhibitions and was now free to say or do whatever I want. I suppose I realised that I was the master of my own voice and personality, and words suddenly came easily to me. But I was yet to understand that this shouldn’t be limitless. It was like going from a broken tap with the occasional drip and drop of a word to this uncontrollable waterfall of words that just wouldn’t stop.

Although some might welcome an influx of water after a drought, it doesn’t mean that you won’t eventually become over-saturated. The issue was that I went from never talking to never stopping, and I wasn’t just a bit on the chatty side, I had zero filter. Every thought that entered my head, no matter how fleeting or inappropriate, found itself leaving my lips. The thing is, a lot of the time I know that I may have been crossing the line, but it was like I was numb to the value of words, that I perhaps felt as if any words I was saying at all were an achievement and everyone should be utterly blessed by my contributions to conversations, no matter how idiotic they might have been.

The worst part of being completely indifferent to what comes out of your mouth is that it leads to a sense of arrogance. If you don’t understand the value of words and are more focused on your ability to speak at all, then you won’t care about what your words do, and how they might affect people. You brush off everyone who challenges you as being too ‘sensitive’. Now that I had learnt how to speak, I thought the hard part was over. But alas, that was not the case as I had not yet learnt how to channel my speech.

The truth is that underneath this lack of control over my words was the same anxious outcast who remained desperate for people’s approval. Sometimes, people laughed when I said something a bit stupid or outlandish, so I took that reaction as the key to social success: if I spout enough rubbish people will find me funny, I will finally shed that image of the anxious, monobrowed kid. But, talking the loudest doesn’t mean you are going to be liked.

I’m learning that somewhere between the two extremes might be the best way forward. You shouldn’t be afraid to speak out, but make sure your words mean something. I still have a lot to learn about how to use my voice, but I think something that I’m aiming for – and something that I think we should all aim for – is for my voice to reflect the best version of myself. We can never get our words back, so we might as well ensure they are worthwhile.

More articles in My Relationship With...
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  2. My Relationship With… University
  3. My Relationship With Grief
  4. My Relationship with Job-Hunting
  5. My Relationship With… Therapy
  6. My Relationship With… My Scars
  7. My Relationship With… Diet and Depression
  8. My Relationship with… The Gym
  9. My Relationship With… Shyness, Confidence and Identity
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