Plastic Covered Couch – A Lesson in Shyness

Believe it or not, I’m a painfully shy person.

One of the greatest regrets of my life so far is knowing that my paternal grandfather died without ever having a true conversation with me. I was in the second or third grade when he died, I was plenty old enough to hold a conversation with him but I never did because I was so shy that I wouldn’t talk to him. I will never forget that feeling of shame I had when my father told me how sad he was that my Grandpa had died without really knowing me. In fact, that shame lives with me nearly thirty years later and probably always will. I can’t go to Detroit to visit family without someone mentioning how “Kellie was probably a teenager before I knew she could actually talk.” Honestly, it breaks my heart to think about the relationships I missed out on with my family because of my shyness. It’s not that anyone ever hurt me or had been mean to me… I had no logical reason for being mute, I was just shy.

For many people though being shy isn’t a good enough excuse. People don’t understand it and think a shy person can just force themselves to open up. Trust me when I say, it’s not always that easy. Thinking about my Grandpa as I sat in a coffee shop writing the first draft of this post made me cry. I’m not someone who likes to cry and certainly not in public, but I sat there crying my heart out as I wrote in my notebook because I was blanketed with sadness as I thought of how horrified I would be if my children one day couldn’t know my own dad. Or how incredibly devastating it would be for him if my brother’s children, all who simply adore their Papa, wouldn’t speak to him today.

Trying to explain shyness is hard. It’s kind of like having an over heightened sense of Stranger Danger that isn’t always based in reality. Despite living only a few hours away I only saw my Detroit family once or twice a year growing up. In my shy mind I knew that these people were safe. I knew they were family and I had no “real” reason to be afraid. But it was hard for me to be this kid who everyone knew when I didn’t know them. My Detroit family is HUGE. My dad is one of thirteen children, so on every visit I was, and still am, faced with people who know me right away as “Uncle Clarence’s Daughter Kellie” but many of who I’d have to be re-introduced to every time. Not to say that I didn’t know who my grandparents were… of course I did. And yet, much to my father’s dismay, I’d sit on that plastic covered couch in my grandparent’s house during our visits and for several hours had no voice.

I figure that at least with my Grannie, as well as some of my uncles, aunts and cousins I’ve been able over the years to get to know some of them. My Grannie died when I was an adult so I was at least able to have a few conversations and giggles with her over the years as I got older and was able to open up my mouth. In fact, my nickname from one of my cousins is my Grannie’s name because we share the same “Tell it like it is…” bluntness. I love that. I love knowing that I remind my cousin of my Grannie and that some of my natural snark comes from her. I also thank goodness for the way that Facebook of all things has helped me to connect with family I’ve never been able to know. I still may not actually see a lot of my family, but at least with Facebook I can talk to them a little and be a part of their lives. I’ll never have that second chance with my Grandpa though and that still makes me sad.

It was my tenth birthday before I began ordering my own food in restaurants. After years of restaurant frustration I’d made myself, and my parents, the promise that when I was a two-digit age I’d bite the bullet and start doing it on my own. I remember that day so clearly. My mom and I had driven up to the top of the lower peninsula of Michigan to pick up my brother from visiting a friend (who by the way also didn’t hear me talk for years) and we stopped for a meal . I kept my promise, but I’m going to be thirty-five in a little over a week and I can still remember how hard it was for me to talk to the waitress that day.

Using the phone was absolute torture to me growing up and to be completely honest, I still struggle with it quite a bit. People are always complaining that I never answer my phone when they call me but there are times when I’ll look at the caller ID, will truly want to speak to the person calling me but simply cannot pick up the phone. I’ll listen to their voicemail to find out why they’re calling and then maybe I can call them back. If they leave a “Hey it’s me, call me back” message that’s basically like pouring salt into the wound and it makes calling back even harder.  So yeah, don’t do that.

I’m that person you see in movies who rehearses phone conversations for hours before picking up the phone. I often pray as the phone is ringing that it’ll go to voicemail so that I can just leave a message (that sometimes is written out on paper in front of me) so that I don’t sound like a rambling idiot tripping over my words. Text messaging is a freaking miracle for people like me. If I can text you it’s so much easier for me but even so there are times when I stress over make sure a text is “right” too.

I absolutely love to write and I’m pretty sure that at least part of that is because when I write I can always get my point out. I don’t get tripped up, my words don’t get twisted by someone interrupting me or misinterpreting what I’m trying to say (usually… Facebook is a whole other world where people don’t always read and compute before attacking). Once piece of feedback I hear most often from the readers of my fiction is how much they love reading my dialogue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “I felt like I was right there and a part of the conversation!” in response to a conversation I’ve written. Dialogue really is one my absolute favorite things to write. I just find it ironic that the thing I love to write is one of the things I struggle with the most off paper. I’m the writer who is afraid of words.

It’s also ironic that a chick with so many social phobias chose to work in social work. I’m sure there are plenty of people who know me and can’t understand how I could possibly be a social worker because I’m shy and they don’t see me as an assertive person. But the thing is, when I’m working in the field and I’m helping people and touching lives, many of my fears go away. At least temporarily. It might take me three hours to leave my house, constant self encouragement on the drive to a client’s home and a mental kick in the ass to get out of my car, but once I’m there I’m usually good. I know that when it comes to helping I know my shit and I’m good at it. I know that I am the kind of social worker you want on your side advocating for you during the hard times. And despite the fact that I went from working in the field to doing office work, it was not the social work that led to the change. I have not given up on social work and one of the most insulting things you can say to me is, “Well, you gave it a try… now you know it’s not for you.” People have actually said that to me! Like I wasted my time getting my associates and bachelor’s degrees in Community Services and I’ve just given up on social work all together because of one job. Let’s look at it this way, if you’re an accountant and you leave one accounting job that sucks ass to work in a different role because it’s the only job you can find does that mean you’ve “failed” at being an accountant? No! It just means you are self aware enough to know that your job was bullshit and you needed to make a change even if it meant doing something different for a while. I don’t want to be a secretary but I kick ass at it and know that being a secretary for a social work agency is better than being an unemployed social worker. But I digress…

Being shy makes everything hard. I know there have been jobs that I was highly qualified for that I didn’t get a shot at because I blew the interview on one of my bad shy days. I know there have been so, so many times that I couldn’t get my point out in a conversation not because I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but because I just couldn’t get it out. Open invitations are another thing that stop me in my tracks. I may have known someone all of my life and be totally comfortable with them, but can’t act on an open invitation to just stop by when I’m in the neighborhood, or call them up and be like “Hey can I come over?” I just can’t do it.  I need an invite, I need you to say, “Why don’t you come over on Thursday?” instead of “Come over this week.”  Some of that is part of my depression, my natural ability to second guess absolutely everything anyone says.  But some of it is the shyness taking over too. 

One of my biggest pet peeves and a huge part of being shy for me at least is when I feel like someone isn’t listening to me. If I tell you a story and you miss details or when you re-tell it wrong it pisses me off. In my head your inability to keep my words straight translates into “I’m not important to you. You don’t care about me enough to understand and listen to me.” I know, it’s not exactly sane or healthy to think that way… but I’m being honest here and that’s exactly what goes through my head. When I say something and you make fun of it, pooh pooh it, or simply don’t make any true effort to really hear me, it hurts me. If you do it to me enough, I can guarantee I’ll shut down and just stop talking all together. I might blog, Tweet, or Facebook about my frustration to other people who will listen. I might even get myself in all sorts of trouble for some passive-aggressive comment I make that pisses someone off. I might be shy, I might not always have the right way to say things… but I always have something to say. Sometimes the written word isn’t pretty, but it’s also sometimes my only way to say what I feel and feel that I’m heard.

I don’t wallow in my shyness just like I don’t wallow in my clinical depression. I might have my waves when I hibernate for awhile or I simply can’t do things that I’d love to do. But I try my hardest not to use my shyness as a crutch. I get out there and challenge myself to step out of my shy box when I can. Sometimes I fail miserably… I missed a friend’s wedding earlier this year because my shyness went into overdrive and I couldn’t make myself go. Other times I surprise myself and I’m just fine. Last winter for example I stepped way the heck out of my box and went on a knitting road trip with people I’ve known for years but none of whom are part of my established safety net. I literally thought about backing out of the trip all of the way up until the point that we hit the road. I thought of every single reason that it could be a horrible idea for me to go on this trip. It didn’t matter that I’d spent time with these women in the past and had great times with them… It was me with my mouth sealed shut on a plastic covered couch in Detroit all over again. I’m happy and quite proud to say though that I made that trip and truly enjoyed myself. I giggled and had great conversations (most of which I didn’t stumble over) and for the most part I felt heard and welcome and totally happy that I was there. It was a gigantic step for me. Does it mean that I won’t freak out the next time I’m faced with an opportunity to hang out with these people? Probably not, but it helps. That loud ass voice in my head who just loves to run around screaming “STRANGER DANGER!!!” while projecting doom into my subconscious might just be a little quieter next time. Maybe.

I’m about to make another huge step out of my box in December when I’m going on a cruise with people I’ve never met in person. Some of these girls have been online friends of mine for a decade or more and others I’ve just met recently. They actually know the real me better than some of my offline friends. The fear is still there (not to mention the fear of the freaking boat and the ocean… but that’s for another post!) but I’m going to do it. I may freak out up until I’m in the hotel room the night before the cruise and I’ve met and hugged my roomies for the first time, but I’m going to do it damn it!

My point in writing this is two-fold. One reason is to get it off my chest and into the universe instead of holding it inside while suffering because no one really gets it.  The other is to hopefully help you understand. Understand me, and any other painfully shy person you know or maybe will know in the future. Don’t give up on us because we can’t get with the picture as quickly as everyone else. Be patient. Take the time to get to know us because chances are you’ll realize that we’re pretty damn cool if you give us a chance. And for heaven sakes, take the time to shut your mouth for a minute and truly LISTEN to us… We’ve got things to say too, we’re just not always able to get it out as easily.

P.S. I first wrote this post in January or February. That’s how long it’s taken me to actually post this. 🙂

9 responses to “Plastic Covered Couch – A Lesson in Shyness

  • Tasha

    I totally understand. This was like reading my freakin autobiography lol


  • anikasmom2005

    It seems we have more in common than our first name. (Spelling doesn’t count. LOL) You’ve captured exactly how I feel. Sometimes I feel like such a freak because I’m the only on in my family who is so painfully shy. Being the loud mouths that they are, they don’t understand why I am so quiet. I don’t understand it either. It’s comforting to know there’s someone else out there that understands what I am going through.


  • tracy_a

    Me too – wow. But your post today made me speak up in a meeting when I felt that someone was talking past me. Yay. I am a homebody – but I am also way way shy. So – so is my little girl – and I don’t know how to help and support her. Advice? Because, well, I’m still struggling too.


    • coffeeandprozac

      Yay for speaking up in a meeting! I know how hard that can be sometimes. 🙂 As for E… Just support her like I know you do. Don’t allow people, including family, to pick on her for being shy. I still hang on to some of the “jokes” that family would make about me being shy. It’s hard when you’re a kid and you don’t know why you’re so shy. I guess my other bit of advice would be to keep offering her the opportunity to come out of her shell. She might not take it, but if you stop offering she’s definitely not going to take it. 🙂


  • Erin

    Me too! I’m still silent unless spoken to at family gatherings. I used to bribe my college roommates to order pizza for me and I didn’t go to the doctor for ten years because I HATE calling people I don’t know! I’m getting better (I say, while at the same time I didn’t get a haircut for a year and a half because I didn’t want to call a new place to make an appointment after I moved), but seriously why can’t you do everything online now?


    • coffeeandprozac

      Dude, I wouldn’t order pizza for the longest time! I still hate to do it but I’ll do it now. And it used to be that I would rather go inside a fast food place and order face to face than order through the drive thru, but now that’s changed and is the total opposite I struggle if there’s not a drive thru. Isn’t that odd? I LOVE online ordering! LOL One of my biggest fears is walking into a restaraunt/bar to meet people who are there already. I sometimes will tell people specifically to wait for me so I can go in with them or meet them in the lobby.


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