The Puddle of Shame Guide to Overcoming Shyness
It was my first time at Brownies and I was kitted out in my crisp new, still badge-less dress.
The meeting was coming to an end and we were all standing in a circle in the school hall, listening to Brown Owl (the Brownie leader) reminding us all to be good girls in the coming week.
I was seven years old and painfully shy.
So painfully shy that I’d been too scared to ask if I could be excused to go to the toilet – even though I’d needed to go for the entire meeting.
A mixture of too much orange squash + chronic nerves = a bladder that was fit to burst.
As I stood there, crossing my legs and clutching my stomach, I was unable to hold on any longer.
I felt something warm trickle down the inside of my leg, saw a puddle begin to form on the polished wooden floor.
The puddle at my feet grew, just like the red hot shame now radiating through my body.
Please, please, just end the meeting, I silently begged. Please, please, let nobody see.
But then the girl standing across the circle from me began to giggle. ‘Look! Look!’ she cried, pointing to my puddle of shame. ‘She’s wet herself!’ (I still hate her.)
Later that night, I remember hearing my parents talking about me in hushed tones.
Why was I wetting myself at the age of seven, my mum wanted to know. Maybe I needed to see a doctor.
But there was nothing wrong with me physically. It was all down to my crippling shyness. I’d simply been too scared to ask if I could go to the toilet.
Thankfully, there was no repeat of The Puddle of Shame and my folks didn’t end up hauling me off to the docs, but I remained tongue-tied-shy until I got to the age of fourteen.
When I got to the age of fourteen five things happened – my parents split up, I suddenly had way more freedom than I’d ever had before and, while enjoying that freedom, I discovered a passion for music, political activism, drink and drugs.
When I had a drink and smoked a spliff my shyness melted off into the ganja haze.
But of course, the new-found confidence I was feeling wasn’t real.
It was dependant on stimulants; a false high.
I didn’t realise this at the time, I was way too busy enjoying my release from the prison of shy.
I started going clubbing.
I took drugs that made me feel like the Queen of the World let loose on the dance floor.
Until the come down.
Then I felt like shit.
Because nothing had really changed.
Inside, I was still that tongue-tied kid who was too scared to ask if she could go to the toilet.
Only now I was a young woman who was too scared to pursue her dreams – of becoming a writer and travelling the world.
So I settled.
I settled for a crappy job and spent my travel-the-world fund on the deposit for a flat.
It took me a LONG time to find the confidence to overcome my fear and pursue my writing dream.
Even when I got my first book deal I was still painfully shy.
The first time I had to do a public reading was horrendous.
Thankfully, I didn’t wet myself, but I did read the entire chapter without once stopping for breath, or coming out from behind my book to make any form of eye contact with the audience.
For the first few years of my writing career I dreaded being asked to do any kind of event, knowing that I’d be sick with nerves for days in advance.
But then everything changed.
I’d been booked to give a talk at a literary event and as I was waiting backstage, fear gripping at my stomach, I had the sudden thought: what if there’s someone in the audience who really needs to hear what you’re about to say?
I pictured this one person, really in need and something within me shifted.
I always got so stressed about impressing everyone, making them laugh, making them like me, not making a fool of myself.
My fear made it all about me.
But what if I made it all about them?
And what if I only made it about one of them?
What if I pictured this person, in need of a pep talk?
Someone plagued by doubt or fear, who’d given up daring to dream.
And what if I focused all of my energy and intention on reaching this one person with my words?
I strode out on to the stage feeling calm and focused.
It was no longer all about me and how badly I was about to do.
Now it was all about my audience and I was simply a channel – a way of communicating a message of hope to the one person who might need to hear it.
I’ve never feared giving a talk or doing an event since then.
If I do find myself in a situation where fear starts to gnaw, I quickly remind myself: make it about them and getting the message to them.
I’ve focused on public speaking in this post but you could use this technique to overcome shyness in any situation.
In a meeting, serving a customer or client, on a date, going out with friends … make it about them.
Instead of fixating on yourself and your supposed flaws, see yourself as a channel – for love, joy, fun, bad jokes, whatever.
Focus on what you can bring to others and you will free yourself from inadequacy and fear.
Trust me on this – I’m living proof.
My new novel, Tell it to the Moon, is out next week and is all about overcoming fear and daring to dream.
You can find out more and pre-order a copy here.
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