My Journey from Shy Girl to Confident Self-employed Introvert

People tell me they wish they knew more about how I ended up where I am today, as a full-time coach, making it work, doing things my own way that aligns with my introverted nature and my strengths and values.

I think I should share more of that journey with you. I don’t want career discovery or self-employment for introverts to be such a mystery.

We need visible role models for making a living doing what you love and doing what serves a true need in the world. That’s what I call a SOULpreneur journey. It’s possible. I’m doing it and so are others.

Val Nelson - coach for introverts

Let me start with a snippet from the early days of my coaching business, and then I’ll give you the longer story.

Recently I found this happy note in my journal from 2009 when I was starting to offer coaching: “I now have 2 coaching clients. I feel like I’m fulfilling the dream of being paid to be me!”

I can still feel the inner happy dance of that moment in 2009, and I still get how huge that was, to step into that feeling after so many years of waiting.

I’m glad I actually stopped and noticed that milestone. It can be easy to miss those accomplishments in the early days when so much lack is staring us in the face, maybe in the form of a very low bank account. It’s not easy, but the journey to our true path is so worth it, even if bumpy.

OK, now I will share a longer version of my story — from shy girl, through career exploration, growing confidence and honoring my introverted self, and then becoming a self-employed coach specializing in helping other introverts live their true callings.

An earlier version of this story below was originally published in 2015 as the opening of my work advice column for introverts on Susan Cain’s website, Quiet Revolution. They wanted readers to understand where I came from, and what my own introvert story and career journey looked like.

Dear readers,

Welcome! I’m a self-employed career and business coach who helps introverts clarify and thrive in their true livelihood so they can have the meaning and balance they crave. I love my work, and I look forward to hearing your questions about your career or business journey.

Let’s start off this relationship with me confiding in you.

My “shy girl” past

I felt painfully shy through most of my school years. Not every day, but it felt like part of my identity in a way I didn’t understand at the time.

treehouseI loved to escape by reading and climbing trees. Up in a tree, I could relax and watch people, but they couldn’t see me.

When I was little, people could barely hear me speak—if I could get any words out at all. The more people demanded I speak up, the worse I felt about myself, and the more I wanted to hide and stay silent.

I grew up in a loud and extroverted family, and I didn’t understand why I felt so out of sync. I craved quiet. I almost craved invisibility as well.

One time, I crawled into a refrigerator box on the patio and happily read there for hours. I was delighted that no one could find me!

And yet, I also hated invisibility. I wanted to be noticed, to be heard! I had questions to ask. I had plenty of ideas and opinions. I just often had trouble saying them out loud.

I was also highly sensitive—easily rattled by noise, light, speed, heights, and, well, people. (It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered what “high sensitivity” was and how to work with it instead of against it.) Turns out, it often correlates with introversion, but not always.

As a result of my high sensitivity and external stressors without understanding it, I suffered from a lot of anxiety. I didn’t know this then; to me, swirling thoughts, stomachaches, and fear of speaking (at all) was my normal state of being.

Throughout school, I was obsessed with getting good grades, probably as a way to not rock the boat and remain invisible. But when my 11th grade English teacher assigned an oral report, I panicked!

I approached the teacher after class to see if she would just give me an F so I wouldn’t have to do it. An F for me was a horrifying(!) thought, but speaking in front of the class was worse.

She refused, and I lived with a stomachache and panicky thoughts for two weeks. At last, I eked out a passable report. I think the pounding of my heart must have been louder than my trembling quiet voice. It felt like a miracle that I survived the experience.

(My heart goes out to kids in the same situation today. Luckily, teachers are getting more information about how to help.)

How things starting getting better

I can see the low confidence showing in this photo from age 24.

Speaking got easier in college. I didn’t “grow out of shyness” as people often assume will happen; rather, I finally tuned into my passions. The more interested I was, the less I noticed my fear.

I was pretty social in college and even took on some leadership roles and enjoyed it. A sense of a purpose made a huge difference.

Still, I dreaded giving oral reports, and I was one of the quieter students in class. I was driven by passions, but I still wasn’t confident. Nor did I understand introversion or high sensitivity… yet.

My winding career journey

After college, I wanted to save the world, and I thought teaching was the perfect outlet. Despite my fears, I took a job as a health educator.

With the help of on-the-job training and a pre-set curriculum, my speaking anxiety gradually went away! My confidence was growing. Looking back, I now understand that passion (along with support) can overpower fear. That lesson has shaped my work.

Even though I had more ease and confidence with public speaking, I still found it exhausting. After far too many days ended with my head on my desk and me in tears, I quit my job without another one lined up. (I don’t recommend blind leaps like that.) I quickly went through my small savings and had to get help.

I went to a career coach, who helped me understand why my last job wasn’t a good fit. What a relief it was to learn I wasn’t a freak!

There was nothing wrong with me, nothing to fix—I was simply an introvert and needed to focus on my strengths and choose what works well for introverts.

After that turning point, I tried various roles over the years, including human resources management and helping with websites.

I chose work that allowed more alone time to think, and I still found ways to have a say in groups. I found my own authentic leadership style, and my confidence grew.

Still, I had a sense that work could be more fulfilling. With more soul searching and professional career guidance, I discovered that I was happiest when using my coaching skills, and I decided that coaching was the best fit for me.

My long-term dream of self-employment started to come into focus as I imagined being a coach. I was ready to spread my wings even wider.

I wondered if introverts could be good at self-employment.

At first, I was nervous about whether I could handle things like promoting and growing a business, which are typically associated with extroversion. I simply couldn’t bring myself to promote my business in the standard extroverted way. In a way, I wasn’t “doing it right.”

To my surprise, the more I did things my own way, that was aligned with me, the better things went! People were drawn to my events and services, probably because of my authenticity and non-salesy approach. My business grew.

Turns out introverts can be great at the so-called extrovert territories of leadership, self-employment, and self-promotion—if we do it our own way.

I discovered I could just show up at a networking event, without perfect words, and simply engage in meaningful conversations. No sales pitch in hand. I was just myself. No extrovert mask. No race to collect stacks of business cards. (Freedom!)

The more I took steps that aligned with my heart and my nature, the more excited and fulfilled I felt. My work energized me. People commented that I was glowing. And that glow helped attract more clients. Being true to myself paid off. It felt like a gift from heaven.

Val Nelson- coach for introverts

Who I am today

People who know me today are surprised to hear that I used to be extremely shy. In fact, sometimes they don’t understand that I’m still introverted, but I am. I’m confident, and I enjoy socializing, but it has to be on my terms.

I still value my alone time, when I can slow down, breathe, and listen to what my heart tells me.

As a coach, I’m not about doling out directions such as “you should do X because I said so.” I want to help you find and do what is true for you. I can detect where things are getting off track and help nudge you back into your true path.

My big life lesson is now my life purpose.

Above all, I want you to understand that you can earn a living and be true to yourself. I’m challenging that outdated cultural norm that says we have to become extroverted to succeed.


[An earlier version of this story was originally published on Quiet Revolution. Reprinted here with permission.]

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