Susan Cain on how to overcome the fear of putting yourself out there

Coincidence abounds! I find it endlessly fascinating that some of the topics I am thinking about get manifested in sources that couldn’t possibly have read what I posted, emailed, or cogitated through. Maybe that in itself is a lesson in how small the world really is and how alike we are in so many ways. Maybe its one more tentative step to proving how much we really share and that we are not as alone as we might occasionally be tempted to think……

I awoke this morning to find a message responding to the post I had recently written on how shy I naturally am but still advocating for the benefits of putting oneself out there and getting in touch with people who have interesting things to say or whom you respect and resonate with. I believe in these things quite strongly these days, so I wrote back and offered what encouragement I could. A few minutes later I was checking my blog roll and up popped a post from the fabulous Susan Cain on precisely this issue. What a coincidence! No wonder people sometimes feel the Universe conspires…..

Here’s some of what Susan had to say, follow the link to the rest of her post:

How to Overcome the Fear of ‘Putting Yourself Out There’


Image credit:

Image credit:

In honor of Arianna Huffington’s marvelous book THRIVE, I want to write about a very specific aspect of well-being: freedom from fear of sharing one’s ideas.

In researching my book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I met a scientist performing groundbreaking work on social anxiety disorder. A charming, articulate man, he confided that his interest in the field came from his own struggles with shyness. But he asked me not to use his name in my book. “Not everyone is as comfortable as you are exposing their true feelings,” he said.

To which I could only say “ha.”

I am not a natural self-discloser at all. It took me thirty years to realize my childhood dream of becoming a writer, partly because I was afraid to write about personal things — yet these were the subjects I was drawn to.

Eventually my drive to write grew stronger than my fear, and I’ve never looked back. I still envy friends who write about topics like science or politics. They can show up at dinner parties without everyone announcing: “Here comes the introvert!”

But you get used to it. And really, it’s a small price to pay for the freedom to say what you think.

I tell you all this because I hear often from people who burst with ideas but decline to share them, because they dislike the spotlight. Maybe you fear others judging you and your work. Or you’re uncomfortable with self-promotion. Or perhaps you’re afraid of failure, or of success.

So many fears, so many ideas worth sharing. What to do? Here are eight ideas to help you power through these disabling emotions.

1. Know that you’re in good company. People have always had to put themselves out there. We tend to think that in the good old days, no one had to self-promote the way we do today. True; but if they wanted to share, or lead, or create, they had to go public with their thoughts, too. And this has always been scary. Darwin waited THIRTY-FOUR years to publish his idea that humans evolved from monkeys. Scholars call this “Darwin’s Delay,” and many believe it was due to his fear of how others would judge his heretical theory.

2. When it comes to social media, think self-expression, not self-promotion. Blogging and tweeting, if practiced properly, feel more like a creative project than an exercise in self-disclosure, even though of course they are both. They also don’t require the in-person social multi-tasking that many people find so exhausting.


7. Strengthen your backbone, and therefore your confidence, in small steps. Get in the habit of asking yourself where you stand on various questions. When you have firm opinions or a strong sense right or wrong on a given question, savor the feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of question – it can be how to organize the dishwasher.

The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center, and operating from it. Then, produce more consequential ideas from this same place. You’ll still have doubts, of course -Does it make sense? Will people agree? That’s normal. But you need to have confidence about the underlying purpose of your undertaking.

8. If you need a role model of fearless idea generation and sharing, you really need look no further than Arianna Huffington and her Third Metric mission. She’s not worried about resistance, criticism, or taking on a mission that could, theoretically, fail.

Or maybe she is worried, but she does it nonetheless. And that, really sums it up: be afraid, but do it anyway.


Artists are so often (not always, of course!) people who find the quiet time of creative introspection fulfilling and sustaining. Its often something artists do because what happens in the moments of intimate expression of our imaginative life simply matter so much to us. We are most at home in the busywork of making new things real. We’d rather create than almost anything else. And the time spent alone in the studio is where we often feel happiest. At least, it is part of the happiness we have found, and we still have enjoyable and fulfilling lives outside what we do on our own mixing paints, staring at keyboards, strumming the strings of an instrument, pushing clay around….

Art simply appeals to the more introverted of us because its an opportunity specifically designed to explore our inner workings. We feel things deeply, and we plunge into those icy waters until we learn to swim and even breathe underwater. Unlike the keg parties and mosh pits of the gregarious lives we sometimes lead outside our studios, the private time working on our art is a space that VALUES the quiet interior life.

So my experience has been that many if not most artists at least sympathize with the difficulties of shyness and introversion. The skills we have to offer don’t always seem to be appreciated as much in the public domain. And that is often why art becomes so attractive to so many of us: Art is a means of expressing the things we care about on our own terms and in our own way. It declares “Take me as I am.” Its not always an attempt to ‘fit in’ or to talk the loudest over the blaring music. Its not always an attempt to stand out or preen in the spotlight. Often our art is something quite a bit more humble than those things, a bit more personal, and sometimes mostly significant to ourselves.

Which doesn’t mean its not worth sharing! We make our art for whatever reason, and sometimes it is important to get it out in the world so that other people see what you are thinking and recognize the fundamental humanity you have to offer. Being known in this way is, perhaps, a deep need for every person. Its just a bigger leap of faith for introverts and shy people. Just remember that you are not alone. You are not the only one feeling these things.

And for the extroverts out there reading this, I may not be speaking about you but I am still speaking to you. This is how around 40-60% of the people you know feel. These are the things some of your friends and family have to deal with. Understand the issues and learn to empathize with what they are going through. The world can be so much more kind than it is. Don’t you think?

All for now!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!




About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Susan Cain on how to overcome the fear of putting yourself out there

  1. Talk about coincidences! Moments after posting this I spot another essay in the Brainpickings blog. This is from an interview with the painter Agnes Martin:

    “If you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take. … When you’re with other people, your mind isn’t your own.


    We all have the same inner life. The difference lies in the recognition. The artist has to recognize what it is.


    The artist lives by perception. So that what we make is what we feel. The making of something is not just construction. It’s all about feeling… everything, everything is about feeling…. feeling and recognition!”

  2. Brenda Neall says:

    I am by nature ‘shy’ and perfectly happy to be ‘by myself’ … this was a great share … Thanks!

    In a previous ‘life’ I had a 30 year corporate career, where in the later years, I had to put myself out there (it was a large corporation with many job opportunities and I took full advantage of that). Over the years, my roles came with increased responsibilities such as leadership, public speaking and mentoring. Often it was very difficult to overcome my natural sense of shyness but what helped was I came to realize that I enjoyed the people engagement aspects of my roles and I was good at it …. and I knew that from the feedback and validation that came from the people I worked with.

    Now I am 8 years into an early retirement from that career and 8 years into a focused venture into the world of ceramics (I’d been hobbyist in the world of clay for many years previously). Now again, I am beginning to put myself ‘out there’ but often struggle with self doubt as to why?…. why blog, why set up and maintain a web presence and why don’t I just hide in my studio and make pots.

    I think the sharing of my work brings validation … validation that I am continuing to grow in my abilities, validation that my work resonates with others …. but again, as in my previous career, self doubt abounds but I keep telling myself to push ahead … I did this once before in a previous ‘life’ and I can do it again. If I work hard at my craft I will continue to grow. I know with growth comes a sense of accomplishment. I think it’s a sense all humans strive for.

    • Well said Brenda! And thank you for sharing your story. 🙂

      The idea of validation is important, I agree, but I wonder how many artists end up putting the cart before the horse and start making things for the purpose of validation rather than validation coming as a natural consequence. Its the whole intrinsic/extrinsic motivation scenario all over again, and it seems only healthy that we keep an eye on it. The rewards of validation can be like crack if we are not careful. We can become addicts. Validation may make us feel good, at least temporarily, but it is not always a nutritious high. Once we start to depend on it the downswings of withdrawal can be devastating (as most artists who suffer a bad sale can tell you….).

      I just wonder if introverts are especially vulnerable to this because widespread social validation is so foreign to our way of working? We are not used to getting high from external sources like these. Does the self-manufactured high from doing what you enjoy insulate us from this craving or make us more sensitive to it? Its a question I’d like to ask some folks with more background in psychology. It seems obvious that the experience of validation would be different for folks on either side of that introvert extrovert divide (with perhaps the majority of us coming somewhere in the middle). How does validation speak to us? And is that conditioned by our relationship to the external structures of authority and/or our own self-sufficiency? Are we more or less likely to be swayed by external validation if our way of looking at the world is significantly inward directed? If we are more experienced at providing our own validation?

      That’s just me thinking out loud, but these are the types of question I am intrigued by.. Lots to ponder…..

      Thanks again for chiming in!

      • Grace DePledge says:

        Validation is one motivator for putting ourselves out there, but I doubt that it’s the only one–at least is isn’t in my case. I feel fairly convinced about my work and its direction, and don’t feel a big “need” for external validation, although that kind of icing is always nice. Because I am more extroverted than introverted, yet work alone, I find a stronger motivation in seeking and connecting with community (or in Seth Godin’s term: tribe). Those connections and conversation are not “merely” validating: It is truly encouraging to feel part of something larger than myself.

        In our case, the culture of clay is wide and deep, and although we makers take delight in charting our own creative paths, I enjoy and am bolstered by reaching out to literally or figuratively shake a hand or pat a shoulder, and share whatever joys or jolts I’m finding in the journey. If we make pots to send out into the world, it’s only natural that we bring a little of that bigger world into our own as we’re creating them.

        Thanks for the stimulating thoughts!

        • Agreed! The clay community is so much more than validation for artists. I value the friends I have met here for so many things, and I can’t really say that validation is any part of my conscious motivation for putting myself in this context.

          But maybe that is easier said from the inside of these relationships? As part of a tribe you have already been validated, perhaps without your knowing it. Belonging is such a powerful force in our lives, but we take it for granted so often. We don’t always recognize how special these connections are until we sometimes lose them…… Think family, friendships, co-workers, group affiliations, team support, etc. Often our self identification hinges on these things without our giving it a second thought.

          Standing on the outside of a community it is a different question, perhaps. When you feel yourself without a tribe in a context that matters to you the absence of validation can be like a slap in the face every time you are reminded of it. Or, you somehow learn to live on the outside of these tribes, turning inward more than outward for validation. You can learn to live without a tribe, but its not always easy. We are social animals down deep, even introverts. Only the anti-social hermits and holy men living on mountain tops are the exceptions, perhaps…..

          I have no idea where I’m going with this, but it seems these ideas are all related to what we are talking about.

          How about the classic story of the outsider kid who gets adopted by the cool crowd in high school and who changes them self radically to fit in? Not always a good scenario as it plays out. I just worry that as artists we are tempted by the same sort of tribal validation. We start doing back flips and decorative gymnastics because we think we have an audience to please.

          Which isn’t to say that looking outside ourselves and communicating with a tribe is always that dangerous, but the temptations are there and should be recognized for what they are. Tribes can be both a good influence as well as a bad. Anyone ever pick up and smoke a cigarette because of peer pressure? Ever do something stupid just to fit in? “I dare you to jump off that bridge”. All I am saying is that we need to be careful and have our eyes wide open. Don’t do the ‘drugs’ just because your tribe is telling you its the cool thing to do.

          Autonomy and self determination are important for everyone, perhaps especially for people whose creative lives are at stake…… Sometimes the line between what we do for the sake of our community and what we do for our own sake gets blurred. All I’m saying is “Pay attention”.

          Just thinking out loud again…..

          Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    “The point is to get used to the feeling of having a center, and operating from it.”
    Good advice. Wonder if she’s ever made pots?

    “3. Coffee will deliver you from self-doubt.”
    Ha! For me coffee is the problem, not a solution! When I get myself into trouble, overstating a point or over-reaching with an ambition — like I do so often here — it’s almost always due to caffeine-fueled, AM extroversion. Retaining a little of that self-doubt is probably better than drinking it all away!

    • “Retaining a little of that self-doubt is probably better than drinking it all away!” Love it! But maybe its also an accordion motion of putting things out and contracting back. Maybe its important to serially overreach blindly and then withdraw into analytical introspection. Taking leaps into the dark can only be made with an overconfidence that is often unjustified. You can’t always know in advance that you are making the right move. Suspend judgment by stiffing your doubts. Doubt will always put the breaks on, so it is probably important for folks used to playing it safe to risk making mistakes rather than simply going for the safe bet. If coffee helps that I’m all for it. Maybe not even only in moderation (as long as you have take backs and do overs)……

  4. sabpalmares says:

    thank you for sharing this! i am fearful of taking the spotlight and not living up to what will be expected of me. Last year i took a cliff jump (and i have a serious issues with heights, i cry doing para sailing)but i just do it anyway. Iy reminds me of #8 Be afraid, but do it anyway 🙂 I think there will always be a fear, i think its one of the factor that makes making art and putting it out there a lovely thrilling experience.

    • It sounds like you are very brave 🙂

      And yes, I love the fact that art is such an exploration of the unknown. Its so much a part of being alive to challenge ourselves and to see what happens doing things this way rather than that. If life is sometimes a mystery there can be so much joy in discovering what comes next and being surprised by the serendipity.

      Good luck!

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