Interviews: How do you overcome shyness?

By Paul Uhlenkott, 17, Hamilton HS
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Paul says that he may be shy, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve always been afraid of change. Walking into a classroom of strangers is hell for me. Going up to someone and saying “Hi” is practically impossible. (In fact, I’ve never done that.) I can’t seem to do the things that most teens take for granted, like hanging out at the mall, buying something from a store or even participating in a discussion in class.

I don’t know why I get so scared about new surroundings and new people. I guess I’m always afraid I’ll do something wrong that will piss people off. I always have this feeling that somehow, whatever I do could lead to my death. Like, if I went into the store and bought something, and I didn’t have enough money, would the clerk snap and grab a knife and attack me? I know it’s not very likely, but things do happen. Just considering the possibility of that would be enough to keep me out of the store.

By the time I was in middle school, my anxieties had become a problem. Leaving the comfort of elementary school for middle school, I felt like I had been dropped on a new planet. I had to get used to a new campus, students, teachers, classes, even having separate periods for each subject. I was supposed to keep my packets of homework neatly in a three-ring binder, and I’d try, but the snappy things would snap on my fingers, so I’d put the homework sheets in the pocket, and they would get mixed up with all my other papers, and I’d lose them. While I was looking for my assignment, I’d find homework from two weeks previous, but not the homework I needed to turn in at the time.

We had to do reports, and those were hard because I’d wait ‘til the last minute and run out of time. Then I’d give up. Then I’d stay home the next day thinking I would finish it, but I wouldn’t, so I’d get a bad grade.

One time I did complete a report in English class, and got a C. I actually cried. It was one of the few times I managed to turn something in, and it wasn’t good enough. I felt hopeless. Why should I even try? That’s how I ended up with mostly Ds and Fs in middle school.

Struggling to make friends

Things weren’t much better on the social end. I was too reserved to make friends. I had a friend from elementary school, so I attached myself to him. His friends became my friends whether I liked them or not. I hung out with them, even though they were into skating and heavy metal, two things I hated. After school, I always stayed at home, because I wasn’t invited to anything, and if I was, I didn’t want to go. Eighth grade came and went, my middle school years in ruins.

When ninth grade came I had an A in piano, a B in English and math, and a C in yoga and voice. I failed “Life Skills.” I was getting annoyed with myself—these grades would count when I applied to college later. Why wasn’t I turning in my assignments on time? Would I even be able to graduate from high school?

Illustration by Adonia Tan, 17, Walnut HS

I turned to Susie, a counselor who had been helping me and my mom improve our communication. Susie became my life coach, and in weekly sessions, I talked to her about school and whatever was going on in my life. Susie and I decided that my goals were to become a happier person, do better in school and be more comfortable in social situations. She wanted me to stop dwelling on the worst thing that could happen, and realize that the chances of something really bad happening were practically none.

I resolved to go to school every day and at least TRY to do my homework. Susie helped me formulate a plan to get my work done. I had explained to her that I was easily distracted. Susie suggested that my mom call me downstairs to the dining room table with nothing on it but my homework. The TV would be off until I finished. It worked really well (who would have thought it?). Each night, I was able to finish my homework, and when I went to school, I didn’t have to be scared that the teacher was going to yell at me, or stay home to avoid the situation. In fact, I discovered that I enjoyed homework, especially math, because it’s so logical and structured.

For the first time, I started to participate in class. My life coach explained that teachers love it when you ask questions. I picked out the teachers I knew were nice, and I asked them questions. I finally felt like I had a handle on my classes. My grades started to climb.

I had some social successes as well. I met my friend Lirit in yoga class, and found out we had the same dry sense of humor. One day before class, we were talking about how we were becoming good friends. Soon, I joked, we’d be going over to each other’s houses.

She said OK, and that she was free that weekend. Before I knew it, she gave me her address. I was in a panic, thinking, Wait! Do I want to go? What if she hated me once she saw my true personality? What if her parents hated me? What if she also invited over some other friend, a total stranger?

When I got home, I told my mom I was invited to a friend’s house. That hadn’t happened since sixth grade. My mom was so excited that she said she didn’t care how far away Lirit lived, she would drive me. As we headed over there that Saturday, I became extremely nervous. What were we going to do? Would she find me boring?

But when I got to the house, and we started talking, it just felt normal. We talked, watched TV and played some cards. I met her sister and her parents. It was a fun day, and none of my worries came true.

Later that year I forced myself to suffer through several birthday parties as well. I hate parties because it’s hard for me to be in a big group of people. Everyone around me is talking about different things, and I can tell they expect me to join in, but I don’t know how. I’m not sure when I should be talking. Will they be interested in what I have to say? What if I say something that offends someone? I’d sit by myself until someone would ask me if I was OK, and I’d smile and say I was fine. I think I’d rather do homework than go to a party.

My life coach told me that group situations just aren’t my thing, so maybe I should find a friend and stay with him or her.

I had never called anyone

In 10th grade I made my first phone call. Usually it would be my friends calling me, but this time I could not avoid it. I needed a ride to a school play. Since it was the weekend and I could not talk to Lirit at school, I had to call. So I walked upstairs, telephone in hand, my insides turning into mush as I began to dial the number. I got to the fifth number, hung up, and yelled to my mother, “It’s OK! I don’t really want to go!”

She yelled back, “Just do it! It’ll be more fun than moping around the house all day!”

“Says you!” I responded and began to dial the phone one more time. I barely got past the third number, the “8” on my phone refusing to push in. I thought to myself, I’m probably too slow to dial and now I have to do it over again. I hung up, tried again, realized I accidentally pushed the “8” too many times, and hung up. This tango with the telephone number went on for another half hour. When my mom asked if I had finished, I said, “I’ve barely started!” She decided to intervene, dialed the number for me, and gave me the phone. My stomach climbed the diving board, made sure it was springy enough, and did a belly flop.

I heard my friend’s mother and began to freak out, wondering what I was going to say to this woman who I’d never met before, and realized it was only the answering machine. I left the message, “Hey, it’s Paul, I was wondering if you could give me a ride to the play. ‘Bye!” and hung up.

My mom looked slightly annoyed and I asked what was wrong. She told me I didn’t leave my telephone number. I frantically called back, got the answering machine again, and left the second message, giving my friend my phone number. I felt so embarrassed, but my friend called back saying it was fine, as if it didn’t happen, and I got a ride to the school play.

I felt so awful about the phone call, I never wanted to call anyone again, but Susie thought I should call more people to get used to the anxiety. She taught me to think about what I want to say beforehand and write it down, especially if I need to leave a message on a machine.

Public speaking panic

In my 10th grade English class we had a public speaking unit, which was one of my most traumatic experiences in high school. I can remember the first assignment—a sales pitch—vividly. I prepared a speech about a mythical immortality potion, but when the period started, I began to breathe deeply. These deep breaths turned into short quick ones and before I knew it, I was hyperventilating. My hands covered my face as I sat at my desk, hyperventilating like mad, and my head began to go numb. I became even more panicked and began hyperventilating even worse, until other parts of my body began to go numb as well. Before I knew it, I was having a full-blown panic attack.

My friend had to take me out of the classroom and try to calm me down. Everyone watched as she led me outside. It was so embarrassing and scary, and at the same time, I thought it was ridiculous to freak out over my little speech. I went back in and gave my speech, but my voice was shaky and I forgot everything I was supposed to say. I got a D.

These panic attacks continued throughout the public speaking unit, and I got an F for every failed speech. I stopped doing my speeches and ended up failing the class. My mom offered to write a note, but I felt like it would be cheating. I also figured my teacher wouldn’t accept anything anyway. During this ordeal, my life coach tried to help me by teaching me to breathe deeply and practice my speeches, however it felt hopeless. It seemed like nothing would make it better.

Still, my life coach helped me make great strides in getting more comfortable in social situations. She has helped me see some of the positive aspects of being shy. I can be alone and not care. I don’t have the obsessive need to have people around me constantly. If my friends don’t want to go out, it’s fine with me. I’m sure I’ll find something interesting to do by myself. I also don’t have millions of random, superficial relationships. I have friends who I truly connect to and get along with. I love having time to think, write, read a fine book or just click around on the Internet.

For my 16th birthday, I decided to go to a theme park with Lirit, as it was one of the places I feared the most. Heights, as well as flying at uncontrollable speeds in a makeshift car down some rickety tracks, just didn’t sit well with me. I was determined to conquer that fear. Conquering fears like this and putting myself in uncomfortable situations indirectly helped my shyness, because then I was used to the queasiness that came with social encounters and other fears. At Knotts Berry Farm, I managed to conquer some of those fears on a roller coaster that went forwards and backwards with a loop. Both Lirit and I were afraid, but the minute we tried it, we loved it. Hopefully I’ll be able to continue pushing myself out of my comfort zone so that taking risks becomes an enjoyable thing.

Paul’s tips for the shy,
 nervous person

1 Don’t push yourself! It will only make you more nervous and want to give up altogether.

2 Find a group activity you enjoy. If you find yourself having a hard time connecting with people, you can concentrate on the activity instead.

3 Tell your friends when you’re feeling shy. They will help you.
4 Be yourself when meeting people you don’t know. If they can’t sympathize with you, do you really want them as a friend anyway?

5 Find social situations that you work well in. Perhaps you’re better at one-on-one than groups, or maybe you work wonders in groups but not so much in one-on-one.


Eleventh grade did not mean the end of speeches. In fact, for a music history class I had to give a speech about a certain form of music that I enjoyed. This time I took my life coach’s advice and practiced my speech several times. I took some homeopathic calming pills (which didn’t really work) and waited for my turn. I took slow deep breaths and focused on controlling them, as opposed to letting them get out of control and causing hyperventilation. Though I was still fairly nervous, I was able to get up there and do my presentation without freaking out. It marked another major victory for me.

That doesn’t mean I’m perfect. Last April, my shyness would not allow me to participate in a piano recital, and I wish I had. Over the summer, when a girl came up to me at summer school, I wish I could have gotten to know her instead of retreating into silence.

Sometimes it’s hard to be shy. Sure, it has made it tougher to make friends and has made social events terrible occasions, but it’s a part of who I am, and deserves to be embraced. I don’t want to be the guy who can walk into a room and be friends with everybody instantly, but I also don’t want to alienate those around me. Although, maybe I’ll just leave the phone alone.