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Was I Born With It? Nature vs. Nurture
While it is possible that shyness is (partly) caused by your genetic make up, it is my belief that learned behavior (the Nurture part) is much more powerful. There are so many cases of happy, healthy, vibrant and outgoing children having their personalities ravaged by abusive parents or other traumatic situations. And, believe it or not, the opposite is also true. Quiet, timid, withdrawn people can become more sociable in the same way. Catatonics and autisms can be brought back to life, people with “learning disabilities” can become fully literate. It just takes the right tools.
Is This My “True Self”?
The truth is, virtually any aspect of your personality can change. If it doesn’t seem that way sometimes it’s because the methods you’ve been using just aren’t powerful enough. Think about your own experiences for a moment. Have you ever believed in something strongly only to have somebody prove you wrong? What happened to you then? You changed - instantly. A rape or a car accident can change your personality - and not a long, slow change, but immediately and powerfully.
Really, your mind is very flexible, and I will prove that in a bit. It’s just that we also have the tendency to do things in patterns, so we don’t take advantage of our capacity for change. I think the belief in your “True Self” or “Core Personality” is a dangerous one because it is so limiting. We look at the negative aspects of ourselves and say, “That’s just the way I am. I’m being true to myself by behaving this way”. We’re denying ourselves whole realms of growth and improvement with this defeatist attitude. Our personalities are NOT like a balance; improving one thing won’t sacrifice anything else. I’m positive that the strategies I’m going to talk about will work, but not if you’re skeptical and do them half-heartedly.
How Your Mind Works
The first step to changing yourself is understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing now. I’m going to give you a model of your brain that I’ve constructed from all kinds of sources, and we will use it to make changes later.
• Our minds are constantly taking in all kinds of information from our senses and storing it, even the unimportant stuff. When ideas are repeated often enough and with consistency, we form Beliefs, or Generalizations, and these beliefs affect the way we perceive our reality and the way we behave. The inputs that support the belief are called “reference experiences”. For example, during the Cold War, Russians were always depicted as the “evil overlords” or whatever, so children growing up at that time no doubt believed that all Russians were that way, unless they were shown otherwise. If you grew up in a racist household, you always heard that blacks (or whites!) were inferior and all that, and you probably accepted it without question. What’s more, once you have a belief, your brain will dismiss or disprove references that run contrary to it. The only way to change these beliefs once they’re solidly entrenched is to either use powerful references that can’t be ignored (such as a rape or car accident), or to use references consistently and with enough repetition, the same way the original belief was formed. That’s why simply talking about things and getting advice tends to be so ineffective.
• Out of all the input you get, your brain pays particular attention to experiences that cause an emotional response. What happens is, your brain constructs a physical association, or “link”, between the stimuli and the response so that in the future, the same, or similar, set of stimuli will produce the same response. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the link. Also, future experiences reinforce the link or even strengthen it. This affect is called “conditioning” or “anchoring”. The classic example of this is Pavlov’s famous experiment. Pavlov noticed that his dog salivated whenever it was fed. He started ringing a bell whenever he fed the dog, and soon he noticed that ringing the bell without providing food caused the dog to salivate. The bell became an “anchor” to the anticipation of food. Anchors can be changed or removed, however, by changing the emotional response linked to the anchor.
• Your brain will motivate you both to seek out experiences that give you pleasure, and avoid experiences that cause pain, though it will do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. That’s why bad habits are so hard to break. And sometimes, though a long-term goal will provide pleasure, if there is enough pain in the short-term, your brain will “sabotage” you.
• Your brain is always motivating you to do what it believes best for you based on your current beliefs and anchors, even though it might contradict your conscious goals. This sabotage is called “secondary gain”. For example, a happily married woman went to a hypnotist for help with being overweight. As it turns out, she was afraid of losing the weight because she would then be attractive to other men, and she was afraid that if she were propositioned she would have an affair, which would ruin her marriage. Once she became comfortable with her sexuality and confident enough to handle men, the weight went away almost without effort.
• Facts and information are the realm of your conscious mind. Your subconscious works on imagery, symbols, and metaphor, and knows no objective reality.
Now, going by that model, it’s easy to see what causes our shyness. We have dangerous generalizations about ourselves and about other people, like “I’m not attractive”, “Women/Men don’t like me”, “I’m not interesting”, “I never know what to say” etc., which taint our perceptions and our behaviour. These generalizations are subconscious and firmly entrenched. On top of that, we have such painful anchors to being evaluated, being embarrassed and being rejected that we avoid the short-term problem of meeting people and asking for dates, even though the long-term goal of intimate relationships is very enticing.
The problem is wired right into our nervous systems, which is the culmination of everything we’ve ever done. Our conscious motives are peanuts compared to that.
If I’ve painted a morbid picture here, I apologize. It’s easier to change than it sounds, but simply working with your consciousness WON’T work. You’ve got to work with your subconscious, and your nervous system. You’ve got to change your generalizations and your anchors, and the rest will come naturally.
I’ve omitted one vital piece of information till now. Remember how your brain is always taking in information and processing it?
***YOUR OWN THOUGHTS ARE PART OF THIS INPUT***.
This might sound silly at first, but it’s true. When you go over an experience in your mind, you get the same emotional response as when it actually happened. It’s a reinforcement. Consciously you can tell the difference, but your subconscious just processes and stores it along with everything else. Even if you don’t believe this, at least admit to yourself that it might be possible, because it’s central to many of the strategies I’m going to talk about. Remember, what we’re after is results, not understanding.
Your thoughts are powerful tools for change. It’s just that you’ve been using them poorly until now.
Your Own Worst Enemy
Now think of the implications of this. Every time you’ve relived your failures and rejections, every time you’ve beat yourself up with your self-talk, every time you’ve felt sorry for yourself, you’ve been reinforcing the problem, and possibly made it worse.
Now, I’m not saying you should never feel bad. It’s a natural thing and it’s bound to happen no matter what you do. But being excessively negative is unhealthy for you. Starting now, don’t allow yourself to dwell on painful events from your past. If you find yourself feeling down for more than five minutes, do something - anything - to snap yourself out of it and move on.
Also, if there are any situations or people that are consistently making you feel bad about yourself, either do something to improve them or remove yourself from them.
For example, half a year ago I was hanging around with a certain group of people. One or two of them were my friends, but several of the rest quite obviously didn’t like me, had no objections to showing me so, and nothing I could have done would have changed that. For a while I felt sorry for myself; I kept thinking “no one cares about me, no one likes me”, etc. Finally, I realized what I was doing. I said to myself, “Fuck ‘em all, what do I need them for anyway” and went and found a very accepting, caring and supportive group to hang around with instead. That one decision made a great difference in my life.
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