I have a running joke with my friends that I am painfully shy. It normally involves me saying how uncomfortable I feel speaking in front of large crowds or talking to complete strangers, and it normally ends with them groaning in disbelief and reaching for my throat in mock despair. For them, the thought of me lacking confidence in any social setting is laughable. Here’s the funny thing, though; there was a time when I was that shy.
I thought of this recently when I heard from a close friend, a superb artist who was doubting the quality of her work. It reminded me of just how hard-won my own self-belief has been. As some of you may know, I am a keen musician; what some of you might not know is that I used to hate my speaking voice so much that merely listening to it used to bring me to tears. (Though that might still be the case for many of you, I eventually got over it.) The only way to overcome my horror at how I sounded was to listen to one of my songs on repeat until all of the self-disgust had left my system. I had to do this, I reasoned, because if I wanted to be a successful artist – be that as a public speaker, or anything else – then I simply couldn’t afford to be shy. It just wasn’t an option.
Looking back, I think that having grown up as a black person in mostly-white environments has really helped me. If you’re black and almost everyone else in your class and school is white, then you can’t blend into the background – you’re naturally just going to be more visible in a crowd. And so, given that you will more easily catch the eye, you learn to adapt. If you’re going to be conspicuous, you may as well be confident with it.
I suppose I’m only writing this to point out that self-confidence doesn’t come as naturally as people might think that it does, whether that be belief in your art or in yourself. Perhaps, when joking about being shy, I am not just mocking this ego that I have successfully grown; maybe I’m also thumbing my nose at the past, where my insecurities inhibited me from doing so much of what I wanted. And maybe, one day, that past will be so far behind me that I won’t even need to refer to it anymore, even in jest.