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Conquering Shyness through Travel

Sri Lanka Galle building

If you met me aged 18 on the day I collected my A-level results in summer 2007, and again aged 23 on the day I threw my mortar board in the air at my university graduation in summer 2012, you wouldn’t recognise me. Appearance wise the only difference would be a slightly maturer expression on my face and a better sense of dress, but internally I had changed beyond recognition. You see, until I left school aged 18 I was painfully shy and suffered from a terrible lack of self-esteem. In my own friendship group I felt perfectly comfortable, I still went to parties like everyone else and I certainly wasn’t lonely, but you would never see me raise my hand in class or jump into a group of unknown people and start chatting away. I felt embarrassed and taunted by the fear of what other people may think of me. I can remember that anxiety very vividly and I would spend hours obsessing over uncomfortable events or situations I found myself in. I know now that all teenagers go through a period of exaggerated self-consciousness, but at the time it felt like I was shyer than almost everyone else. It’s part of the reason that, although on the whole I enjoyed my teens, I’d never choose to re-live any of my teenage years if given the chance.

        But when I tell someone nowadays that I used to be terribly shy, I’m always met with much surprise, as I’m now the complete opposite – a relatively confident extrovert. I was recently leading a team of 13 volunteers in Nepal and coaching them individually on their personal development, and I found myself explaining to a few of the quieter more introverted team members that I too used to be a much quieter, shyer person. Which lead me to thinking about how I came out of my shell and what advice I might be able to give from my own experience, as I know I would have really appreciated some advice back then (although of course I would never have had the confidence to actually ask for any advice!). In hindsight I can see where that shyness stemmed from in my case: in addition to the typical teenage self-consciousness that everyone experiences, my main fears were of making a mistake, looking stupid or uncool, and being ridiculed or teased. But of course I had no idea at the time that my shyness was just a symptom of a “fear” or that it stemmed from being scared. I just thought shyness was an integral part of me and that therefore I was inherently shy. Full stop.

How I came out of my shell on my Gap Year

        So what changed? I didn’t actively go out and try to change myself, as I didn’t realise that was possible. But I was fortunate to naturally come out of my shell over time and if anything, I probably speak up a little too much nowadays. My first leap into my new self came about through travelling during my gap year before university, which began 3 days after my 18th birthday on 12th July 2007. I spent a month working in a ski resort in Chile where I knew no one, then I backpacked around Cuba for a month with a schoolfriend, then I spent 4 months working in a ski resort in the Italian Alps again knowing no one beforehand, then I backpacked around China and East Asia for 4 months with a boyfriend I had picked up during my Italian ski season. Thankfully my shyness hadn’t held me back from organising a gap year as I loved travel even back then, although I certainly felt a nervous anticipation in the days leading up to each trip.

        These four trips forced me outside of my Hampshire bubble and into the unknown, to two new continents and 9 completely new countries, and oh my god the world suddenly seemed so big! For the first time I understood how tiny and insignificant I am as one individual in a world of 7 billion people, as I’d meet new people every singe day, who I’d know fleetingly before they disappeared from my life again. I’d never ever had this liberty before, the liberty to make a first impression that really truly would never matter. Day after day I had to introduce myself to new people, speaking up and honing my 10-second bio with complete strangers in hostel common rooms. The realisation that I’d never see them again and that it therefore didn’t matter what they thought of me or whether they liked me, was so liberating! I still felt self-conscious but ultimately more motivated by having fun trying new things and making the most of the country I was in, than of trying to appear cool. It certainly helped that I had a safety net around me: my ski seasons were both jobs arranged in advance, so I was greeted at the airport both times and introduced to my new colleagues, and both backpacking trips around Cuba and East Asia were with someone I knew really well and felt 100% comfortable with. Despite breaking away from Hampshire and my family, I never felt alone on my gap year.

Adventure begins at the edge of your comfort zone

        I had a number of challenges and setbacks over my gap year, as is very very normal for any traveller! While these setbacks terrified me at the time, I survived to tell the tale and learned that I could cope with problems by myself, that the comfort blanket of my parents wasn’t there to do it for me. Learning to “cope” with problems alone was a huge skill that my gap year gifted to me. For example, flight delays meant that I arrived in Chile 24 hours late, having spent an unexpected night alone in a Madrid airport hotel, and without any luggage – I was literally wearing flipflops in a ski resort in mid-winter! I started my receptionist job in Chile and took a knock to my confidence as I struggled to understand a single word of Spanish despite being destined for a degree in Spanish (not knowing at the time that the Chilean accent is the very hardest of them all to grasp!). In Cuba my friend Libby and I suffered massive culture shock in a grubby and questionable B&B in Havana – I woke up one morning and for a split second thought I was at home, before the sinking feeling kicked in as I remembered my true surroundings. However I now look back on Cuba as my true rite-of-passage trip.

        In the Italian ski resort I despised the sleazy, grumpy Greek hotel manager I worked for and he equally despised me back, and I even spent 2 weeks not speaking to the restaurant manager I also worked for, who strangely enough would later become my boyfriend and backpack around Asia with me. And in Shanghai I lost my wallet and all bank cards within 3 days of arriving in Asia (luckily I got it all back!). All of these mishaps took me outside my comfort zone and into crisis mode, which is where I truly learned how to fend for myself. Previously I’d have relied on my parents or teachers to manage for me, and although I’d have appreciated the help, I’m grateful that the internet wasn’t so readily available everywhere back in 2007/8, or else I most definitely would have leaned on them more for support. But no, I had to deal with problems by myself, and I learned to cope outisde of my comfort zone. The boundaries of my comfort zone expanded and with them grew my self-confidence and self-esteem. I finished my gap year in August 2008 and flew home from Singapore Airport a completely different person – unrecognisable.

My university years

        University is often seen as a fresh start where you can reinvent yourself, break away from family constraints or expectations and experiment with new societies, clubs, sports and a whole new set of friends. I was quite unlucky, as Exeter was a popular university with my school, so I ended up living in halls on the very same corridor as a girl from my year at school. At school we were neither close friends nor enemies, but she did know the pre-gap-year quieter, shyer me so I felt like I couldn’t truly be my new confident self, as she knew the deep dark secret about my shyness, and she might call me up on it. She never did, but that was pretty annoying and in some way, her presence in our mutual circle of friends affected my behaviour in first year.

        In second year when I no longer lived near her, instead living with my best friends Ellie & Megs (who are still two of my best friends to this day), I reverted to my new less-shy self and joined the Tennis Club, ran the Hispanic Society as President and organised a high-profile charity fashion show. But the real step change came in my third year abroad, as I have already waxed lyrical in several previous posts! Once again I found that travel forcibly banished my shyness and I’m grateful for it! In both Cordoba and Modena, where I lived for 6 months each, I had to communicate in Spanish and Italian respectively, I had to meet and nurture a new circle of friends and, most frighteningly, I had to find somewhere to live – not once but twice!

        I also started teaching English part-time in a language academy in Cordoba and I had to learn to stand up in front of a classroom of adults and lead a lesson – a far cry from the days when I struggled to just raise my hand in a classroom! It was honestly terrifying at first but as soon as I realised that, as a native English speaker, I could never be proved wrong by my students, I felt infinitely happier in my classes, proving that my shyness was actually just a fear. And in terms of meeting new people and socialising, it’s also true that when you speak in another language you almost adopt a whole other personality, meaning that the old shy me has never appeared when I’m speaking in Spanish or Italian.

         I honestly believe that had I not taken up travelling, then I’d still be that girl who worried about speaking up in front of a crowd and saying something wrong, and if that were the case, if I was still crippled by shyness, then there’s no way that I’d have got onto my graduate scheme and certainly no way that I’d have gone to Nepal to lead a team of 13 volunteers. While I have no doubt that introverts can also be leaders, shy introverts would struggle in the ICS Team Leader role as it involves constantly speaking to large groups and requires having the self-confidence to take decisions and believe in your own leadership capabilities.

12 tips for conquering shyness

         So as a result of what I’ve learned about shyness and how to lose it through travel, here are the key tips I’d offer to anyone who would like to build their self-confidence:

  • Try new things, learn new skills and acquire new life experiences – so you can prove your own abilities to yourself, improving your self-confidence
  • Challenge yourself to do “difficult” things that you’d naturally try to avoid – embrace the awkwardness and don’t be afraid of failing or getting it wrong
  • Step away from the people and places that comprise your comfort blanket – such as your home town and your parents who will solve any problem for you, you need to learn to cope and problem-solve by yourself
  • Take spontaneous decisions and venture into the unknown – where things will inevitably go wrong but will also give you so much to learn from
  • Start off travelling with a safety net to ease yourself into it – travel with one person you really trust, I wouldn’t advise you try travelling solo from day one if you lack self-confidence
  • Pack a backpack without a defined itinerary and see where your feet carry you – don’t focus too much on the end destination, embrace and be grateful for the challenges and setbacks you encounter, as you won’t develop without them
  • Don’t call home or use Whatsapp everyday while you travel – cut the ties and experiment with fending for yourself: see how you cope!
  • Stop telling yourself you can’t do something because your shy – you’re not inherently shy in and of yourself, it’s merely a fear that you can overcome, much like the fear of a bungee jump before you’ve done one
  • Force yourself into meeting new people through staying in hostels – just remind yourself every morning that you never have to see these people ever again if you don’t want!
  • Keep a daily journal of one moment per day when you stepped outside of your comfort zone or felt uncomfortable – and then question why that was. Was it caused by a fear of something? How could you overcome that fear or react differently in future?
  • Believe in your strengths and skills – perhaps write a list of them all and read that list whenever you need a boost of self-esteem
  • List your fears and think of ways you can tackle them – your greatest fear may be spiders, it may be networking events, it may be public speaking. Identify what all your fears are and they’ll show you the real root cause of your shyness, and therefore how to tackle shyness by tearing apart those fears

       I’m no scientist or psychologist and I haven’t done any formal research into how to conquer shyness. I’m merely speaking from personal experience and I hope that by telling this story I can at the very least reassure you that shyness doesn’t have to be a permanent characteristic – it can be conquered. For me, the magic potion was travel, and it will be different things for different people. But some fundamentals may be common to everyone – the idea of shyness as merely the manifestation of a fear, the concept of tackling your fears by stepping outside of your comfort zone and confronting those fears head-on.

Please do add your comments below about whether you agree or disagree, whether you have suffered from shyness now or in the past, or how you are personally overcoming your shyness? I’d be fascinated to hear what works for other people.

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2 Comments »

  1. Hi Virginia! I really appreciated your post. I’m 25 and consider myself a very shy person, although this may be not so evident at first sight. I’m introvert and usually full of fears (mainly of other people’s judgement). I absolutely agree with you when you say that travelling and stepping outside of your comfort zone can help: I’m trying to do such things and working hard to become a more confident person. Your article was very touching, thank you 🙂

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