People know me these days as a pretty outgoing guy who enjoys parties, has given more than a few public readings of his books, and recently split his pants dancing at a friend’s wedding. I have a successful coaching and strategic consulting business that regularly has me putting myself out there in dozens of ways every month, from webinars to chatting with strangers.
But things weren’t always this way. In fact, I used to be a different person.
I was the guy at the party trying to look comfortable standing in a corner by himself — you know, the one who inexplicably didn’t talk to anyone, but didn’t just go home either. The guy who, if he did find someone to talk to, would cling to them like a life raft. The guy who was so terrified of women he hardly noticed them — and if they paid him any attention whatsoever, nearly crapped his pants.
Yeah, I was that guy.
In the fall of 2008, in a dark alleyway in downtown Denver, my life would change forever.
I was a freelance advertising copywriter and manager who worked mostly from home, and good enough at what I did that I seldom had to do much to get work except say “yes” when it came my way.
In the fall of 2008 I had a short story, “The Showdown,” published in Denver-based life magazine 303. As a perk I was invited to their holiday party at the end of the year, at a swanky bar and nightclub in the heart of Denver.
I was two years divorced, making a new life for myself in Boulder, CO, and had just signed a contract to publish my first book after over a decade of rejections. The party promised to be full of models, journalists, entrepreneurs, and other interesting movers and shakers that were part of the Denver scene. I’d always wanted to be part of the scene. Any scene, really.
The truth was, I was getting a little tired of being me. It was exhausting, and my self-dislike had been souring into something closer to self-hatred. But before we go to the party and what happened there, let’s take a small diversion.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN INTROVERSION, SHYNESS, AND SOCIAL PHOBIA
According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, introverts are “people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments. The key is about stimulation: extroverts feel at their best and crave a high degree of stimulation. For introverts, the optimal zone is much lower.”
Shyness, on the other hand, is a fear of social humiliation and judgment and most of us — introverts and extroverts — have some degree of shyness in at least some situations.
Social phobia is when shyness becomes extreme. Dr. Daniel Pine, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental health, makes this distinction: “Let’s think about the person who is extremely shy in social situations. They may go to work or go to a party or order in a restaurant or talk to the librarian. But they will be absolutely miserable while doing it. They will have a great number of physiological symptoms — rapid heart beat, sweating, butterflies in their stomach — and extreme stress in anticipation of doing [anything social].”
My parents tell a story about me that I don’t remember at all. When I was about five, I received an invitation to a birthday party from a schoolmate. A few days later, the boy’s mother and my mother were chatting, and the other woman asked if I was coming to the party. My mother was shocked: she’d never seen the invite, because it turned out I’d hidden it so I wouldn’t have to go.
Clever, for a 5 year-old. I was admonished to “come out of my shell.”
Susan Cain makes the point, in Quiet, that introversion is pathologized in American culture. She says that our culture is dominated by what she calls the “extroverted ideal” —the ideal person is an alpha/leader, comfortable in the spotlight, and should be friendly and outgoing. Introversion, she says, is viewed somewhere between a disappointment and a neurosis. So it follows that shyness and social phobia are viewed as outright pathologies.
That was certainly how it felt for me — that I was broken and didn’t fit into the world in a way that made sense. I got that feedback everywhere I went, and so I survived by making the “pathology” a point of pride in my self-identity.
Indeed, if one looks at Web MD under “child shyness,” their advice to parents would make any introvert cringe: “Provide an entry strategy. Help your child approach a group of peers and listen, allowing everyone some time to get used to one another. Teach them to find a break in the chatting and join in. Offer talking points beforehand, such as, ‘I like boats, too.’”
This advice seems to come from that fantasyland of adults who must have had a very different childhood than mine. You know, where children were kind to one another, and an awkward child struggling to fit in was met with understanding and acceptance instead of ridicule and taunting. (I did, however, go to an all-boys Catholic school, a breeding ground of cruelty.)
I was introverted, which just meant I liked quiet time. I was shy, which meant as a child if you called on me in class I’d turn beet red and freeze, and as an adult meant I shunned things like dance floors and birthday toasts. And I was socially phobic, which meant, unless I was in the tow of a more extroverted person, I’d always fade into the background at a party.
Needless to say, this social phobia didn’t exactly serve me well through puberty and into high school, and so I lurched into my 20’s as an awkward young man, first in New York City and then in Philadelphia. That awkwardness became part of who I was; I built a life around it.
By the time I found myself at that party in Denver in 2008, I was a 36-year-old living in a new town 2,000 miles from my old life, but otherwise not much had changed since I was 22.
THE SCOTCH BEFORE THE FALL
I got my first drink, a scotch, and leaned up against the bar, watching. That was something I was very good at — watching others. After about an hour of standing around, I was in a place I knew well: a corner. Perhaps it was a response of some kind of amygdala fight-and-flight trigger that made me seek out the safest physical surroundings, but I was surprised when I found myself there — and then angry.
“Fuck this,” I announced, out loud, and pounded my drink. I think I was planning on going home, but instead went out a back door and into an alleyway. As I walked quickly, I felt decades of pain and hurt roll up through me, like a toxin trying to make its way out of the body through purging and vomiting.
I realized how alone I felt. It seemed like my whole life I’d been alone — even in my former marriage and my own family I’d often felt that way — always the stranger, always the misfit, always the one on the outside looking in. I had always rationalized it as a good thing, but it wasn’t. It was awful.
I stopped walking and noticed everything around me with an eye-searing clarity: the pothole to my right that had burst asphalt scattered around it. The rusting hulk of a dumpster to my left, with the discarded entrails of an office sticking out — a broken chair with a stained seat, a gigantic computer monitor whose white plastic had turned yellow, a cheap desk that had split in two. The air was cold on my face, and I could hear traffic not far away, engines and brakes and thumping stereos.
And then that attention went to my body. I was so tense it felt like the arches of my feet were cramping: tight chest, rapid breathing, clenched fists, grinding teeth. I forced myself to take a full, deep breath, and when I did — it all broke open. I put my hand to my face, dropped to a knee, and began to weep. Not “man crying”, like a little sob escaped before I was able to choke it back down. No, this was full-blown weeping — a chest-heaving, snot-running, tear-spilling, nearly-collapsed-onto-the-pavement exorcism. The loneliness had no bottom and my sadness, so long stuffed inside, seemed to have no end.
Five minutes went by, give or take. I slowly composed myself and, kneeling next to a pothole only five feet from a stinking dumpster, realized something profound: I had a choice. I could keep living as I had been, or I could become someone else. I was in the shadows of an alleyway, kneeling on an unused road full of discarded things — I wondered if it was possible to leave part of myself behind as well.
AND JUST LIKE THAT A NEW MAN … WELL, IT WAS A LOT OF WORK
It would be great if I’d risen, like Superman, and strutted off into my new life. But it wasn’t as easy as an alleyway catharsis. That was just the first, big, step.
I knew I wanted to become someone else. In time, I would learn it was more accurate to say I wanted to become myself. It would take a few more years, a good deal of therapy, a men’s group for support and challenge, the constant exertion of my will, and the support of my new community in Boulder to make the transition more-or-less complete.
These days I’m still introverted, of course, but I’m seldom shy and never socially phobic. My business as an executive coach and consultant is successful in part, I believe, because of the empathy I have for others. I get the underdog, can speak for him, or her, and know better than most what it’s like to not have a voice. I even get the bully, no matter if it’s in the boardroom, the bedroom, or the schoolroom.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS TO ME NOW
One of the most important lessons for me in hindsight was learning the difference between shyness, introversion, and social phobia. The fact that I had all three is relatively rare, but for years I thought I was just “quiet.” Yet I lived most days with a combination of regret and frustration, locked into my world.
Being able to explore and ultimately drop the fears that fueled my shyness and social phobia freed me from a prison of self-hatred, insecurity, and self-limitation. Goodness knows I have plenty of personality defects left (not being falsely modest here), but those are being faced with the help of friends, colleagues, and my beautiful and brilliant fiancé — a woman I’d never have met had I not changed.
If you don’t like who you are, you can change it. You too have choice. It’s likely to take you to some interesting places of uncovering the real you that’s hiding underneath of your family and cultural conditioning — the real you who’s ready to step fully into his or her world.
But it can be done. And becoming yourself just might end up being the greatest thing you’ll ever do.
The story is over on the Good Men Project's website.
Keith Martin-Smith is an award-winning author, content strategist, and Zen priest. He is passionate about human connection, creativity, and evolution.