Walking into crowded places makes my heart pound and my stomach twist into a pretzel. Every time I go to the mall or gym and see more than 10 cars in the parking lot, a math equation pops into my head: more vehicles equal more people, and more people equal more anxiety. I think, “I don’t want to get out of the car.” But I know there’s no avoiding going because I’m already there.
I feel like everyone is watching me. I think, do I look OK? Should I fix my posture? Should I make eye contact or stare at the floor? If I have to talk to salespeople, I’m afraid looking at them will make me laugh and they’ll think I don’t have self-control. It hasn’t happened before, and I know it most likely won’t happen, but it’s a fear I can’t get rid of. Sometimes, I talk myself out of asking employees questions by thinking, “Maybe I’ll come back another day.”
I wasn’t so nervous around people when I was young. I wasn’t afraid to scold boys if they were saying mean things. But when I was 8 years old, I was visiting my family in India during my summer vacation. We were celebrating my grandpa’s birthday at a banquet hall, and I stepped outside for fresh air. But then a stranger approached me, put his arm around my shoulders, and touched me inappropriately. It lasted for a few seconds, although it felt longer. I was so scared that I couldn’t talk or move. After he touched me, I ran away from him as fast as I could.
When I returned to America, I hid myself in baggy T-shirts and shorts. I thought I was weak for letting a stranger touch me without fighting back.
My shyness became worse when I was almost 10 years old. A few weeks after I started fifth grade, I was moved into sixth grade. There were 11 sixth, seventh and eighth graders, so we learned in one classroom from one teacher. I saw some familiar faces but I wasn’t introduced to the class.
The only other sixth graders were three boys. I didn’t know what to say to them because they liked video games. The seventh- and eighth-grade students were interested in PG-13 movies and rock bands like Good Charlotte, while I was still watching Disney Channel.
Rejected at lunch
One day, I sat down with the boys from my class to eat but one of them said, “Go away, no one wants you here.” I teared up and went to another table.
After sixth grade, my parents could tell I was unhappy, so I switched to a different school. The principal and my parents agreed that it would be easier for me to make friends if I repeated sixth grade. On my first day, I didn’t know where to wait for my parents to pick me up so I followed a group of people from my class. I heard one of the boys, whose name was Greg, say, “Why is she following us?” He seemed to think I was creepy. I decided to prove him wrong by talking to him. If I didn’t, I thought that my chances of making friends would be gone. I set a time and place for my mission: I’d say one sentence to him every Wednesday in P.E.
A couple of weeks after I hatched my plan, I blurted out, “Have you ever been on a soccer team before?” I had soccer practice the night before and it was the first topic I could think of. His eyes widened in surprise that I was talking to him. “Yes, I played for a few years, but I quit because I didn’t like it very much,” he responded.
Then we started talking about our hobbies, and I learned that Greg loved acting, singing and dancing. I told him that I loved music too, and that I took hip-hop dance classes. I ended up eating lunch with him. I was nervous because I thought he wouldn’t want me to, but we kept talking. After that day, we sat together at lunch every day and he introduced me to his friends. They became my friends too. I was proud of myself for starting a conversation.
However, in eighth grade, my frightened turtle instincts returned. My parents told me they were getting divorced. I felt guilty because I realized that I was the only reason they had stayed together. I didn’t want to upset them further by showing them how sad I was. I feared that if I told my friends how I felt, they would worry about me or feel bad for me or think I was trying to get sympathy. I stopped hanging out with my friends as much. I looked at the floor instead of waving when I saw them. I didn’t even say bye to half of my class at graduation, thinking that I had pushed them too far away.
After middle school, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to go to a public high school. They thought that going to a school with more than 1,000 students would help prepare me for college because there would be a lot of people in college. I was excited but also scared because I wouldn’t know anyone.
I spent a good chunk of my summer typing questions into Google: “How do I make friends in high school?” “How do I come across as an approachable person?” “How can I be less shy?” Yahoo! Answers and WikiHow said things I’d heard before, like “just be yourself” and “don’t worry.” The advice didn’t help me much.
On my first day of freshman year I felt lost at such a large school. I didn’t talk to anyone unless it was necessary. But later that week, three girls in my English class invited me to sit with them for an assignment. My heart leapt because I had people to talk to!
I discovered that all four of us loved Donald Duck and the band Paramore. The next day, I sat next to them again even though I worried they would find me annoying or clingy. To my surprise, they didn’t say anything, and we continued to sit as a group for the rest of freshman year.
A few days after meeting the girls in my English class, a girl from summer school tapped my shoulder and said, “Jaanvi, you should talk to that girl. She looks quiet.” I saw that she was gesturing toward a girl sitting alone and reading. I immediately wanted to talk to her because reading is one of my favorite things to do. I also felt like I could relate to her because she looked lonely.
Taking a deep breath, I sat down next to her. “Hi, my name is Jaanvi,” I said, extending my hand. “I’m Rei,” she responded softly. We began to ask each other questions and my heartbeat returned to normal. There were some silences in our conversation, but I learned that she had come from Japan two years earlier. She said she was afraid to talk to others because her English was not the best.
I felt comfortable being myself
For the rest of the week, I would return to the same spot and we shared how our days went. Rei was the first person I met who was quieter than me! As we got closer, she started to crack jokes with me and her book went in her backpack during lunch. Rei was the first person to whom I’d admitted I was terrified to give class presentations. I told her that I was afraid I spoke too softly, and so people might not know what I was saying. She said, “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. It’ll be OK when it’s over.” I found a friend who understood me.
I noticed a pattern: In class or in the hallways, I was reluctant to talk to people unless they talked to me first. Sometimes I walked in a person’s direction to say “Hi,” but then backed out at the last second.
I tried to conquer that fear by taking journalism because I thought it would help me get to know other students and make friends. I wrote for the Features section, which required interviewing students.
For my first interview, we were supposed to write about a person who showed skill in a hobby. I panicked because I didn’t know many people, but then I remembered that Dina, one of the girls from my English class group, had mentioned that she won an art competition in sixth grade. She agreed to be interviewed at lunch the next week.
Fear didn’t hit me until the day of the interview. I couldn’t concentrate in any of my classes and I counted down the minutes until 12:20. When the time came to ask questions, my breathing was rapid and the sheet of questions shook in my hands. I glanced at Dina, but almost immediately looked back at my paper and asked, “How long have you been drawing and painting?” She smiled and told me, “Ever since I could hold a pen.” I scribbled down her answer and moved on to the other questions. As she responded, I began to relax. So far, I didn’t seem to be doing so badly except for speaking too softly.
After 10 minutes though, Dina’s friend Sarah sat next to her. My stomach clenched again. Sarah and I had Spanish together and I thought she looked like a nice person, but I had never gathered the courage to talk to her. At the end of the interview, I confessed to Dina that I was afraid my article wouldn’t be good enough. She reassured me that things would be OK, but also said Sarah was an amazing writer. Sarah overheard and I was shocked when she said I could email her my article for corrections!
They asked if I wanted to eat lunch with them one day. I took Rei with me and all four of us ended up eating together the next week. I also emailed the article to Sarah, who handed it back the next day in Spanish. We scooted our desks together and became friends. We talked about writing, books, movies and our favorite websites. I felt happier because I realized that things could turn out well even if I didn’t expect them to. Sarah and Dina started coming over to my house on weekends to hang out, and we walked to Starbucks after school when we had time.
I’m getting help to be more confident
I also started to see a counselor in April because of what happened in India and how it has affected me since. Every two weeks, she helps me with my fears of talking to other people. One time I told her I’m afraid I sometimes come across as annoying. She said, “So what if some people think you’re annoying?” I responded that I would feel embarrassed. She asked again, “So what?” I thought about it and realized that the feeling would last for only a moment.
She told me that it’s not important to have everyone like me, and that I should spend time with people who accept me for who I am. She also reminded me that I shouldn’t be afraid to talk to friends if something is bothering me, because if they are truly my friends, they won’t think badly of me. I felt better after hearing that because it was something I hadn’t done for a while. So in September, when Sarah and I were at Starbucks, I talked to her about my parents’ divorce and how I felt after it. I had been scared to tell her, but she listened to me and gave me advice. It felt good to tell someone my feelings.
If I feel like I annoy someone, I now catch myself and say, “Everyone is different, and maybe my personality just doesn’t appeal to some people.” It’s hard because I hate it if people don’t want to be around me, but I can’t control how other people feel. There will be people who like me the way I am, even though I am shy.
I still talk to my friends from English class every day, and I have classes with them this year too. I eat lunch with Rei and a few other friends I met through my English class friends. I don’t have a big group of friends, but that’s OK because I love spending time with my small group of close ones.