The One Person More Lost than Me

photoMom has taught me a whole lot of things. One of the most useful is how to turn one of my most frustrating shortcomings into a strength.Β  It’s a skill I’ll still spend the rest of my life polishing, but having been taught the basics, I know what I need to practice, and that is a tremendous boost.

My lifelong shyness and social anxiety rose to a not-at-all-surprising high level when I started college. The small university I attended was hardly an unknown element to me, as my parents and a couple of other relatives, as well as some friends, had attended there and my older sister was already starting her junior year there when I arrived. But being predisposed to fear and intimidation as my responses to all social situations, I was guaranteed to struggle with extra doses of my old hauntings by the terrors of interpersonal experience in the new to me surroundings, with a roommate I met the day we moved in to our shared dormitory space, all new classmates, new teachers and administrators and a neighborhood where I’d never more than visited briefly before.

For the most part, I muddled through just as I’d done since I was old enough to know how to be afraid of new people and situations, and even had, as always, plenty of the enjoyment I was capable of having. I did acquire a number of grand new friends, including my roommate, who turned out to be a fantastic companion and like-minded girl. I took classes that challenged and intrigued me and I dragged up enough courage to participate in some events and extracurricular activities that broadened my scope significantly. I was surrounded in my living quarters in an all-female dorm by a cadre of terrific young women who bolstered my puny sense of self and cheered me on like the best of good neighbors.

But one day, as the first year progressed, I was visiting informally with a handful of those girls and we got into a discussion (as college coeds still often do, from what I’ve seen) about First Impressions. One of the girls, to whom I will be eternally grateful, let it slip that on first meeting me she had thought, and had since learned that others had too, that I was Stuck Up. That’s the simple classification among my tribe of someone who thinks herself superior to others and disdains and dismisses them. I was dumbstruck.

She went on, hastily, to add that on getting to know me she had realized that the reason I often refused invitations, that I didn’t look people in the eye, and that I evaded interactions and conversations instead expressed a defensive retreat into my giant ossified shell of shyness and my fear of all things new and unknown and that, in fact, she and others really enjoyed my company. That was some consolation, but realizing through her honesty that I projected an image far less benign and far more distancing than I guessed, I knew I’d have to somehow wrest my way out of the armor I’d built around myself and at the very least learn to act the part of someone with social skills even if I didn’t have them.

Naturally, I went whimpering off to Mom. And she surprised me by going beyond the sympathetic and consoling mother needed in the conversation. I’d never imagined that this person I’d always known as having not only a mother’s authority but a certain status as both the recognized Favorite Mom among all of my friends over the years and a kind of built-in First Lady of all of the organizations in which she participated, not least of all as the pastor’s wife–that she had another side, one not so entirely different from my own. That she had been deeply intimidated by being expected to play the roles of guide, hostess, chief female church member, community do-gooder and cheerleader, and all of the other philanthropic and social leadership parts inherently assumed by others to be part of her place in the world. And that, when Dad was busy being the speaker, preacher, chairman, boss and whatever his role of the moment happened to be, she was stuck in meetings and receptions and services and classes full of strangers who expected her to carry not only her own weight but that of whatever they thought was required for the occasion.

I almost wilted, thinking of what it must have been like for her.

But then she imparted the piece of wisdom that ‘cracked the case’ for me. I got the MacGuffin: social anxiety and extreme shyness assume that I am the center of the universe. That the rest of the world is watching me and is dependent on my doing or being certain things for its success and happiness. And that I am suffering the most for the cause. She put it in much more tactful terms, I’m quite certain, given that I was a flimsy excuse for an ego, a fragile not yet twenty year old still unable to see my path in everyday life clearly.

I think what she really told me (from which I extrapolated the above) was the incredibly handy ‘trick’ she’d learned for coping with all of these unreasonable social and activist demands. When you arrive, immediately look for the one person in the room more uncomfortable and more out of place than you. Even when you’re absolutely sure it’s not possible, there’s always someone more scared, more intimidated, more inexperienced or at the very least, who thinks that they are. It’s true, by the way; I’ve seen it proven over and over since. Go and gently introduce yourself and ask this person about him- or herself. Make this person the most interesting part of your life while you’re there.

That’s it, really. Suddenly, it’s not my job to be perfect or achieve the goals of the event or even to be interesting or brave; it’s my job to make another scared person feel more welcome and at ease. I don’t have to spend any energy on worrying about how I look to others or whether I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, because nobody with an ounce of sense is going to argue that taking care of someone in need isn’t what we’re all supposed to be doing, that recognizing that there’s someone whose need is greater than our own isn’t precisely the most attractive thing we can accomplish, and that a friendly smile isn’t the most fashionable item anyone can wear for any occasion.

I fall down on this effort often enough, still, and do my well practiced imitation of an additional pillar holding up the dimmest corner of the room. I haven’t Saved anyone else from the brink of doom through my heroic attempts to cheer them up for a half hour. I still have impressive dramatic skills in making faux pas and pratfalling my way through the day and then doing my best to make the earth swallow me whole.

But afterward, I remember to quit imagining myself the cynosure of Creation, let go of my need to be correct and impressive and likable and spend my energies on helping someone who doesn’t know Mom’s useful little technique to feel more correct and impressive and likable. I will put on my shiny smile and play the role of somebody better than me and hope that someday, if I practice it hard enough, it will become second nature and I won’t even have to work at it at all. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

If you happen to be headed to yet another office holiday party or first-of-the-year reception any time soon, you can test this theory yourself. Thank my mom. Or, if you happen to subscribe to a certain story that is commemorated on this very night, thank the Person who became most vulnerable of all in order to protect and rescue everybody weaker.


36 thoughts on “The One Person More Lost than Me

  1. Kathryn, you never cease to amaze me! Thank you for the unshuttered look into your *self*, and the wonderful lessons there. I am so very familiar with that social ‘malady’ that you have described so well. I still struggle with it to this day, but today you have cuased me to se things differently than I ever have. Thanks, and have a blessed and merry Christmas. PS-please thank your mother for the wisdom she passed on to you.

  2. “…I still have impressive dramatic skills in making faux pas and pratfalling my way through the day and then doing my best to make the earth swallow me whole….”

    Exactly. I do that on a daily basis. And what I fall back are the words from my Uncle Gianni from Staten Island, a player in the true sense of the word “Guido” ..

    “…Kid, if you can’t blind ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullshit…”

    Merry Merry

    PS: Great shot of Grand Central, and a personal glimpse into your life.

    • Glad you like my favorite snapshot of GC–a fine place to feel small in the crowd but also a wonderful and energizing space! Uncle Gianni’s technique is a classic, too, and does work great in certain circumstances as well. Ah, the wisdom of our elders!

  3. Brilliant. Thank you. I envy that the people around you helped you to deal with your shyness. I am still learning to cope with mine.
    Thank you for another tool to forge forward with.

    Very much appreciated.

    • Thank you, and welcome, Justteejay. I hope you find as much help as I gained from starting to shift the focus off of my own struggle and on to someone else who needs help with his or hers. As I say, it’s not a cure, and I still have to work at it, but boy does it help me!

  4. Although a wonderful tool if you’re shy (And we all are to a degree; some are just better at disguising it.), your Mom’s advice involves, basically, an act of kindness. It’s volunteerism but in a social setting. She sounds like a very special lady, Kathryn.

    • She is very special indeed, John. Dad is amazing too (and no doubt I’ll regale y’all with tales of my father as well), but since he is more naturally gregarious and self-confident he’d’ve probably had to *invent* a bit more to imagine a solution for his nerdy daughter’s problem!

  5. Firstly.. so that’s where my favourite cut crystal glasses went and secondly what incredibly good advice.. me being the shy one I will certainly use this. in fact Daisy is throwing an office party out in the barn so i shall go and talk to um.. who is the shy one of that bunch i wonder!

    • I don’t get the impression of excessive shyness from any of your barnyard gang! Daisy does throw one heck of a party, from what I’ve seen, and the others seem quite able to hold their own. Perhaps the Big Dog, relishing his retreat under his blanket, might have something to say about shyness . . . if he weren’t too reserved to say it.

      You’ll have to send the coppers after my parents, because I photographed the crystal glasses at *their* place when I went up to pack them up for their move to a new home.

  6. “Suddenly, it’s not my job to be perfect or achieve the goals of the event or even to be interesting or brave; it’s my job to make another scared person feel more welcome and at ease.”

    What great advice! Happy holidays, Kathryn.

    • My friend, while shyness is far from a sin or crime, I know how debilitating and frustrating it can be, and having even one little trick up my sleeve to distract from it has helped me immensely. It’s certainly worth a shot! Meanwhile, know that even when you feel most alone as a shy person, you are far from alone. Consider yourself surrounded by invisible friends with the same understanding! πŸ™‚

  7. I enjoyed reading your experiences, thanks for sharing! It must have been tough to hear people thought of you as stuck up in college. Glad it doesn’t seem to have bothered you too much and that you were able to take that info and use it to show you weren’t that way! And your mom has a great theory, I’m sure the people you’ve befriended have appreciated it! It’s amazing how much can go underneath the surface of a person that you’d never know about just by looking at them.

    • Thank you, Brittany, and welcome here! I’m looking forward to a visit to your blog–clearly a topic of interest to me! The thing that is so nice about Mom’s approach to the situation is that both parties benefit, so it takes some of the fear and strain out of the shy person’s attempts (in my experience!). Acting the part of someone braver did help me to gradually become a bit less shy and introverted, though I suspect the natural inclination will never entirely disappear, just soften tolerably. And Yes, there’s plenty of reason for the old adage about not judging a book by it’s cover, indeed. πŸ™‚

  8. Well, I’m back from a few days off and still trying to catch up on so many blog posts! Especially yours… which I am really enjoying as always:) This one stood out for me because I was told the same in University… the other girls thought us “stuck up” because we never sat with them.. Truth is that we were always waiting for an invitation that never came and thought the same of them! I love your advice and will employ it this New Year’s Eve!

    • Amazing that even though we all know perfectly well that appearances do not make for reality, we still make snap judgements and plenty of assumptions to follow. Sigh. Not a genius race, are we. But at least there are hopeful moments when someone more insightful (like my dorm-mate, like Mom) has the good grace to burst that bubble with a bit of healthier reality. Speaking of Bubbles, yes, this technique will definitely serve if you’re going to be at a NYE shindig! A pretty nice New Year’s gift to give someone else, I should think. πŸ™‚

  9. LOVELY Kathryn,

    I am also just catching up on reading emails, blogs, etc…(and I always savor yours!)

    In reading this, I was slightly shocked at your above mentioned “first impression” on a dorm mate, (Makes me curious-er and curious-er if I had ever met that person?! Maybe it’s best I didn’t!) because I remember MY first impressions of you as your former dorm mate of eons ago…I thought you not only lovely outside but inside…you had an inner glow, aura, a ” je ne sais quoi”, also a maturity and poise beyond your years. (In fact, I was struck by your mom’s similar “soul glow” when I met her this fall!)….I never detected a smidge of stuck-upness, that’s for sure! Methinks that perhaps that girl didn’t have her “kind person radar” working properly. I think you were and are, as the kids say nowadays, awesome! πŸ™‚

    Thanks for sharing yourself and your gift, as always! You help make this world brighter!

    And…a very Happy New Year to you and yours! Cheers, Gracie πŸ™‚

    • You are so sweet, Graciela! I don’t even remember anymore which of our hallmates sprang the idea on me, but as I say, I’m deeply grateful she was so brave as to share the insight with me so I could work toward correcting any misperception of that sort if it was really happening. A worthwhile enterprise just to try and learn to ‘think outside the box of myself’ more often! πŸ™‚

      Thank you as always for taking such a generous view of me and for your loving support, and a glorious 2012 to you and your menfolk as well, my sweet!!! πŸ™‚

  10. I LOVED the way this whole thing was written. I have to say though that the humorist in me was thinking well, “What if this one person DOES know your mom’s little technique and thinks they are are the one busy trying to help YOU feel more correct and likeable! Ha. Lovely blog, once again…..just lovely!

    • Stephanie, my insightful friend, you are so right to ask! All I can guarantee in response is that if we both think we’re helping each other, the very attempt to do so ought to help both of us feel better after all, right? Whoa, I’m getting dizzy as I fall into the tautological vortex!!! πŸ˜‰

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