A reader asked me to explain how I got over my adolescent shyness. Okay, here goes:
About a third of the way through my senior year of high school, I was asked to make a speech in front of the entire school (maybe 600 people total, including teachers and administrators). I was the president of some made-up club that I think I helped to make up in an effort to pad my college application, the International Alliance or something like that, and we were hosting the Thanksgiving assembly that year (the theme of which I'm guessing was internationalism). It wasn't even supposed to be a real speech; more like an introductory mini-speech at the beginning of the assembly, then a few quick segues in between the other speakers' presentations.
The idea made me retch, and instinctively I almost said no. But then I thought, "Hey, this is a great chance for me to begin conquering my social retardation, to prove to myself that speaking in public won't result in pain and death and to prove to my peers, in the waning days of our high school careers, that I'm not the weird mute I sometimes appear to be." So I agreed to do it.
And bombed. Had I farted so audibly that the sound system picked it up, I could not have humiliated myself more. I began speaking when the microphone was off, then bumped into the microphone when I turned it on. I stuttered so badly over the first few lines of my speech that I had to start over. I told one weak joke that was greeted by cricket chirps (and nervous laughter from myself). I introduced the president of the senior class as "the senior of the president class." You get the idea. Afterwards, even my two best friends couldn't pretend the performance was salvageable; they just shook their heads and said they were really sorry.
But here's the thing. Having suffered extreme humiliation and survived, I felt overwhelming relief. I figured that the chances of embarrassing myself again so completely were nil; the worst was over. And so slowly, over time, I began to relax and put less stake into social interactions until eventually I could function socially without overthinking my every move or comment. It's not to say that I don't still make a regular fool of myself in public. But if I find myself at a social engagement babbling nervously to a stranger about Jessica Simpson or Nazism or soft cheeses or what have you, I'll remind myself that nothing can be as bad as that Black Wednesday so long ago, and I'll calm down.
Also? When I delivered the speech, I wore this red backless dress that caused a bit of a scandal and managed to distract attention away from my pathetic performance. It even figured into my "Most Likely" designation a few months later, long after people had forgotten about my oratory idiocy (I think).
So there you go. There's my secret recipe. If you're looking to conquer your shyness, make a pathetic fool of yourself in a large public setting and try to look hot while doing it.
Alcohol's good too.