“Why are you so quiet?”
If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me this, I wouldn’t have qualified for the stimulus check.
Not to mention that it’s a stupid question. Imagine you’re at a party or a bar. “Why aren’t you talking? Are you okay?” Well, I was happily enjoying the festive atmosphere until you started badgering me for a play-by-play commentary to upload on TikTok. If I have something to say, I’ll say it; now let me drink my beer.
Yes, I am an introvert. You can find me observing my surroundings with the curiosity of a child, or lost in a whimsical daydream. It took the book Quiet by Susan Cain (and her TED talk) to realize that being an introvert, and being quiet, is okay.
Shyness, on the other hand, is different.
Being shy is more than just feeling afraid to talk to people and worried about embarrassment. It’s a physiological sensation. When an episode of shyness (aka social anxiety) comes on, your body goes into panic mode. Even if you have no logical reason to be afraid, you immediately want to RETREAT. Your skin feels hot, you feel dizzy, you get goosebumps even when it’s not cold, and your stomach feels like it’s trying to turn inside-out. It’s very fun.
These feelings come with varying degrees of discomfort. Most of the time, it feels like a 1-3, but in those rare moments when it’s a 10, you feel like you’re about to be thrown into the lion’s den (or the tiger cage, to keep up with the times).
So, when people say “Shyness is all in your head,” they’re wrong. A good part of it is, but it’s also a physical sensation. It’s unwarranted panic. And it’s incredibly annoying that my nervous system likes to cry wolf when all I want is to ask the barista at Starbucks for lactose-free milk with my overpriced latte.
So, 300+ words later: what does shyness and introversion have to do with travel?
For me, everything.
I’d always dreamed of traveling the world and speaking multiple languages. But to do that, you need to talk to people. And if you’re using a second language, you have to get over the fact that you’re going to make a fool of yourself, and people will laugh at you.
Traveling alone is not just a risk of embarrassment and ridicule – it’s a guarantee.
I didn’t take that into consideration. I thought everything would be rainbows and sunshine, until I realized that, unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life stuck at the airport, that I would need to talk to someone sooner or later.
And, when I did the unthinkable and decided to travel alone for two months, I realized that, unless I wanted to be lonely, I had to talk to people.
There’s nothing that will help you tackle shyness head-on than the motivating phrase “Talk to people or be lonely for two months.”
Exposure therapy is used for many people with social anxiety. The therapy gives people small assignments that pushes their level for tolerating discomfort 1-2 points above, until ultimately becoming desensitized.
Thing is, I can’t do just going up 1-2 levels, because I know myself. I’ll find an excuse or an exit. I had to go all in. And travel was just the way to do it, because I was thousands of miles away from home, and my flight wouldn’t leave for another two months.
It was Argentina and Chile or bust!
Ever since my first solo trip, I’ve traveled alone to Chicago, Colombia, Ecuador, and Spain. Do I still deal with shyness? Oh yeah. And when you’re overcoming something, it comes back at you harder. You think I was cured after talking to strangers at a hostel? My next challenge was talking in front of 50, and then 600 Colombian students. Life’s all about leveling up.
And when shyness does come back, I know that, based on past experiences, I’ll survive. Shit, more than that, I’ll thrive and give my childhood fears and limiting beliefs a run for their money.
Shyness gave me a reason to be brave, and a reason to face my fears. If life had been easy, maybe I wouldn’t have felt the need to travel alone and prove myself.
Another surprising benefit is that being shy and introverted has made it easier for people to trust me. Why? I don’t look threatening. I don’t look reckless. I’m polite, try to speak the local language, like to ask questions, and prefer listening to speaking.
Would I have been invited to so many locals’ homes over the years, had I not been the way I am? I don’t know.
Another way I conquered my fears was simply asking to hang out with a group of people. Or inviting them to hang out with me. When you’re traveling, people will say “yes” almost 100% of the time; in fact, I’ve never had someone tell me “no.” Traveling is all about meeting new people, anyway.
When people travel in groups, they often stick with that group, except during happy hour in the hostel. But when you’re alone, people are often more than welcome to let you tag along. I learned during my travels that people aren’t as judgmental as I once thought.
And, because I was introverted and observant, I was able to find the right people to have the right conversations with. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a writer on a hostel rooftop in Iquique that lasted until 2 o’clock in the morning. Nor will I forget the time I spent talking with the Colombian in Panama until sunrise, standing on the balcony, overlooking the night sky and listening to the waves.
“Why are you so quiet?” my new colleague asked me at my university job during orientation.
I’d just gotten back from my first solo trip, feeling on top of the world. Until that comment.
“Great discussion today,” my professor told my class. “Except for some of you who were . . . too quiet.”
I rolled my eyes. I’d traveled tens of thousands of miles, touched two oceans in one summer, for this?
Oh, if only they knew the things I’d done. Though with that attitude, I don’t care if they do or not. I know, and that’s what’s important.
People may — scratch that; will — continue to make comments about your journey of conquering shyness, or whatever fears you have. Let them. Don’t waste your energy on them. Sure, it can feel like a slap in the face, but what’s more important: someone else’s opinion, or your actions toward making a better life for yourself?
In the words of Lizzo, who could be a motivational speaker in addition to amazing singer: “That’s a testimony your greatest transgressions can become your greatest blessings.”
Traveling alone helped me learn who I was. And traveling as a quiet introvert helped me learn how to be more comfortable with using my voice, learn about my self-worth, find like-minded people out there, opened my world to new possibilities, and made me appreciate the world and the people in it so much more.
And I don’t think I would have, had everything been easy this whole time.