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March 3rd, 2003


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03:55 am - Shyness, Limits, and Life
Several weeks ago, I was talking with Charles about various topics and he mentioned how effectively and carefully I managed my life (and in particular my social interactions), in the sense that I only needed to deal with exactly the sorts of people I was extremely comfortable dealing with. That comment struck me and since then, I have been giving this idea a great deal of thought. First off, his statement is quite true. As my life stands now, I work at home and have very few interactions with strangers and none that are not by my choice. In 2003, at least 75% of my work (that's all I have contracted at the moment) will be writing for people who are good friends of mine and my interactions with the "the mundane world" are almost non-existent, except for short-term interactions with shop clerks. In a typical week, except for 2 one-hour classes (Feldenkrais and Yoga), the only people I interact with in person are 8 or 9 close friends or (at parties and similar occasions) the good friends of my close friends. I see more people at events like Orycon (the local SF con) or Origins (the big RPG Con that I go to every year), but in both cases, I now have a regular group of friends who I see, and they are 95% of the people I interact with (most of whom are now reading this post).

My first reaction to this realization was that I was fairly pleased with the fact that I don't have to deal with strangers or with aspects of society (like office/cubicle culture) that I greatly dislike. However, I also realized that the reasons for my having such a life are not simply enjoyment or convenience. I seem to need to have a life with fairly well-regulated in-person interactions. I am a caring, outgoing, and generally friendly and loving person, but only with people that I know well and am comfortable with. I am both terrified of and terrible at meeting new people in person. I have little trouble if I know the person via the internet or if they are the close friend of a friend of mine and the friend is there to help with the first few hours of getting to know someone (a few minutes of introduction does not suffice). However, in the absence of such help, I have found that I quite literally can't meet people and am quite bad at interacting with people that I have met before but don't know sufficiently well.


I am vividly reminded of the time 4 years ago that I went to GenCon (the other big RPG Con) instead of Origins. The first time I went to a RPG Con, back in 1996, I got a chance to meet my good friend Geoff (who I now write Exalted projects for). We had gotten to be good friends on-line and via the phone for more than a year and were both new in the RPG business. He is also a seriously outgoing person who can easily meet and talk to anyone and I hung around with him and used him as a way to meet people. This worked wonderfully well, and with the exception of schmoozing for work from people who I had already talked with on-line, he was my primary means of introduction to the RPG community. He has also been at almost every RPG Con I've gone to.

The only exception was 4 years ago, in 1999, when I went to GenCon. Suddenly, I was on my own. I knew many people in the RRG industry at this point, but didn't know any of them at all well and so hung out on the periphery of social interactions and spent a great deal of time alone - I haven't been that depressed in quite a long time. Suddenly, I was again the pathologically shy geek back in High School who intently watched more socially adept people so that I could learn how to perform simple social interactions like saying hello to someone I knew, rather than simply blurting out a soft, half-vocalized hi when my head was turned in another direction.

After that miserable GenCon, I decided to both only go to RPG cons that Geoff would be at and to actually work on getting to be actually friends with the people he knew well. I have succeeded well at both goals, but only because I managed to stick close to him until I could become fully comfortable with a group of people I greatly enjoy seeing (yes, this means many of you folks). I've taken tai chi and yoga classes for the last 5 years now and have had class with a good number of people for as many as 2 years and despite seeing them as often as twice a week, every week for 2 years, I got to know none of them, including people who looked interesting and who I would have liked to meet. I simply don't know how (and I suspect that to most strangers I come off as someone who is not worth meeting). I watch others in the same situation meet people and I am completely unable to emulate them.

However, I'm not solely talking about purely social problems. I've had limited experience with office work and except at the absolute lowest and most miserable levels, where one is expected to be a mindless and easily replaceable drone and not interact with anyone else, there is a level of social interaction that I also can't manage. This lack has instantly marks me into an outsider who is both friendless and unwelcome. I'm essentially unable to work at any sort of more normal job that isn't a minimum-wage horror because of my social difficulties. Oddly, place me in a highly structured situation like a class (as either a teacher or a student) and I do quite well. However, the less formal and obvious structure, the more difficulties I have. The academic politics required for grad-school success eluded me and that (combined with the utter terror that filled me when I realized the level of interaction with total strangers that anthropological fieldwork would require) was why I never completed my dissertation.

However, the internet has been a boon beyond all measure. Almost everyone I currently know (the only exceptions being Aaron, Dawn, and sythyry), I either met via the net or they are the close friends, lovers, or housemates of someone I met via the internet. Prior to my getting on the internet in 1993, my years as an undergraduate in the mid 1980s were literally the last time that I met anyone on my own. After that, everyone I became friends with was someone Aaron introduced me to or who I met while in Aaron's company, where he did essentially all of the initial meeting and conversation (I met Aaron in my Junior year of college).

Between getting my BA and getting on the net (a total of 9 years) I also had a grand total of three romantic relationships. The longest of these relationships only lasted 2 months, while both of the other two lasted less than a month - despite everything from placing and answering numerous personal ads (a complete and utter disaster on all counts) to my attempts at meeting people in grad school or through various gaming groups & pagan meetings.

In 1992, while being amazingly lonely in LA, I discovered the penpal section of the newsletter of the Mercedes Lackey fan club. Through this, I discovered both close pen friends and the dubious joys of long distance romances. After having three times as many (mostly fairly short term) romances in 2.5 years than I had in the previous 15 years, imester and I fell in love. Since that time, my other romances and physical relationships have all been people I met long-distance.

When I got on the internet in 93, I already understood the mechanics of meeting people long distance (and had already met several pen-friends in person). Suddenly, my world opened up. For example, I met Charles, Kip, Jenn, Barry, and Sarah because Sarah and Kip were regulars on rec.games.frp.advocacy (as was I) and I noticed that they had a Portland ISP.

I have absolutely no idea why I find it vastly easier to meet and get to know people long distance. However, for the first time in my life, I have learned that I can be extremely good at meeting people, but only via email or similar non-immediate media, (I'm only slightly better at meeting people via real-time chat than I am in-person). I don't know if I need time to process initial social interactions, if the fact that the initial exchanges are in writing rather than in person or what, but I find getting to know people in this fashion extremely enjoyable and easy. Also, once I know someone at all well, meeting them in person is at most mildly stressful, and usually the stress completely vanishes within the first or two hour of interacting with them in person. A number of people that I meet now don't even realize that I'm quite shy or manage my life so carefully, because they only see me interact with people I already know well.

Earlier today, I was wondering what my life would have been like if I was 10 or 20 years older and had not discovered the internet until far later in my life. I strongly suspect that I would be extremely poor, deeply unhappy, and completely alone except for the few people (like Dawn) that I had met though Aaron. I know a few people who are shyer than I am, but for some reason I am simply not terribly able to interact in person with people that I don't know quite well, either casually or professionally. This is a rather disturbing realization. While I have absolutely no desire to have a different profession (other than suddenly acquiring a vast talent for writing fiction and being paid enormous sums of money for the stories I wrote, or perhaps being paid enormous sums of money for absolutely no work on my part). However, I would definitely like to be able to meet people more easily in person, but I suspect that this is an extremely deep and tough problem.
Current Mood: uncomfortableuncomfortable
Current Music: Hello - Poe

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[User Picture]
From:bruceb
Date:March 3rd, 2003 04:30 am (UTC)
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I've got thoughts going off in two directions about this.

1. You can acquire the skills you'd need to handle the sort of routine social interaction you notice having trouble with. One of the big advantages of a relatively formalized etiquette is precisely that it is a matter of rules and structure. As Miss Manners comments, it's not supposed to be for highly individualized personal expression, it's about getting yourself through social circumstances calmly and effectively and letting you save your inner self for the people who actually care. The real question is, given that it would be serious effort, do you feel significantly impaired by it? I have some secondary health problems I don't work on right now because they're not that big a deal to me. Once I get my weight down and other matters in order, maybe. But we all live with some sub-optimal conditions. It might be worth sussing out how you see the costs and benefits there. (If you do decide to work on it, by the way, there really isn't a better place to start than Miss Manners, in part because Judith Martin is nearly part of your scene - big patron of avant-garde theatre, fundraiser for gay and minority causes, and such. So she's not talking about etiquette as a tool for reinforcing all of an existing social system.)

2. I have a feeling that a lot of it in your case is stuff similar to what I and others I know deal with. You're very verbally oriented - you extract meaning from prose readily. Likewise with some other forms of symbolic communication. You've heard me say, I think, that there are times when I'm "not really running in real time", when sensory input is more than I can handle as fast as it comes in. At times like that, it's useful to have an equivalent of skimming, to pull off key details and discard the rest. There's a writing exercise of William Burroughs' that's relevant here; I'll quote it or summarize it if you're interested.

3. I know this is going to sound geekish, but there is an element of roleplaying that can help here. Ask yourself what you think you'd be doing if you had the social comfort level you lack now. Work on doing it. Keeping in mind Miss Manners' comment that there's too much soul baring on many fronts already, it's not like you're committing yourself to be deeply and intimately honest with everyone you meet. Small talk is an art form all its own, really, and it's one where folks generally take you at your own presentation. So LARP it. :)
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From:heron61
Date:March 3rd, 2003 10:50 am (UTC)
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I have a feeling that a lot of it in your case is stuff similar to what I and others I know deal with. You're very verbally oriented - you extract meaning from prose readily. Likewise with some other forms of symbolic communication.

I'm generally equally good at intense, focused verbal interactions that involve discussions about a particular topic. However, I both lack the skills for stating intense verbal discussions with people that I don't know and have found that few people start such discussions with strangers.

You've heard me say, I think, that there are times when I'm "not really running in real time", when sensory input is more than I can handle as fast as it comes in. At times like that, it's useful to have an equivalent of skimming, to pull off key details and discard the rest. There's a writing exercise of William Burroughs' that's relevant here; I'll quote it or summarize it if you're interested.

Burroughs is generally worth listening too, I'm now quite curious.
[User Picture]
From:reive
Date:March 3rd, 2003 10:47 am (UTC)

because it's the theme question of late

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I am both terrified of and terrible at meeting new people in person

Okay. So you're terrified. Of what?


One of the hardest things for me to learn has been what my mother always says -- which is that other people are like roaches. No matter how discomforting to you they may seem, they're _always_ more afraid of you than you are of them. In fact some of the most outgoing people I know are the most resolutely full of fear -- and their outgoingness isn't even there to mask it -- more it just highlights their utter need for control. There's a woman in my acting class like that -- makes me want to pull her teeth out. I mean, truly, crazy making.

It was pointed out to me as regards my voice lessons that it takes 3 times longer to unlearn a habit than to learn it. So that's the math you're working with, presuming this is something you even want to work on.
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From:heron61
Date:March 3rd, 2003 12:00 pm (UTC)

Re: because it's the theme question of late

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Theme question how?

Okay. So you're terrified. Of what?

One of the hardest things for me to learn has been what my mother always says -- which is that other people are like roaches. No matter how discomforting to you they may seem, they're _always_ more afraid of you than you are of them.


Very true :) I have actually gotten somewhat better at getting closer to people that I know somewhat well but am not yet comfortable and relaxed around, in large part because of a specific incident along these lines that happened two years ago. I was at a party at a gaming con and one of the people I was talking to there who I liked and knew mildly well but was not yet fully comfortable around and was rather intimidated by because of his (seemingly) high degree of social adeptness was approached by someone who recognized him, but who neither of us knew. I watched the person I knew suddenly get reasonably awkward and uncomfortable and with a (much delayed) flash of enlightenment, realized on a deep emotional level that most people here were also geeky and at least mildly socially inept. The fact that this had not occurred to me many years earlier was somewhat pathetic, but this realization helped.

OTOH, there is another issue that may be somewhat separate - meeting someone in the first place is not so much a matter of overcoming fear as of looking at someone who seems interesting and realizing that I haven't the slightest clue what to say. I often make the attempt anyway, but have learned that w/o some form of assistance (like a mutual friend who is willing stick around for quite lengthy introductions) that almost no one is interested in meeting me, the first impressions I make in such situations seems to be as someone who is both socially inept and extremely forgettable.

In fact some of the most outgoing people I know are the most resolutely full of fear -- and their outgoingness isn't even there to mask it -- more it just highlights their utter need for control. There's a woman in my acting class like that -- makes me want to pull her teeth out. I mean, truly, crazy making.

I have also noticed that most people I want to get to know are at least mild introverts because with a few notable exceptions (like my friend Geoff) most highly outgoing people seriously get on my nerves, likely for this very reason. There is a particular combination of large ego and a highly controlling nature that I've found to be moderately common and which completely sets my teeth on edge. Bizarrely, such people usually tend to be quite popular, which utterly baffles me. My taste in people is obviously part of the problem, the process of two introverts attempting to meet one another is naturally fraught with difficulty.
[User Picture]
From:reive
Date:March 3rd, 2003 12:27 pm (UTC)

Re: because it's the theme question of late

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I'm spending a lot of time walking and writing about fear -- other people's, my own, my characters.... yadda yadda.

From the one time I met you I will say that you have an initial body language across your chest that's very drawn in, like you want to fold your shoulders in and protect yourself. I doubt most people would consciously pick up on it, but I'm sure most would subconsciously, and it conveys doubt as to your right to be whereever you are -- and being social, status oriented animals, I think people probably respond to that and internally recognize that you are perhaps not someone they need to know.

Otherwise your carriage is very fluid and comfortable to be around, but I suspect that grace is there to put others at ease as much as it is there for your own pleasure.

So you're not forgetable, you just want to keep yourself safe so much that I think you're sending that message on a subliminal level.

As to your being an introvert -- an introvert is someone who needs a great deal of time to recover from the stimulous of other people. Many very social people are actually introverts (I'm a good example of this, having to hide from all contact with people if I'm working a lot or in contact with lots of people) and many seeming introverts love and crave the company of others and are energized by it -- they just can't get past their insecurities to seek out that energy. So from what I'm hearing, I don't think you're as much as an introvert as you think you are. I think you just function like the classic conception of one.
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From:heron61
Date:March 3rd, 2003 01:12 pm (UTC)

Re: because it's the theme question of late

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From the one time I met you I will say that you have an initial body language across your chest that's very drawn in, like you want to fold your shoulders in and protect yourself. I doubt most people would consciously pick up on it, but I'm sure most would subconsciously, and it conveys doubt as to your right to be whereever you are -- and being social, status oriented animals, I think people probably respond to that and internally recognize that you are perhaps not someone they need to know.

You are almost certainly correct. It's worth noting that your party was a near ideal situation for me - I had someone there that I knew well (imester) and I knew you well enough from LJ to be comfortable enough to talk far more easily than I would to someone I didn't know.

Otherwise your carriage is very fluid and comfortable to be around, but I suspect that grace is there to put others at ease as much as it is there for your own pleasure.

Grace?

It's both - in part this is because I've been working for several years now on various forms of physical training and enjoy the idea of being graceful (but have never particularly considered myself that way, thank you for saying that).

Also (and far more importantly) one of my significant social gifts - my primary social strategy is finding ways to put people at ease and allow them to feel comfortable enough to talk to me. I discovered long ago that people that I know at all well will often bring their problems to me and will tell me things that they won't tell anyone else. In addition to making me feel deeply honored, I also really love the idea of being able to help others solve the problems in their lives. I have cultivated my innate tendencies and work to make myself seem approachable. To be brutally honest about some of my socially-related self-esteem issues, I assume that being useful to people is a way to insure that people with wish to spend time with me.

As to your being an introvert -- an introvert is someone who needs a great deal of time to recover from the stimulous of other people. Many very social people are actually introverts (I'm a good example of this, having to hide from all contact with people if I'm working a lot or in contact with lots of people) and many seeming introverts love and crave the company of others and are energized by it -- they just can't get past their insecurities to seek out that energy. So from what I'm hearing, I don't think you're as much as an introvert as you think you are. I think you just function like the classic conception of one.

True, I was using popular shorthand and that was both lazy and unclear. I show up on Meyer's-Briggs tests as an moderately strong introvert, but that's not an accurate indication of my actual personality (and points up a serious lack in almost every system of personality analysis that I've ever encountered).

To me, there seem to be two independent variables: introversion-extroversion and shyness-social confidence. I've met shy introverts (like my friend Dawn) who spends less time around other people than anyone I know, and unshy introverts like my friend Aaron (and I suspect you) who are fairly adept and confident with people but need significant recovery time.

I am a deeply shy extrovert. As you said, I am greatly energized by being with people and my response to intense social interaction is to want more. Interestingly, most of my friends are socially adept introverts. I know a few shy introverts and an even smaller number of people my myself. Socially adept extroverts both greatly intimidate me and are often people that I find grating to be around.

[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:March 4th, 2003 12:40 pm (UTC)

Re: because it's the theme question of late

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and being social, status oriented animals, I think people probably respond to that and internally recognize that you are perhaps not someone they need to know.

To dive off topic (and so hopefully avoid beating a dead horse) - to be honest, they would be quite correct. As I think I've mentioned before, I'm not particularly suited to be an "alpha-human" of any sort - one of the reasons I seek out seriously impressive people like Aaron and imester is that I'm an excellent sidekick and assistant. I suspect that in a previous era and a different life, I could have been a superlative butler or personal secretary. Sadly, such talents are rarely respected or even noticed in the West today.
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From:reive
Date:March 3rd, 2003 12:30 pm (UTC)

Re: because it's the theme question of late

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P.S. -- You still didn't tell me what you were terrified of.

;)
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:March 3rd, 2003 01:15 pm (UTC)

Re: because it's the theme question of late

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Well, that's rather embarrassing. I was going to amalgamate this response with my response to your previous comment, but I managed to hit the character length on comments. In any case...

P.S. -- You still didn't tell me what you were terrified of.

Wrt to myself, I have excellent self-esteem, I know that I am an intelligent, practically lucky, and an essentially good and thoughtful person. However, I have serious doubts about how I am perceived by others and because I was a severely socially inept child and teen, I almost always assume that anyone new that I meet will find me to be awkward, strange, and completely unworthy of either attention or affection. In short, that they will see me as the widely mocked unsocialized nerd that I was at age 16. Such fears continue until I know someone quite well, which is in large part why I work to make people happy and to become extremely useful to anyone I care strongly about.

Thank you for repeating this question, this is something that I have a very difficult time talking about or even admitting to myself.
[User Picture]
From:reive
Date:March 3rd, 2003 01:31 pm (UTC)

Re: because it's the theme question of late

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Right, but what does it matter?

And I don't say that to undercut the value or impact of your experience and I certainly have both my own tales and lingering terrors in this regard.

So someone sees you as unworthy or a geek or horrid -- what happens? How are you more harmed by that than not interacting with them at all?

It's like being scared of pain. Pain, itself, isn't actually harmful. It's a type of data that may be informing you that something transpiring has the potential to cause harm.

Similarly when someone laughs at you or is cruel to you, if you're secure in the integrity of your being, you can convince yourself that you're not being harmed and instead recognize merely that this person has an attitude towards you that may give them a propensity to do actual harm and then you remove yourself from the situation (or seek to change the situation), no more injured than when you began.

Similarly, when I'm at the dentist, it may hurt, but I know the pain is being caused by things that are designed to help, not harm me and so I trust in the integrity of my flesh to endure the work and my dentist to do it correctly.

I'm not very good at this myself, but I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that we all need someone to laugh in our faces every single day, because truly, once we understand that that doesn't need to permeate us, it's a wonderful tool for convincing us that we are still here, that we are solid beings, with specificand persistant beliefs and goals.

Fear is habit. It's something we think we need to do. But we really don't, I'd say at least 90% of the time.

I'm on a thing these days, as you know, so I apologize if I sound like I've got it all figured out -- I mean, I sorta thing I do, it's just that _applying_ it nonsense. ;)
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:March 3rd, 2003 05:32 pm (UTC)

Re: because it's the theme question of late

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So someone sees you as unworthy or a geek or horrid -- what happens? How are you more harmed by that than not interacting with them at all?

I completely agree, after I moved out of my surprisingly idyllic college dorm and learned a great deal about isolation, I also learned not to let social-related fears stop me from doing anything that I significantly wanted to do. My problem is far more than a combination of fear and a completely lack of knowing what to say means that my failure rate at many forms of social interaction is exceptionally high. My current adaptations are essentially a response to the fact that attempts at others ways of life worked quite badly.
[User Picture]
From:kalyx
Date:March 3rd, 2003 01:58 pm (UTC)

on shyness

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I'm really struggling with where to begin on my response to your thoughts on shyness. I share some of the same difficulties. I find it difficult to be myself around people I am not comfortable with, so I am guarded around others to such a degree that people think that I dislike them. I am not friendly. I have strong opinions. I hate small talk. and I tend to bypass the sorts of gestures and preludes that make people comfortable. I struggled with isolation for long periods because I do have problems getting to know people, and having problems with clinical depression complicates issues even further. So, to make a long story short, I ended up seeking professional help. I see a therapist and a psychiatrist regularly and they have helped me sort through how shyness impacts my life and my happiness.

From what you have said, it sounds like you have quite a bit of anxiety about interacting with others. This can be attributed to social anxiety. It is an anxiety disorder that results in people avoiding interactions with other people. Sometimes this can be traced to a chemical problem, and I have found treatment for depression also has the benefit of making me more comfortable in groups of people I don't know well. However, I have found that I am not phobic about social situations. I in-fact am more of an introvert and I really only really react with fear and discomfort in social situations when I am insecure and when I am in a depressive phase. I just had to learn to accept that I have no desire to be the center of attention and am acutely uncomfortable with people who are very extroverted, because they draw too much attention to me. I prefer to stay in the back ground and chat, not be center stage.

There are also plenty of resources to helping people with overcoming shyness, anxiety or phobias. You can see a therapist and delve into the "roots" of shyness. There are medications that help (Paxil is the big one). There are groups that play act social situations to learn better social skills and build confidence. There are programs of behavior modification and cognitive therapy that tries to unlearn behavior of avoidance and fear in social situations. There are self-help book and cassettes. Basically, there are so many ways to tackle the problem, but it is a very difficult issue to "cure." And I decided for myself, although, I do get scared at parties where I know no one, and I have few people that are very close to me, I am happy. This problem has not kept me from having a fulfilling life, with good friends, a wonderful partner, and has not impacted my ability to get and keep jobs. So, I have decided to treat the depression and not the social anxiety.

I can recommend a website: the faq for alt.support.shyness is pretty comprehensive. I also read a couple of books on the topic of social phobia and anxiety which taught me that I really do not have nearly as big of an issue with social situations as I had believed. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was short and can be used alone to help with issues of shyness. I just needed more education on the topic and then acceptance that this is the way I am. I am introverted. I am quiet in groups. So what? Yes, it is more difficult for me to get to know people, but we all have weaknesses and I feel so much more confident now that I accept that I am quiet and withdrawn than I felt when I desperately wanted to change. I no longer really see shyness as a limitation, just a personality trait, just like any other. They all have benefits and detractions. And the benefit can be that people perceive you as very bright, reserved, polite, and when you speak, I bet it is always to say something thoughtful and engaging. I was very pleased to find that people never realize that I am frightened to speak in groups, they just assumed that I am bright and careful with my words. Turns out that shyness or introversion is not such a bad deal and so far, has not been limiting.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:March 3rd, 2003 05:23 pm (UTC)

Re: on shyness

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Thanks for the info, some of it looks useful. I dstrust the various mental health medications because I have heard about as many stories of them causing various problems as I have of them being useful, and I don't tend to trust the current level of medical knowledge about the brain to be useful for anything more than creating blunt brute force medications. OTOH, some of the other suggestions in the alt.support.shyness faq look quite helpful.

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