When most people think of Eleanor Roosevelt, the image of a confident, outgoing vivacious person comes to mind. She was after all, First Lady of the United States, so it stands to reason she was a real dynamo, right? Well, not exactly.
What many people don’t realize is that Eleanor Roosevelt started out life as an awkwardly shy and withdrawn person — the ultimate introvert, if you will. And yet, despite her almost crippling fears, Mrs. Roosevelt went on to become a respected figure on the world stage.
“I was an exceptionally timid child, afraid of the dark, afraid of mice, afraid of practically everything. Painfully, step by step, I learned to stare down each of my fears…only then was I really free.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
It’s not known exactly when Eleanor Roosevelt shook off her debilitating shyness and fears, but as early as 1903, at the age of about 19, she was teaching at the Junior League of New York, leading calisthenics and dance classes — something a person who still struggled with extreme shyness would have a difficult time doing.
This post isn’t a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. This post is about why this great woman is a prime example of our inherent ability to shake off a disabling vulnerability — it’s about proving that if she could transform from an awkwardly shy introvert into a monumental global persona, anyone can.
in·tro·vert: a shy person; A person who is energized by spending time alone. Often found in their homes, libraries, quiet parks that not many people know about, or other secluded places, introverts like to think and be alone
shy: bashful; retiring; easily frightened away; timid; suspicious; distrustful: reluctant; wary
Eleanor wasn’t just an introvert, because as she herself said, she was an exceptionally shy child, afraid of everything. Since introverts aren’t always shy, she had two major obstacles to overcome.
So what did Eleanor Roosevelt do to overcome her obstacles? According to her, she made the conscious declaration that her “withdrawal” was a problem to be overcome — she recognized she had a problem and resolutely determined that she would conquer her fears.
On confronting and conquering one’s fears, Mrs. Roosevelt said: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
1. Find out the root cause of your shyness
Being shy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an introvert or even that you don’t like yourself. Shyness sometimes means that for whatever reason, you get embarrassed when in the spotlight. So, what is the root of your shyness?
Experts feel that there are three primary possibilities:
- You have a weak self-image. This is usually the result of our self-evaluation and that voice deep inside us comes back with a negative self-view, even when totally unwarranted. The key is to conquer that voice and channel it away from the negative toward the positive –its your voice, so you’re the master of it.
- You struggle with compliments. Someone tells you that you look nice and you can’t accept it — in your mind, you don’t, or it’s inconceivable that someone would think you do look nice. Rather than self-doubting, accept the compliment and say “thank you!”
- You’re preoccupied with how you look/act. This happens when we focus too much on ourselves and we live too much inside our own minds, letting the negative voice rule us. When we spend all day second-guessing our actions and living in constant fear of looking bad, we falsely believe everyone else is watching our every move as well — they’re not. Focus on being you — simply just be yourself.
- You were/are labeled as shy by others. When we’re little, we’re often shy and when adults note this, we allow the label to stick and we carry it into our future, falsely believing that if we were shy as a child, then we must thus, still be shy. Completely false. We may have had acne as a teenager, but we often don’t as adults — its the same principal, because something which was true when we were 5, doesn’t always make it true when we’re 25. Once again, silence that little voice of negativity.
2. Act confidently
The term “confidence building” is true on so many levels; confidence is a trait we can cultivate and build upon, until it becomes second nature. Feeling anxious on occasion is perfectly normal, but avoiding social interactions just to avoid the anxiety won’t help. Sustainable confidence comes through learning, practice and action — no one is better than you, you do matter, you are smart. Think it, act it, master it.
3. Engage and talk
Eleanor Roosevelt was teaching dancing and calisthenics to a room full of people at the age of 19, so clearly she recognized her problem and using inner-strength, determined that she would put herself out there to engage and talk with people. Of course the first step is the scariest, but once you put your toe in the water and get used to it, before you know it, you’re fully emerged and swimming like a pro.
4. Try new things, even if they make you anxious
Joining a club or volunteering are great ways to put yourself out there. Find an outside activity that aligns with your personal passions and mindfully move yourself out of your comfort zone.
Part of overcoming shyness is about building confidence and by engaging in new activities, you are confronting your fear of the unknown and learning to handle that anxiety more effectively.
5. Be mindful
I’m not always a fan of the ‘mindfulness’ craze sweeping the land, but that’s for another blog post. But in the case of overcoming shyness and social anxiety, being mindful and in the moment is ideal. Be present in your thoughts and not on your past. Be acutely aware of your thoughts, feelings and memories in any given common social situation, realizing that there are no parts of your experience or sensations that you need to escape or avoid, because you have the power to manage them. Learn to appreciate yourself for the now and with practice, you can continually enhance your social skills and turn the negative inner-voice into your own personal Cheerleader.
Ultimately, you have to move according to your own needs and ability. The first step is to acknowledge the issue and commit to fixing it. Eleanor Roosevelt shows us that it’s possible to come out of our shell, but she also gave clues that even when she was on the global stage, she stilled craved her cherished alone time, writing in 1936:
“I wonder if any one else glories in cold and snow without, an open fire within, and the luxury of a tray of food all by one’s self in one’s own room? I realize it sounds extremely selfish and a little odd to look upon this as a festive occasion. Nevertheless, last night was a festive occasion for I spent it in this way!”