It’s hard to believe that Shonda Rhimes was once afraid of small talk. As the creator and producer of Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes has spearheaded some of TV’s biggest and buzziest prime-time shows. And the female characters she’s introduced us to—from Grey's Cristina Yang to Scandal's Olivia Pope—are certainly no shrinking violets.

Yet in her new memoir The Year of Yes ($25; amazon.com), Shonda describes her struggle with crippling social anxiety, writing that public appearances would turn her into “a walking panic attack.” (Her publicist’s job? To get her out of them.) When she did find herself compelled to speak at press events, she'd experience a full-on meltdown: “Every single time, before I got to the stage, there was mumbling, there was sweating, there was shaking,” Shonda writes. “There was the make-up artist charged with reapplying the mascara that washed off my face after the silent thirty-second crying jag required to quell my rising hysteria.”

It wasn’t just stage fright. Any event could make her freeze up. At Hollywood fêtes, she felt like an outsider with her nose pressed up against the glass. Meeting new people made her uncomfortable and awkward. Even children’s birthday parties were challenging. She writes of feeling "mom guilt" when she skipped them because she couldn’t handle the social interactions.

But all of that changed on Thanksgiving two years ago. Rhimes' older sister made an offhand remark that “You never say 'yes' to anything.” What she really meant: Rhimes never ventured beyond her comfort zone. That casual (and dead-on) observation inspired a year-long experiment in which Rhimes vowed to say yes to every invitation and opportunity that came her way—especially the ones that scared her. Year of Yes chronicles that truly transformative experience as Rhimes faces (and ultimately conquers) her self-doubt. Here, six important lessons about social anxiety I learned from her memoir.

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Living in fear is no way to live

Shortly after that Thanksgiving morning, Rhimes came to terms with just how unhappy she’d become. “I am miserable. Admitting this takes my breath away,” she writes. “I feel as though I am revealing new information to myself. Learning a secret I’ve been keeping from myself.”

Rhimes had surrendered to her anxiety. She was working long hours, and when she wasn’t immersed in the fictional worlds of Seattle Grace or Pope & Associates, she was with her daughters or her boyfriend. Or she was sleeping. That was it—she said no to everything else. “The years and years of saying no were, for me, a quiet way to let go. A silent means of giving up. An easy withdrawal from the world, from light, from life,” she writes. “Saying no was my own slow form of suicide. Which is crazy. Because I do not want to die.”

When you’re always hiding, you risk losing yourself

It doesn’t happen all at once, she explains. But if you’re not careful, you can lose yourself  “one 'no' at a time.” No to a meeting. No to catching up with friends. No to taking a vacation.

For Rhimes, losing herself also happened “one pound at a time.” She ate when she was stressed, and her size kept going up and up and up. Yet she was ambivalent about the weight gain, she says. Her body was just another place to hide: “Slowly I am coming to realize that is part of it. The shyness. The introversion. The layers of fat,” she writes.

But once Rhimes finally said yes to taking care of herself, those layers melted away. Between March of 2014 and the summer of 2015, she dropped 127 pounds (by exercising and eating right). And then, she says, being “seen” wasn’t so bad after all.

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Facing your fears really does make you stronger

Signing up for things that terrify you may seem nuts. But the challenge, the rush, and the sense of accomplishment makes the scary stuff worth doing. That’s what Rhimes discovered after she completed her first yes: filming an hour-long special for Jimmy Kimmel Live called Behind the Scandalabra.Â

She was so freaked out, she became a “block of solid wood” on camera. As Rhimes tells it, all she did was hold an enormous glass of wine and laugh at Kimmel's jokes. But what mattered was that it happened. “I said yes to something that terrified me. And then I did it. AND I DIDN’T DIE,” she writes.

Later in the book, Rhimes describes what it actually feels like to overcome a fear: “I race into the wilderness and it’s all darkness and thorny bushes and rocky uphill paths and I am spitting out swear words left and right and then suddenly—I break through in to the clearing and find I’m standing on the mountaintop. Air in my lungs. Sunlight on my face. It’s not insanity. It’s just tough.”

Being heard feels goodÂ

About halfway through her Year of Yes, Rhimes gave the commencement speech at Dartmouth College, her alma mater. Leading up to ceremony, she became “[n]onsensical. Irrational. I stop speaking out loud. I make noises instead.” But when it comes time to address the class of 2014, she delivered a dose of well-earned wisdom:

“Stand up in front of people. Let them see you. Speak. Be heard. Go ahead and have the dry mouth. Let your heart beat so, so fast. Watch everything move in slow motion. So what. You what? You pass out, you die, you poop? No. (And this is really the only lesson you’ll ever need to know.) You take it in. You breathe this rare air. You feel alive. You are yourself. You are truly finally always yourself.”

Speaking up is more efficient than being silent

Even though saying yes all the time made her busier, Rhimes felt like she had more free time than ever before. The reason? She was no longer spending so much time in her head, feeling stifled and wrestling with frustration. “I realized I’d been wasting a huge amount of time and energy on complaining and feeling sorry for myself, being dark and twisty me,” she writes. “Now I wasn’t interested in being that person. Not when it was so much easier to just open my mouth and talk.”

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The goal is swagger

According to Rhimes, swagger means loving oneself, and “not giving a crap what anyone else thinks about you.” It’s a great goal. Because the reality is—as Rhimes puts it—everyone’s got some greatness in them: “You do. That girl over there does. That guy to the left has some. But in order to really mine it, you have to own it. You have to grab hold of it. You have to believe it.” And you never, ever have to apologize for it.Â