Itâs hard to believe that Shonda Rhimes was once afraid of small talk.Â As theÂ creator and producer ofÂ Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes has spearheadedÂ some of TVâs biggest and buzziest prime-time shows.Â And the female characters sheâs introduced us toâfrom Grey's Cristina Yang to Scandal's Olivia Popeâare certainly no shrinking violets.
Yet in her new memoirÂ The Year of YesÂ ($25; amazon.com),Â Shonda describes her struggle with crippling socialÂ anxiety, writing that public appearances wouldÂ turn her into âa walkingÂ panic attack.â (Her publicistâs job? To get her out of them.)Â When she did find herself compelled to speakÂ at press events, she'd experienceÂ a full-on meltdown: âEvery single time, before I got to the stage, there was mumbling, there was sweating, there was shaking,â Shonda writes. âThere 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.â
It wasnât just stage fright. Any event could make her freeze up. At HollywoodÂ fÃªtes, she felt like an outsider with her nose pressed up against the glass. Meeting new people made her uncomfortableÂ andÂ awkward. Even childrenâs birthday parties were challenging. She writes of feelingÂ "mom guilt" when she skipped them because she couldnât handle the social interactions.
But all of that changed on Thanksgiving two years ago.Â Rhimes' older sister made an offhand remarkÂ thatÂ âYou never say 'yes' to anything.â What she really meant: Rhimes never ventured beyond her comfort zone.Â ThatÂ 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 wayâespecially the ones that scared her.Â Year of YesÂ 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, RhimesÂ came to terms with just how unhappy sheâd become. âI am miserable. Admitting this takes my breath away,â she writes. âI feel as though I am revealing new information to myself. Learning a secret Iâve been keeping from myself.â
Rhimes had surrendered to herÂ anxiety. She was working long hours, and when she wasnât 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 itâshe said no to everything else.Â âThe 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,â she writes. âSaying no was my own slow form ofÂ suicide. Which is crazy. Because I do not want to die.â
When youâre always hiding, you risk losing yourself
It doesnât happen all at once, she explains. But if youâre not careful, you can lose yourself Â âone 'no' at a time.â No to a meeting. No to catching up with friends. No to taking a vacation.
For Rhimes, losing herself also happened âone pound at a time.â She ate when she wasÂ 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: âSlowly I am coming to realize that is part of it. The shyness. TheÂ introversion. The layers of fat,â 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 âseenâ wasnât so bad after all.
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. Thatâs what Rhimes discovered after she completed her first yes: filming an hour-long special forÂ Jimmy Kimmel LiveÂ calledÂ Behind the Scandalabra.Â
She was so freaked out, she became a âblock of solid woodâ on camera. As Rhimes tells it, all she did was hold an enormous glass of wine and laugh at Kimmel'sÂ jokes. But what mattered was that it happened.Â âI said yes to something that terrified me. And then I did it. AND I DIDNâT DIE,â she writes.
Later in the book, Rhimes describes what it actually feels like to overcome a fear: âI race into the wilderness and itâs all darkness and thorny bushes and rocky uphill paths and I am spitting out swear words left and right and then suddenlyâI break through in to the clearing and find Iâm standing on the mountaintop. Air in my lungs. Sunlight on my face. Itâs not insanity. Itâs just tough.â
BeingÂ 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 becameÂ â[n]onsensical. Irrational. I stop speaking out loud. I make noises instead.â But when it comes time to address the class of 2014, she deliveredÂ a dose of well-earned wisdom:
âStand 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 youâll ever need to know.) You take it in. You breathe this rare air.Â You feel alive.Â You are yourself. You are truly finally always yourself.â
Speaking up is more efficient than being silent
Even though saying yes all the time made her busier, RhimesÂ 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 withÂ frustration. âI realized Iâd been wasting a huge amount of time and energy on complaining and feeling sorry for myself, being dark and twisty me,â she writes. âNow I wasnât interested in being that person. Not when it was so much easier to just open my mouth and talk.â
The goal is swagger
According to Rhimes, swagger means loving oneself, and ânot giving a crap what anyone else thinks about you.â Itâs a great goal. Because the reality isâas Rhimes puts itâeveryoneâs got some greatness in them: âYou 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.â And you never, ever have to apologize for it.Â