Not Being Outgoing Can Ruin Chances of Going Out

Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

"Let me relate a humorously pitiful story," began a humorously pitiful letter to "Single Life."

"On a recent Saturday night, a girlfriend and I attended a fun event. While there, we noticed two young men we were attracted to and made plans to try to connect with them. The situation could not have been more perfect: The mood was pressure-free and lighthearted (we were at 'A Tribute to Gilligan's Island,' for God's sake).

"But we left without speaking to them (because) we were so crippled by shyness--even though we normally have gregarious, funny personalities.

"I am 26, attractive and easygoing, with a good job and happy life, but I haven't dated in months. I am outgoing with men whom I have no interest in because they don't intimidate me. So the men I don't talk to are the ones I like. Is this grade-schoolish behavior, or what?"

The letter's writer proved absolutely accurate in her self-portrait: She is a striking young woman, with a thick mane of curly blond hair, green eyes and a pretty smile. In an interview, she seemed relaxed, candid, personable and witty.

"Call me Ginger (as in 'the movie star' on 'Gilligan's Island')," laughed the Tustin resident, who requested anonymity.

Like many other single people who share her problem, the otherwise-confident woman degenerates into a shrinking violet in the face of the opposite sex.

"The people I work with would never believe I'm shy," said Ginger, an advertising writer. "I'm a gregarious, fun-loving person around the office."

Ginger's self-described "handicap" rears its ugly head only when she is confronted with launching the first strike: "I'm OK at responding; I'm just no good at initiating.

"I'll be in a grocery store and see somebody who's cute over by the asparagus, and I'll think, 'Oh, I'll just go look at the lettuce next to him.' And maybe I will go over, but then I won't do anything--I won't smile or start a conversation.

"Once I'm on a date, I'm fine. Like with anyone else, I feel awkward in the beginning. Then I get along OK."

Anything but a social outcast, she had three long-term boyfriends before the age of 25: "I got to know them first as people, either at school or at work, and then started going out with them. That makes it a lot easier than just approaching someone you don't know on the tenuous idea that you might get along romantically."

Ginger said she was even bold enough to tell one of the "Gilligan's Island" cast that she "had always had a crush on him," yet she could not muster the courage to utter a mere "hello" to her real-life crushee.

"There was a period (at the event) where you could go and get autographs from the stars, and everyone was mingling with one another. It would have been easy to jostle in line next to this person and say something like, 'Did you get Mary Anne's autograph?' I never worked up the nerve.

"I feel like I got this big chance to do something, and I flopped."

What can a person such as Ginger do to become more assertive?

"Take one small step at a time," recommended Douglas Tanner, executive director of the Self-Esteem Institute in Newport Beach. "Shy people usually try to take too big a chunk of action, then end up imagining the worst: 'He won't like me; he'll spurn me off.'

"So the first step might not be to think of asking the person for a date but to think, 'I'll go over and say hello, and then I'll be prepared to leave.' "

Acknowledge the fear rather than deny it, the therapist suggested.

Nobody is ever completely calm in that situation, Tanner said, so "we have to cinch up our belts, be scared, and do it anyway. Instead of fighting the fear, think, 'Boy, am I scared, but in spite of my fear, I'm going to forge ahead.'

"A fear is always greatest before you're in it. Once you're actually doing whatever it is you're afraid of, the fear diminishes."

Tanner said people often idealize their objective: "They have a tendency to put the person on a pedestal--which makes the goal even that much further away and makes them feel all the more inadequate."

Costa Mesa therapist Elizabeth Slocum, who specializes in women's issues, said Ginger's passiveness may stem from those sexual roles society still teaches--even in today's "liberated" times.

"Both women and men are confused," she said. "We don't have a new set of rules. Many women are still very traditional when it comes to making the first move, and many men are still intimidated by women who do make the first move."

Tim Foley, a Pasadena-based therapist who presents county workshops dealing with shyness, said gentle souls can use bashfulness to their advantage: "People are charmed by a bit of shyness. If you're shy, you can walk up to someone and say, 'I'm sort of embarrassed to approach you, but you look like a really nice person.'

"That way, you're not only accepting the shyness in yourself, you're also telling the other person about it. Then if you get a little shy, the person will think, 'Yeah, well, she said she was shy, so no big deal.' "

Foley advises people who sometimes feel inhibited to view shyness "as an inner child or teen-ager. The shy part of us makes us feel like a little boy or a little girl who has two left feet. What we need to do is, in effect, make friends between that inner child and outer adult.

"If you're going to a party, fantasize that you are a friendly adult telling the shy teen-ager standing beside you: 'Let me be in charge; I will protect you from anything disastrous happening. You just follow along and watch me. You don't have to say anything--I, as the adult, will put myself up there.' "

Ironically, shy people can themselves appear aloof and elusive.

Ginger noted that she "might intimidate men. The way I look may not convey my personality. Men see this tall person with a lot of blond hair, and they might think that I'm aggressive."

Meeting men was easier for her in Denver: "Perhaps people there are more down to earth. But I want to stay here--I love the climate and all the things that there are to do."

Meanwhile, Ginger dreams of that yet-unrealized moment when she will gather the nerve to strike up small talk with an eye-catching stranger.

"I still haven't taken any action," she said. "Maybe I figure that, like in fairy tales, my knight in shining armor will come--and he will initiate the conversation."

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