How I Overcame Shyness

Here's a tip: Find common interests, and a place to nurture them.

by Jose Polanco

As a shy person, I’ve struggled to connect with other people. I grew up in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. I would talk with a few kids in my class, but that was it.

Although I wanted to have close friends, I was nervous. If someone tried talking to me or if I tried to talk to someone, I would start sweating and stuttering. My mom tried to help. She set up plans with the two of us and her friends and their kids, hoping I’d make friends that way. But her plans failed, because I was too shy to go to these meet ups. “What if they don’t like me?” I would think.

But when I started in my new high school, I felt more ready to try to make friends. During the first week, I sat down with some kids during lunch and they were friendly. They talked about social media trends, which didn’t interest me. After 30 minutes I got up to leave.

“Yo, where are you going?” one asked.

I said I was going to the bathroom. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t said a single word. I felt I’d failed at trying to make friends and becoming less shy.

They Flamed Me

I felt brave enough to try a second time, so two weeks later, I sat with another group of kids at lunch. They were discussing the latest hit songs and I talked a little bit more than before since I knew some of the songs. Finally, someone asked me: “Jose, what is your favorite genre of music?”

With pride, I told them it’s metal because it calms me down. They flamed me.




Needless to say, I felt like I had failed miserably again. I left the group. I started crying and went to hide in a bathroom stall. Although boys heard me crying, no one asked what was wrong or what happened.

These experiences made me even shyer. Whenever a new person talked to me, I stuttered and felt nervous. Plus, the kids who called me those names didn’t let it go. I once tried to participate during class, and one kid said, “Shut up, satanist” and, “No one cares, go speak to the devil.” Those words hurt.

Sadly, I couldn’t share how I felt with anyone, not even my parents or my older brother. They are all outgoing, so I felt like they wouldn’t give me helpful advice.

“Are you still having trouble making friends, Jose?” my mom asked me.

“Nah, mom. I’m doing fine,” I lied.

A Surprising Listener

But what I didn’t know was that a girl named Avril was at the table during the “I like metal” conversation. She was a lot like me in both shyness and interests. Three days later, before religion class started, I was sitting at my desk and she came over. She had beautiful green eyes, luscious black hair, and a divine smile. When she approached, her beauty made me feel awkward, but my awkwardness went away when she said:

“Don’t worry, Jose, you are not the only one who likes metal.” Class was about to start and she added, “Let’s talk more at lunch, OK?”

I was excited. I had finally found someone who I could talk to and who liked the same music as me.

When lunchtime arrived, I waited as patiently as I could. Finally, she walked over.

“Hi, Jose,” Avril said with a happy tone.

I was nervous. I did not know what to say. “Hi, Avril.”

“Don’t worry, Jose, you don’t have to be afraid of me. I know I’m pretty, but that does not mean you should be scared of me. C’mon speak up, this is a no-judgment zone.”

She made me feel confident and I started talking.

“Why did you decide to talk to me, Avril?”

“Because you’re interesting.”

I blushed when she said that. After we grabbed our lunches we discovered that we had a lot of common interests—shows like Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, and The Walking Dead. Anime including Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Naruto. Video games such as The Last Of Us, Beyond Two Souls, and Heavy Rain. Bands like My Chemical Romance, Escape the Fate, and Pierce the Veil.

In a few days, we became best friends and met other kids who had interests in common with ours. I felt like I was in a no-judgment zone, like Avril had said. I finished the school year with an exciting feeling that next year I’d be with my group of friends.

Goodbye Happiness

YC-Art Dept.

But then, just two weeks after school ended, I was on my laptop when my parents opened my bedroom door to tell me that we were moving to New York City. They were happy and excited. They said we were moving so that my older brother and I could get a better education and jobs. They’d been working on getting our green cards since 2010, but they had not told any of us. “We wanted it to be surprise,” said my mom.

It was surprising, yes, but not like a surprise birthday party where everyone is happy and has a good time. It felt more like an earthquake surprise where everyone suffers. I was devastated. I felt sick.

I didn’t want to burst their happiness so I just said, “Oh. OK. That’s great, I guess.” But I was thinking, “You have to be kidding me. What is wrong with you two?”

They went into our living room with my aunts and uncles who had come over to celebrate with them.

I told my friends. Even though they were as upset as I was, they threw a party for me. We talked, played games, and watched different shows, movies, and anime. At the end of the party I cried since I knew I wouldn’t see them for a long time.

New Beginnings

In July, I came to this country with a feeling of loneliness, and that feeling stayed for a long time. Luckily, I knew how to speak English, but I felt more shy than ever. It was a new environment.

During my first weeks in school, I was able to make a couple of acquaintances since our teachers sat the students in groups of four. But I didn’t have much in common with those kids.

In November, I heard about an ice cream social hosted by the YMCA. I was surprised, since I only knew the “YMCA” as a song from 1978 by the American disco group the Village People. After school, I headed toward the school auditorium where the event was taking place.

When I got there, I found out about their afterschool program. It meets three days a week. Y staff offer help with your homework and resumé and you get to do community service work around the state. Being able to meet people from other parts of New York interested me. The following day, I submitted my application.

YMCA—More Than a Song!

My first day was difficult. I didn’t know anyone, and I’d never been in an afterschool program before. I was nervous and thought about quitting but didn’t. I was determined to challenge myself to meet new people and experience some of what the Y had to offer.

As the days turned into weeks, I started feeling more comfortable. One day, a bunch of us were playing football on the playground. One guy said to another: “You’re so salty. If we throw you into a lake you’ll turn it into an ocean.”

I got excited because that was a line from an obscure Youtuber called SkyVSGaming. When I found out that the kid also watched SkyVSGaming, I started talking to him and we discovered that we had many things in common. We quickly became friends.

Thanks to my involvement with the Y, I feel like I am capable of starting a conversation with anyone now. The big difference between school and the Y is that in school students create their own cliques, which are exclusive. But the Y is one big group where no one is left out. It is a place where we treat each other with respect, we work as a team, and we are honest with each other.

If you’re shy like me, look for youth programs like the Y where you can connect with other kids outside of school. And overall, what helped me is this: If you overhear a person talking about a topic you’re interested in and know about, slide right into the conversation in a friendly way. Having a common interest makes you feel less shy, since you feel like you belong there. This might be difficult at first, but it has worked for me. If a connection isn’t made that time, or if you if you get rejected, do not worry, you will have more chances.

Looking back on my own experience, if I hadn’t put myself out there with the kids in my high school in the D.R., I wouldn’t have met Avril. Although at the time I thought that I failed miserably, that wasn’t true: someone actually listened and approached me afterward. And if I hadn’t been willing to try something new, like the Y, I wouldn’t have made the friends I have now. I succeeded, and trust me, if I can make friends, you can too.

Go to to find an afterschool program near you.

I had finally found someone who I could talk to and who liked the same music as me.
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