For a short time, the woman who eventually became my wife lived in Schaumburg, Illinois, where she taught fifth grade. When I went to visit her from Kentucky where I was attending graduate school, she said she had two cats, but that I was likely only ever to see one. Shadowfax, it seems, was terrified of strangers, and always hid when people were around. I asked her where she thought Shadowfax might have been hiding at the moment, and she suggested he often hides beneath the Indian print skirt covering the large, retired wooden spool that served ubiquitously as a table in the sixties and seventies. I got down on my knees, lifted up the skirt, saw a wide-eyed black cat cowering in the corner, reached in and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, pulled him out and cradled him firmly in my arms. My future wife was stunned by my stupidity, thinking no doubt that by all rights I should have been mortally wounded by panic-driven claws, but I was more than confident. I didn’t think about it; I just remembered what it felt like to hide behind the couch and somehow knew what was required of the situation.
I struggled with extreme shyness most of my childhood, to the point where neighbors used to say that they didn’t know my parents had three kids—they only ever saw two. And when I learned about Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, I remembered the sound of the doorbell in Queens that signaled my darting behind the semi-circular couch in the corner of the living room. That corner behind the couch was my temenos, my safe and sacred space, where no one could harm me.
At 14, I somehow managed to find a girlfriend (or rather, she found me), but she grew increasingly impatient because I found one excuse after another to avoid meeting any of her friends. Approaching a group of people, and parties in particular, was like walking through the gates of hell.
When I reached my early twenties, I vowed to overcome my shyness and I used every technique I could find in the textbooks and some I invented on my own to lick it. The best strategies were the ones I developed on my own. It’s embarrassing, in retrospect, but the most effective was simply to pretend, to convince myself I was someone else.
Although I was skinny as a rail, hunched over, and had a face that was plagued by “the second worst” case of acne my dermatologist had ever seen, convincing myself I was someone else meant that I would imagine I was handsome and famous (Paul McCartney was often the favored choice), study their mannerisms, and pretend I was them. When I was a Beatle, I even had a pretty good Liverpool accent, but I only went that far when talking to myself. The thing about self-help is that some of these silly things work, and when they do it’s pretty exciting.
“Fake it til you make it” wasn’t quite a mantra, but the fact that people responded positively to the feigned confidence made it worth the discomfort and great effort that went into it.
But faking it had its down sides. Besides the effort it took, I knew it was a fabrication, a mask to hide the truth, and in lying that way I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, but perhaps even worse, I was still hiding. Yet, I also knew that the goal of faking it was to make it, and making it means that the it you’re seeking becomes a genuine part of your personality. It’s a classic strategy for learning anything, especially in the arts. Some of us read literature in order to write; how many poetry professors over the years would tell us to imitate the style, if not the content, of our favorite poets, until we find a voice that is distinctly our own?
But imitation can only get you so far to making it, because, well, after all, I wasn’t born in Liverpool and can’t sing worth a damn. The goal is only to model others insomuch as we learn who we are, what feels right and good, and matches whatever inherent predilections we might have. To truly conquer diffidence, you need more tools in your toolbox.
I tried implosion, in which you force yourself to face your worst fears directly by brass knuckling it, and systematic desensitization, where bit by bit you pair relaxation with your fears. I became so good at relaxing that after my first year as a psychologist at a day treatment center for children with emotional disturbances I was voted the person the staff “most wanted to go through a crisis with.” I was really hoping to get “best dressed” that year, but I had to settle with the former.
Hypnosis helped as well, although those effects were serendipitous outcomes of my work with clients. I would use the prompt of having my clients press their thumb against their index finger, and gently squeeze them together in order to trigger a relaxed state that we had previously practiced, and after a while I would begin to recognize when I was tense because I would look down at my hand and notice my own thumb and index finger pressing together.
The encouragement of angels helped as well. As an intern at a large state mental hospital, I was required to attend case conferences in which the staff sat around in a circle discussing a patient. Once, after having attended multiple conferences and never daring to speak, I meekly raised my hand (unnecessarily) and made a soft-spoken comment in spite of my rapid heartbeat. After the meeting, the kind charge nurse came up to me, and undoubtedly out of some maternal instinct not normally found within miles from a psychiatric hospital, told me that she really appreciated what I had to say at the meeting. It was sweet and simple, but that small kindness went a long way, given that I remember it so well now 40 years later.
I do believe, along with Eliot, that the goal of this one wild and precious life is to return to the starting point and know that place for the first time. If I did return to that beginning, I might find myself hiding behind the couch again, or at least finding my own temenos and settling into that feeling of comfort and safety. In some ways, retreating into my favorite chair at home, my car, my workshop, and my office are all little corners in which my five-year-old self hides. But I think I have traveled too far, been scratched and bitten too many times in this life, to reach into a dark place to grab a terrified cat. But who knows? I pretty much licked that shyness thing, so maybe anything’s possible.