I’ve always hated how inhibited I can be in certain settings, and it all started at a young age.
In school if we had to methodically go around the classroom introducing ourselves, or if I was anticipating giving an answer to a teacher’s question during the lesson, I’d feel sick until my moment was over. This happened even when I was sure I knew the right answer, or when the activity was nothing important, like a fun icebreaker at the start of an afterschool club.
I know people say public speaking is a top fear, but to me it seemed I had a heightened internal reaction to even the most minor instances of speaking to a group. I mean, beyond the usual hand clamminess, dry mouth, and flushed face, my body would even tingle. And not in the butterflies-in-the- stomach way, which I’d felt for more minor episodes of nervousness, like if my mom asked me to call information for a phone number (back in the dark days of landline phones and no Internet).
No, this sensation was like I was buzzing all over with fear. It’s hard to describe it even; the closest thing I can think of is how it feels if you get a minor electric shock. I’ve experienced that and this feeling was similar, only it lasted much longer!
To deal with my nerves, I’d rehearse in my mind what I would say over and over until I spoke, whether I had seconds or minutes until it was my turn. Having a longer period to mentally prepare was actually worse, since that gave me more time to repeat in my head whatever I had to say over and over and over. And the big moment was usually something as simple as, “Hi, I’m Becky. I’m a freshman. I like to write and my favorite color is purple.”
Why was I getting so worked up over something like that?
Freezing on the piano
I was inhibited early on in other ways, too.
When I was trying to learn to play the piano as a child, a process I actually enjoyed, I’d be making good progress until my mom would come in to admire my work.
Suddenly all kinds of discordant tones would emanate from my fingers on the piano keys.
Timing was off.
Tunes I knew by heart were suddenly forgotten.
“What’s wrong?” my mom would ask, and initially I’d say something like my fingers had gotten stiff or a key had stuck. But since it kept happening over and over, I remember finally admitting I couldn’t play if she watched me — and she seemed hurt.
“But why? I think you’re doing great! Besides, I’m not watching to criticize how you’re playing, I’m just so proud of you!” she said.
I understood, but that didn’t help me when it came to playing and being observed at the same time. I just couldn’t do it. My hands didn’t allow it, even if mentally I wanted to continue.
The school choir incident
Then there was the time in school when I was in a choir because we had to take some kind of music class as part of my school’s curriculum. When the teacher evaluated my singing ability, she told me I was a pretty good singer. She surprised me even further by classifying me as a soprano. I was proud of that, since I’d assumed I had a more limited vocal range.
Despite all of these fun surprises, come the night of our big performance for the school, I actually found myself only mouthing along.
Yes, lip-synching, like a teenaged version of Milli Vanilli.
I just couldn’t bring myself to sing. And I knew I couldn’t just opt out of the performance once I was there with everyone and had family sitting in the audience. “No thanks, I think I’ll sit this one out,” would just not have been accepted by anyone.
But I felt so ashamed afterwards that I never wanted to sing again once that choir class was over. It still bothers me, actually. I know I was young and there are worse things I could have done, but I feel like I defrauded everyone that night, including myself.
I did tell my mom and one close friend about it afterwards, in the hopes I’d feel like less of a fraud. They were very understanding but I still felt so…wrong. Why was I so bottled up in these ways?! I actually liked singing! (Side note: I think a few members of the choir had done the same thing that night. At one point, the teacher leading our choir kept telling us to be louder and asked if everyone was singing. You’d think that would have jolted me into joining in like I was supposed to, regardless of whoever else may have been basically cheating, too. But no; now I felt locked into my charade, like I’d be discovered if my voice was suddenly audible in a way it hadn’t been before.)
No sprinkles for you
This inhibition would pop up even in minor social interactions, as it did one summer during my high school years when I went to an amusement park with my relatives.
At one point, I got on a vendor’s line to buy an ice cream cone while my family stayed at the table we’d all been eating at. While waiting, I noticed two boys on line in front of me; one looked to be about my age and was talking to a boy who appeared to be about 5 or 6. They looked alike and I was pretty sure they were brothers.
I heard the older boy tell his little brother that he didn’t have enough money for him to get sprinkles on his cone after all. I don’t remember how much more he needed exactly, but I remember it being very little — it was definitely under a dollar.
This seemingly insignificant memory has stayed with me, for two reasons: I’d been impressed by the way the two brothers got along and how caring the older one seemed to be towards the younger one; plus the thought of offering some of my own change towards the child’s sprinkles had popped into my mind. I knew the little boy would appreciate it and I found him to be an adorable kid, so I really felt moved to do this small, random act of kindness.
But what did I do?
You guessed it — nothing.
As I witnessed the little boy look disappointed but good-naturedly tell his older brother he was okay with not getting sprinkles, I was fighting an internal battle.
You have extra change — if you feel like offering it, do it! I was telling myself. I knew how it felt to be short on money and be unable to afford something; I wanted the little boy to not have to forego the sprinkles he’d clearly been excited about and the older brother not to feel bad for being unable to get them for him.
Yet I felt funny saying something because I didn’t want to look like I’d been eavesdropping (I couldn’t help but hear them, since they were right in front of me) or that I liked the older brother and was trying to get his attention. I didn’t even find him attractive, and besides, I wasn’t the type to do things just for show.
So, as the line moved closer and closer to the ordering window, I stayed silent — except for the debate raging in my head.
I watched the boys order their cones, sans sprinkles. And still I said nothing. They paid and left, then I ordered my own cone — and that was that.
I know I wasn’t wrong not to pitch in; my point is, if I felt like doing so, why couldn’t I? Why was I allowing myself to be held back like this?
Loved my dance classes…to a point
Curiously, I wasn’t too shy to avoid doing things like taking dance classes as I got older. For some time, I took African dance classes at a studio that featured live drummers (which has since closed, sadly). And I loved it.
As the classes drew to a close, the students would break out of the orderly arrangements we’d been in and casually surround the drummers. Individually, dancers would then move forward closer to the drummers and dance any steps they felt like doing to the beat of the drums.
The drummers would begin with a basic beat and then time their rhythm to what they saw the dancer doing, and the group watching was always so supportive of the dancer and his or her inspiration and creativity — ego wasn’t part of it. The dancer wasn’t trying to impress anyone; this was all about enjoying the rhythmic drumming.
To me it also seemed like a way to show appreciation for the work the drummers had done throughout the class providing the music for our lesson; now the dancers were dancing for them as a thank you. And on a larger level, the process seemed almost sacred, like a ritual to honor music, culture, life, and each other.
After a few seconds of the individual dancers either using steps we’d just learned or improvising ones they were inspired to use, they’d then return to the group to applause and cheers of appreciation and respect. Then another dancer would come forward to perform his or her own personal dance for the drummers. It was a beautiful experience.
Yet for all my time taking those classes, I hesitated when the opportunity arose to dance in front of everyone on my own that way.
I’m not even a bad dancer; that wasn’t my issue. I’m not humble-bragging here, mind you — I’m no dance expert, but I’m not terrible and I want to explain that that wasn’t my reason for not coming forward.
Besides, I knew skill wasn’t the focus here — dancers of all levels were readily welcomed and appreciated in that class. It was all about the spirit with which you danced — a value I loved.
Class after class, I enjoyed the creations of the other dancers, the camaraderie I shared with fellow observers, and the music — and each time, I felt moved to step forward and share my own love for the music and dance.
Maybe next time I’ll work up the nerve to do it, I’d tell myself.
I never did.
It’s odd, considering that I wasn’t too shy to go to the class in the first place. It didn’t even bother me that the studio allowed anyone who wanted to watch the classes to do so from the side door or through a window on the back wall of the studio adjoining the main entrance. I was fine with that because I was just one person out of many who were doing the same steps.
But when it came to standing out and having all eyes on me? Not so fine with that.
Not so good at a concert, either
I’ve had a similar reaction when I’ve attended concerts. Although I may be moved by the experience, I just can’t physically lose myself to the music the way I’d like to during a good live performance — the way I see others do with ease.
Instead I’ll stand there and observe the band or singer with only the occasional head nod to the music and applause at the end of each song. But beyond that? I don’t do much else.
I know to some it might look like I’m not having fun, but I am. I wish I could let myself engage a bit more in moments like these, especially since I know no one’s even going to be paying attention to me — but I still can’t seem to.
Hanging out with friends
The same thing has happened to me when my friends and I have gone to a lounge. I’ve often heard a song I love, actually joined them on the dance floor, but then proceeded to dance in the most “safe” way possible. Basically it involves me just barely moving to the beat, using the same couple of moves over and over. Meanwhile, I get such a thrill seeing people who can dance freely and joyfully. The way I do at home when no one’s around. Then, I dance!
One time I did that involuntarily hearing a song I liked while a friend was at my place, and she caught me. “You should dance like that when we’re out! Why don’t you?” she asked, surprised. I didn’t have a good answer for her. I still don’t. I felt pleased by her compliment, yet that wasn’t enough to be able to unleash that side of me in public. The few times I have been a little more free usually involved a drink or two. Not just me being me.
Part of it involves not wanting to look like I’m performing. I’ve seen some people who seem to want attention. I’m the opposite of that and I’m like this even with petty things, like if a friend asks me to tell a funny, but lengthy, story to a group of people at dinner. Having all eyes turn towards me expectantly, with the prospect of having to speak to them for minutes on end as I relate the requested anecdote, results in me shortening the story to a ridiculous length.
Like if my friend asked me to tell the story about the time we got lost in Brooklyn, I’d probably summarize it to, “Oh right, we didn’t know our way but then we eventually figured it out.” Leaving out all kinds of pertinent details that make the story worth telling in the first place.
My goal with this over-condensed version of storytelling in front of a group is to just get it over with as quickly as possible, but I neglect to realize it’ll only provoke more questions since I’m being so confusingly concise. I don’t know why I hope that people will think the story is complete and accept it as is, boring and all; it never works. Inevitably, someone else at the table who can also tell the story will jump in to fill in the hundreds of gaps I’ve left. In those moments, I gladly let them take over and act like I just can’t tell a good story, as if the details I’d left out were an oversight — but in reality, I don’t want to tell the story. At least not face-to-many-faces.
I don’t do it to be mysterious or to be private. I just freeze when a group of people are watching me do anything.
Things are different in other settings, though
What confuses me is that I’m usually not inhibited like this when it comes to one-on-one conversations or meeting new people — even if they’re famous. I think it’s because a dialogue with someone is a shared experience in which neither person is really the main focus; it’s an exchange that feels more real and natural to me.
Yet I’ve also held many jobs where I’ve had to conduct group training sessions for employees, run staff meetings, and host social events. How is it I can do those things which involve people (and en masse) watching me do something, without feeling my usual anxiety?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in these situations, I’m fulfilling a somewhat set function that’s outside myself. For instance, the meeting or training has to cover certain information; the focus is on sharing that knowledge. It’s not about sharing the inner me. I’m not the only one who can do this, either; anyone can run that meeting, train that staff or host that event, theoretically.
Even though I get slightly nervous in those settings, to me it seems like a more “normal” case of nervousness. In fact, many people who see me fulfill these functions would be surprised I get nervous at all and am very shy in other settings.
For example: at one place where I worked in the past, we were asked to fill out an assessment quiz before a group discussion on personalities and teamwork. We were talking with one another as we filled out our forms and I was struggling with the first question — whether I was an extrovert or introvert.
I knew I felt very social and liked interacting with others, but since I’ve experienced so many moments of anxiety like I’ve described here, I figured I must be an introvert. While talking with a coworker about our answers, others heard me and emphatically said I was an extrovert. When our supervisor became aware of what we were talking about, she laughed and said, “Extrovert! You are DEFINITELY an extrovert!” As if there was no question about it.
I’ve since come to know, however, that your personality is not just what you display to others but who you feel you are inside, so now I would choose introvert. But it’s still interesting to me that many people were convinced I was the opposite.
I also got a sense that it wouldn’t be as “good” if I identified as an introvert. No one said it, but that’s the vibe I felt. Plus I know that culturally, being an extrovert is seen as admirable. They’re the go-getters, the deal-closers, the entrepreneurs.
But I know I’m not an extrovert.
Where writing comes in
The only way I feel I can act in a more extroverted way and share the real me with less trepidation is when I write. I may still be shy at times, but writing helps me engage with several people without getting overly anxious about it. So I’ve written a lot over the years, both publicly and privately, and am trying to broaden the types of writing I do — hence this blog! I’m so happy to have started it and connected with so many other bloggers via the WordPress community. That actually is another major reason why I love the Internet.