I stumbled upon your site a couple of weeks ago and have spent hours reading all your letters. I don't typically read advice columns, but your responses drew me in not only because of the care and compassion in your advice, but also the practicality. It was that particular mix of qualities that finally convinced me to try writing you.
I'm what I would describe as "painfully shy." I've had social anxiety my entire life. It seems like other shy people are able to somehow step out of themselves online, and are able to socialize and make friends without the hang-ups they feel in real life. I've never been able to do this; I've always felt the same nervousness online as I do in real social situations.
As I've gotten older, it's gotten far worse. When I was younger, I was able to join a few newsgroups and forums and make some online friends. However, we all drifted away, as online friends tend to do, to the point where I've become a virtual hermit. But I miss having people to talk to online, particularly furry friends. I haven't gone to a furry con in almost ten years, since they're mainly social events and I don't know anyone anymore.
But every time I try to join a furry website, my anxiety ratchets up to such an extreme level, it just seems easier to go back to browsing Tumblr than actually putting myself out there. I found an IRC browser client to connect to Furnet, but wasn't brave enough to even go into any of the channels. It feels like everyone already knows each other and I'm too scared to try to break into the clique, because I have the mother from Carrie inside my head, screaming "They're all going to laugh at you!" It took me a few weeks to work up the nerve to even write this letter!
Do you have any advice for how I can manage my anxiety enough that I can actually function socially online? Or maybe recommend a friendly, non-intimidating place to start?
Thanks for taking the time to read my letter! I hope you have a wonderful new year!
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I know exactly how you feel because I myself am an extremely shy person. I went through school and college mostly trying to make myself unnoticeable by other people because I was so self-conscious about things like being fair-skinned (a crime punishable by death, apparently, when growing up in Southern California in the 1970s). People would make fun of me all the time, calling me “Caspar the Friendly Ghost.” I was also no good at sports and would get bullied a lot. People would even make fun of me for being smart. It seemed like nothing I did was right (speech class was a nightmare that almost made me wet myself); the person I was was just not acceptable to society. In some ways, even as an adult, I have faced this. I have been called a “furvert” because I’m a furry, and I’ve had people yell out of cars as they drove by, calling me a “faggot.” Even with this column, although the majority of people writing to me have complimented my work (and thanks so much for your kind words; you don’t know how much they help), I still get people criticizing me, even hating me to the point it makes me cry. Eventually, though, I get over it, realizing that a lot of people in my life love and respect me, so why should I be so concerned about someone who doesn’t even know me.
I am a lot better now than I was, and I’ll tell you how I got here, so that maybe my experience might help you.
One of the first things that helped me out of my shell was the mime troupe that Reverend John Powers organized at my college chapel and that my now-ex introduced me to. Yes, I was a mime! LOL. But it really helped me a lot to perform in front of other people wearing white-face and not having to speak. The next big thing that really really helped me was being a volunteer at the Detroit Zoo and then Potter Park Zoo. Because I really cared about animals and the docent classes taught me a lot about them, the fear of speaking in public in front of children, teens, and adults alike melted away because I was doing something I was passionate about. Being a docent is really what cured me of my anxiety about speaking in public (a common fear among many people). Then, a third experience that has helped me is fursuiting. Sort of a combination of mime and acting, fursuiting allowed me to do something I could never do before (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEuRpX9GRj8).
Performance techniques and doing something I really believe in are the two ways I myself have overcome much of my social anxiety. Also, when you do things like this, it really helps you to make friends because you will inevitably meet other people who share your passions, and they will often become your friends.
The reason, as you observed, that a lot of people overcome their shyness on the Internet—especially if they adopt a cover such as a fursona—is the same reason actors overcome their shyness: they are able to protect their fragile egos by wearing the masks of their alter egos.
But this technique doesn’t seem to be working well in your case. The key here is to try to get over being self-conscious and focusing too much on yourself and the idea that people are staring at you and judging you all the time. The truth is, most other people around you are doing the same thing: they are thinking about themselves and what other people think of them. Therefore, if you realize this, you might conclude that most people are not spending their time judging you because they are too busy worrying about others judging them.
There are a lot of other techniques you can look into that can help you overcome shyness. I was going to type them out here, but I discovered a wonderful article you should read that I think does a better job than I could: http://thinksimplenow.com/happiness/20-ways-to-attack-shyness/.
The thing to remember is that you are a unique and valuable person who has talents and abilities that can contribute to the world. Human beings need to stop spending so much time judging others and, instead, maybe focus on improving who they themselves are.
Your shyness is born out of the worry over what other people think of you. When you realize that other people either are too focused on themselves to spend time judging you or that those who do judge you usually do so because they are petty and narrow-minded and not worth your respect, you can get over much of the anxiety you’re experiencing.
What’s even better is that once you get over worrying about other people’s opinions, it will help you notice the people who are not jerks, the ones who are what I call “good friend material.” There are a lot of them out there, but you have to get over that shyness to meet them. I hope that the above, including the link, will help you do that.
Once you start to find a few friends (and there are a lot of furries in your boat—a lot of people are new to the fandom, which is growing by leaps and hounds ... er, bounds) it will be easier to interact more at things like furmeets and cons. I remember my first Prancing Skiltaire party. I felt, like you do, that everyone already knew everyone, but it helped me tremendously because my dear bear friend Cyberbear took me there, so I had someone to talk to and introduce me around a bit. May you find a friend like that in your life soon!
Good luck, and Happy New Year!
P.S. So, dear readers, would any of you care to share your experiences? I know a lot of you have probably been in the same boat as Ami here. How did you get over your shyness?
P.P.S. (Jan 2) I just read this interesting article about stage fright. It suggests an alternative approach to overcoming stage fright.
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