The Birth of a Self: Overcoming Shyness

child hiding behind doorFor the first three years of my life my father worked 24/7. It was World War II, and he helped keep the oil supply lanes open for the US Navy.

Being elderly, my parents had no friends with little children. To further compound matters, given that we lived in a rural area, we had no neighbors with any children either. My slightly older sibling felt little but jealousy toward me. Bouts of depression coupled with physical exhaustion drained my mother. Five years after the end of the war, my father took early retirement and moved the family from Greenwich, CT to a tiny farming hamlet on Prince Edward Island, Canada.

During my early years of schooling, I didn’t talk to or play with the other children as I was already suffering the debilitating pain that social isolation inflicts. People all around me knew how to talk with and enjoy others. I continually asked myself, why couldn’t I? The stage was set for me to spend solitary decades.

I spent 15 years writing a memoir, Brave: A Painfully Shy Life (2015), about how I combatted social isolation. Then I read some recent research on toddlers. The reason for my debilitating condition became clear: Toddlers create and groom the peer-self in one another. Without the self-confidence and self-esteem that shapes the peer-self, you are considered a nobody by yourself and by your peers. Beyond the age of three or so, a catch-22 comes into play. You have no sense of self, so you can’t make peer friends because you haven’t developed a sense of identity by interacting with other children before the age of three.

I see now that my attempts over the years at conversing with others failed because I was not being genuine. I did not have a self to be genuine about! All I knew was, I was tremendously lonely, and I didn’t want to discuss that. And so, not having thoughts to share, when I met someone I talked about what I thought that person would like to hear. People quickly saw through me and looked for someone else, leaving me perennially alone, lonely and feeling isolated from others.

When I was 45, I stumbled upon a book about building self-knowledge. It asked questions about favorite colors and favorite ice cream. Then came questions about worldly beliefs. I knew my favorite colors and ice cream, but I discovered I actually had no universal beliefs at all. In that moment, I discovered what I needed to do: to think about myself, who I was, what I believed in, and who I wanted to be. I realized I had spent my entire life perplexed by others. That realization gave me the motivation I needed to stop focusing on my isolation and instead begin doing the daunting, yet healing work of starting to uncover myself.

It took me almost twenty years of doing brave, creative activities in order to know and to feel comfortable with myself. Although largely challenging, the years were also fulfilling because at each step of the journey, I felt joy in adding to my self-knowledge. I learned that self-knowledge built self-esteem, which allowed me to blossom and flourish.

Eventually I learned to relax with others—once I knew I was somebody, just as much as anybody else. And soon, I finally made a peer friend! And then another … and another. My circle of friends has enhanced my feelings and knowledge of self unlike anything I could ever have imagined! I also realized that almost everyone constantly strives to change to be better and to have loving friendships. It just took me longer to start.

I do believe I would have developed a sense of self way back, in pre-kindergarten, if I had been given opportunities to be with other toddlers. The pain from social isolation, in particular what I felt during early childhood, still lives within my being. However, the road to healing has given me great optimism and joy in living. My 15 years of writing was validated by Dr. Manohar in her October 2016, review of my memoir in the American Psychiatric Journal. She singled out how I described the need for self-knowledge.

I write this article hoping others can learn and benefit from my experience.

References:

  1. Ghosh, P. (2016, December 12). Brain tests predict children’s futures. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38281663
  2. Brave: A Painfully Shy Life. (2016, October 3). Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ps.671009?mobileUi=0&

Helen_Rivas-Rose_Helen Rivas-Rose is a founder of and the program manager for the Center for Social Isolation Relief, a 501(C)3, which was created in 2015. Its mission is to help ensure that all children and youth learn to unite with peer friends.

 

 

 

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  • 12 comments
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  • Jake

    Jake

    April 10th, 2017 at 8:25 AM

    You mentioned “When I was 45, I stumbled upon a book about building self-knowledge.” I would love to find a book like this! Would you mind telling me what book it was?

  • Helen Rivas-Rose

    Helen Rivas-Rose

    April 11th, 2017 at 2:06 PM

    Yes, it was “The Artists’ Way” by xx Cameron

  • Eevlyn

    Eevlyn

    April 10th, 2017 at 11:10 AM

    I am sure that other chronically shy people like me have often found that it becomes harder to make friend because I think that people have this assumption that you are stuck up or snobby. It isn’t like that at all, I would love to be one of those outgoing confident people who can strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere but that is so far out of my comfort zone that I have a hard time making any friends at all.

  • Helen Rivas-Rose

    Helen Rivas-Rose

    April 11th, 2017 at 2:10 PM

    Please check out my guide to overcoming shyness.

    Learn to be yourself, not someone else. I am a happy introvert, could never be an extrovert….it’s not in my genes and I bet not in yours. Introverts are great when you’re genuine…..

  • Karla

    Karla

    April 11th, 2017 at 9:40 AM

    So let me ask you this- why not instead of seeing it as something that needs to be overcome look at it as more of something about yourself that you can love? This is who you are, how you were made so that is just the end of it. Just because it is different than from others might think that they want from you doesn’t mean that it is wrong or that it needs to be changed.

  • Helen Rivas-Rose

    Helen Rivas-Rose

    April 11th, 2017 at 2:08 PM

    Oh, Karla!
    Not having a close friend is not being alive.

    Please think about what it would be like!

  • Karla

    Karla

    April 12th, 2017 at 9:26 AM

    No I’m not saying that I don’t have friends, it’s just that I have found my people who don’t care that I’m shy, who don’t try to force something on me or try to make me change. They know that this is who I am and they accept that.

  • Helen

    Helen

    April 13th, 2017 at 10:28 AM

    Hi Laura,
    Oh, now I understand your previous comment. We both had / have different circumstances. In your case you are alright with being shy, so ” If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” In my case shyness was crippling me and I really wanted to ” fix” it.

    I think people go through growing spells, from one “plateau” to another though, and I am always happy when I feel a bit more developed. Someday you might want to be less shy, not to please others, but to reap more of life for yourself, no?

    Cheers,
    Helen

  • Harley

    Harley

    April 18th, 2017 at 11:01 AM

    Being the extroverted fun lover is not always the easiest thing either. I can’t tell you how many times all the plans to be put together fall upon me because you know they all just assume that this is the stuff I love so I should do it. I get piled upon a lot in that department and think well, maybe things could be a little easier if gregariousness was not a huge trait of mine.

  • Helen Rivas-Rose

    Helen Rivas-Rose

    April 18th, 2017 at 1:42 PM

    Hi Harley,
    That’s interesting. Do these other people tend to be introverts or extroverts? Maybe the latter and “lazy” ? Maybe the former and inconsiderate? It’s fun to build plans together and it makes for closer bonding. Perhaps the next time people look to you for guidance, you could say you’re short on ideas and ask everyone to get in a circle and work on the planning together.

    Good luck and let me khow it works out.

    Helen

  • dee

    dee

    April 26th, 2017 at 7:25 PM

    My shyness is crippling my social life especially my DANCE life.people love me but not as much as I love myself.when I get to social gatherings,I just lost it all……so shy,low self esteem and no confidence

  • Helen

    Helen

    April 27th, 2017 at 3:56 AM

    Hi Dee,

    I’m not quite sure how to respond to your comment, except I understand the part about being so very shy. Maybe now is the time in your life to take serious action to overcome it…..yes, it’s hard, as hard as can be, but so worth it. Perhaps my book and the guide in it can be of help to inspire you….that’s why I wrote it. It’s called Brave:A Painfully Shy Life and is on Amazon.

    Helen

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