For as long as I can remember I had been shy. Perhaps it was lack of confidence, perhaps fear of others. I am not sure what it was causing it but I was really struggling in expressing myself freely in front of others. It was as if I had all these voices inside my head telling me to avoid embarrassment. I just couldn’t overcome my shyness.
Although I was playing the piano I was terrified of performing live in front of an audience. I would feel as if everyone was judging me, even if they were not. I was afraid of looking like a failure in front of so many students and parents. This is why when I was fifteen I stopped playing and left the music school. But I never left music or to put it in a better way music never left me.
My struggle to overcome my shyness
My shyness was manifesting in all areas of my life. I was finding it difficult talking to girls and expressing my feelings. It felt like an impossible mountain to climb. While others were enjoying summer flings I was depressed, turning my focus into studying and trying to make a better life for myself. But music was always there for me, it was my only true escape, the only place where I could be 100% myself and not be shy.
Surprisingly, in my first year at University I quickly overcame my shyness and for the first time in my life I was not afraid to be myself in front of others. I was eighteen and had just moved to Chania in Crete to study. I was lucky to make some good new friends (both male and female), who made me feel comfortable.
Being a thousand miles away from home with people I had just met allowed me to reinvent myself, or to put it more accurately, to rediscover myself. It is through others that we self-expand and discover aspects of ourselves we never knew were there. So, I guess I was at the right place at the right time with the right people that catalysed my transformation.
Nevertheless, my transformation didn’t last long. The next year I moved to a new city and University and somehow I reverted back to my old shy self. I cannot say for certain why but I think it had something to do with the people I met there. Compared to Chania, most of my classmates were male and engineers. There was a lot of competition that didn’t make me feel comfortable at all. I was regretful that I had changed Universities.
Needless to say that I didn’t enjoy my studies, engineering was a tough subject that required long hours of studying at the expense of my social life. I gradually became more shy and closed to myself. Up to this day, it still feels like I made a number of bad choices back then but perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am now if it was not for those choices. Life works in mysterious ways.
It was not until I turned thirty and moved to the UK that I started feeling more comfortable expressing myself more freely. Yet, I couldn’t fully overcome my shyness.
Cuban Salsa – My secret superpower
Throughout my struggles, music remained my true escape, the only safe space where I could really be me. And I think this is what kept me going. Although I didn’t know it at the time, music and more specifically dancing was the answer, it was the way I was going to finally overcome my shyness.
One day in 2016 I was at a party and I saw a couple dancing Cuban Salsa, it looked mesmerising. I wanted to be able to do those moves. I am not sure what had gotten into me. Perhaps the magic of Cuban music enchanted me.
But it wasn’t easy to join dance classes. However deep inside I knew that I had to become comfortable being uncomfortable if I wanted to grow as a person. It took time but eventually I reached a stage where I finally overcame my shyness. Dancing with strangers became as natural as walking in the street, although I didn’t start dancing with strangers in the street.
I am not sure if other types of dance would have had the same impact, but for some reason Cuban Salsa liberated me. It showed me that I could dance with anybody, no matter who they were, and be unapologetically myself. Dancing taught me that there are no strangers, only interesting new people we haven’t met yet. It made me realise how exciting and fulfilling life could be when we connect with others. It helped me discover myself through others.
Even more interestingly, what I experienced in salsa started transforming my behaviour across all areas of my life. At work, I started networking and interacting with more people than ever before, I started being more authentic and somehow people sensed it and became more open around me. I became a better manager and a better leader. It created a spiral of positivity and connection.
Dancing – the lost art of authentic connection
Perhaps this is the reason our ancestors have been using dance rituals for centuries in order to strengthen their community, overcome their shyness and inhibitions and connect at a deeper level. It was also a way for them to reduce tensions and violence.
Unfortunately, over time religions became more dominant and there was a gradual decline in dancing, which became a forbidden pleasure, if not a sin for the Christian Church. This eventually led to the creation of carnival, which was the only time when people were allowed to dance and freely express themselves in public.
There are many historical reasons why we have lost the art of connecting deeper with others through dance. It is quite possible that by prohibiting dancing and restricting excesses the Christian Church in Europe made people feel more self-conscious and perhaps feeling judged all the time.
The legacy of this is that even today many of us still feel uncomfortable dancing in public, as if we are committing some big sin, or as if others are going to judge us. We have echoes of shame and guilt in our psyche from centuries of prohibitions. As a result, dancing has ceased to be a part of our daily lives, which has had deeper sociological impact, with people, especially in big cities, becoming increasingly lonelier.
How to overcome your shyness
Shyness is a mysterious force that holds us back and we have to be brave to overcome its pull. I am the best example of this, and if I can do it I think everyone can.
I still cannot believe it but I went from being shy to talking to strangers to being comfortable dancing with them! Gradually, a whole new world of people and opportunities opened up to me. Experiencing it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life and made me realise the endless possibilities that come from socialising with strangers.
When the audience disappears
I have a small secret for you, well not so small. No-one really cares about how you dance in a party, most people are too busy with themselves and their partners. There is no spotlight on you. But even if you have an audience watching, still they may not be paying as much attention as you think they are.
In psychology there is a phenomenon called the “spotlight effect”, according to which we tend to overestimate how much others notice our appearance or behaviour. We tend to think we are always in the spotlight when we are not. The reality is that others don’t care as much as we thing they do and do not pay as much attention to us. They are more pre-occupied with themselves and what they are doing. There have been a lot of experiments on this. There is really no reason to be afraid of people watching us.
Even if some people are judging us, and there will always be some, it has nothing to do with us. Perhaps they are insecure or having others things going inside their heads. There is nothing we can do or say to please everyone, so why waste energy on it?
Once I realised this the “audience” around me disappeared forever. I became both the performer and the audience at the same time. We all blended, we all became one.
Why dancing is much easier than small talk
Dancing teaches our body how to overcome shyness. It helps us master our non-verbal skills. It helps us learn how to use our body language in order to connect more meaningfully, through making eye contact, smiling and having the right posture. All of this creates a safe space for everyone to open up and connect.
Most articles on how to overcome your shyness are about approaching strangers and talking with them. However, dancing doesn’t require small talk, it doesn’t require you to have a topic to discuss. The awkwardness is removed as both partners focus on the dance which brings them together.
My suggestion is to try first dancing with strangers, especially if you are introvert or finding it hard to make small talk. You will notice that shyness will disappear organically. This doesn’t mean you will become a more interesting conversationalist but you will never feel uncomfortable looking silly in front of other people or making a mistake. You will stop seeing others as strangers that are threatening, instead you will start seeing the opportunity they pose.
Dancing is a high bandwidth non-verbal communication channel that is missing from our lives.
Practice and developing your skills builds confidence
One day someone walks on the 57th street in New York looking for the famous Carnegie Hall. He stops someone in the street to ask for directions. He asks “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and the other person answers “Practice, practice, practice!“.
I cannot stress enough the importance of practice. The more you are prepared mentally, emotionally, and physically for your interaction with others the better those interactions will be and the more confident you will be. Also, when it come to dancing practising and preparing your body helps you ease your nerves and manifest confidence. What is even more surprising is how confidence can spill over to all parts of your life like a chain reaction.
However life, like dancing, is not a perfection game but an improv scene. We make mistakes and continuously adjust and learn from them. In fact, many of the mistakes we make are not really mistakes but small serendipitous moments that provide us the best insights about ourselves. So, we need to be ready for the fact that things will not always work the way we want and that’s ok as long as we remain confident and keep moving forward.
Surround yourself with the right people
Dancing helped me realise that shyness was not stemming from other people but from my own fears. I had spent most part of my life being afraid of being judged, of not being good enough. However, an unintended consequence of this was that I attracted all the ‘wrong’ people around me. People who would only amplify those fears and make me feel even more insecure.
I am not sure if surrounded by the wrong people (competitive, judgmental, envious) makes us insecure, fearful and shy or whether our shyness attracts people who validate our insecurities. It is hard to say and it is probable both.
I know that it is easy to blame others for our shyness but I have come to realise that the people we associate with play an important role in our lives, more than we would like to think. So, by surrounding ourselves with positive people who are authentic, empathetic and sociable can help us overcome our shyness much easier as we become part of a bigger whole.
I believe that the time has come to rediscover the lost art of dancing and discover ourselves through our relationship with others.