Sian Prior has maintained a career in the public eye, as a broadcaster and performer, for more than 20 years. For far longer than that, she has suffered from excruciating shyness. Where did it come from? Why does it create such distressing turmoil beneath her assured professional front? Here’s an extract from her powerful and honest memoir, Shy.
It began at a birthday party. It began with me standing outside of me, watching as I stood silently on the fringe of a group of strangers. A familiar sensation was seeping through my body. It was as if someone had spiked my drink so that instead of sparkling mineral water I was now sipping a kind of effervescent cement. My limbs were growing rigid and my smile was the tight rictus you see on the faces of young ballet dancers.
The birthday girl was busy talking to other people and I couldn’t see anyone else I recognised. My partner Tom was there, somewhere, in that art gallery full of strangers. Tom’s football team had triumphed and he had celebrated with a couple of whiskies between leaving the ground and meeting me at the party. Now I couldn’t find him in the crowd.
Sweat was trickling down the insides of my arms under a green jumper that felt too tight and no doubt looked too bright. My stomach was churning and my fingers gripped the glass so tightly they were beginning to ache. And now I was watching myself sidling towards the door.
The car needs to be moved. A one hour park won’t be enough. There must be a better one somewhere close by. Or far away. At home, perhaps.
My movements had become as fluid as a cat after a bird. Putting down my glass of fizzy concrete, I moved three steps closer to the door, passing a wall mirror on the way. A calm, confident blonde woman in a perfectly fitting green jumper glanced back at me as I passed by.
A few seconds later I was outside and free and moving so fast it must have looked suspicious but I could see the car and I was pressing the blue button on the key ring and the headlights were flashing and my fingers had hold of the door handle and I was inside the car and alone and safe.
After a few deep breaths I started the engine and drove around the block, trying to decide what to do. An empty parking spot with no time limit soon appeared, so there went my one excuse for not returning to the party. Still, I couldn’t go back.
I pulled over, found the phone and sent Tom a text, apologising for my disappearance and telling him I’d see him at home. I couldn’t remember when I had last felt this lonely.
I turned off the phone and restarted the car and drove slowly home. If it hadn’t been so pathetic I would have laughed out loud. What was a polite middle-aged woman doing leaving a party without even saying goodbye to her partner, let alone the host?
Regressing, that’s what. Behaving like she used to before she became Professional Sian. Like she did in the bad old days, when she was Shy Sian.
Shy. It’s such a shy word; a timid little word that begs to remain unnoticed. Only three letters long and it begins with an exhortation to silence: ‘shhh’.
Reserved is something different. Tall men with jutting jaws. Prime Ministers can be reserved, but never shy. And quiet implies choice; you could be loud but you prefer not to, instead perhaps watching purposefully, critically from the sidelines. Strong, silent types are quiet. People like Tom.
Restrained carries itself with dignity; with an implication of control. Even introvert has a whiff of clinical authority about it. Myers and Briggs have awarded these people an impressive three-syllable label. And most introverts probably don’t mind the label. They have proven themselves useful in the workplace; they make a positive contribution to group dynamics; they don’t usually embarrass themselves in public.
But with the word shy there’s no authority, no control. It’s a blushing, hunching word; a nervous, knock-kneed, wallflower word. A word for children, not grown-ups, because surely grown-ups grow out of shyness. Don’t they?
If I hadn’t been so shy, I could have conducted a little research project at that birthday party. Pretended for a moment that I was a psychologist like my mother. Asked everyone else how they were feeling, probably found out that I was not the only guest with a burning desire to melt through the floorboards.
If I had been pretending to be a psychologist in order to conduct my research project with the partygoers, I probably wouldn’t have used the word shyness. Apparently the correct term for this thing is social anxiety, a term that has been leached of the redeeming sweetness of ye olde worlde shyness. Jane Austen’s heroines could be shy but still lovable: young ladies of fine character, excellent marriage material.
A socially anxious person, on the other hand, is best avoided. Anxiety can be contagious, leaping from person to person like static electricity. I know because I’ve observed myself passing it along on countless occasions.
Social anxiety may lack the poetry of shyness but, once you put the symptoms together, it’s hard to argue with the diagnosis. If you’re feeling shy you’re worried about something. If you’re a persistent worrier, you’re anxious. If you’re anxious, your mind enters into a pact with your body, sending it forth into the world with an armoury of self-protective physical responses. Danger! The adrenaline, the sweating, the rapid breathing, all preparing your body to run. Ensuring your hands will shake but your legs will move faster when you need to take off.
Except that you’re never sure why you needed to take off so fast in the first place.
Back home after the birthday party I gave myself, as always, a very hard time. Reformed alcoholics berate themselves every time they fall off the wagon; I’d spent a lifetime mentally beating myself up every time I gave in to my anxiety. What on earth was there to be afraid of? Why was I still dealing with this irrational response to company of strangers? How would I explain my sudden disappearance to the birthday girl, and to Tom?
I tried to remember previous battles with better outcomes; parties that had started as Hieronymus Bosch triptychs and metamorphosed into Bruegel weddings, where I’d ended up swapping email addresses with half the guests. Alcohol had often helped, I remembered. But this time I was on the wagon in preparation for a singing recital - hence the mineral water. Did that put me in the clichéd category of grog-dependent social animals?
Waiting alone in bed for Tom to return, my self-flagellation changed shape. I was in my 40s now. Too old to be sideswiped by these ridiculous fears. Too stubborn to let myself avoid situations that might provoke them. There had to be a way, at the very least, to control this thing.
And to control something, surely you must first understand it. As a journalist, I had made a living out of asking questions. Lying there in the dark under the blue bedspread, I began listing them in my mind.
What exactly was shyness and how did other shy people feel?
Was shyness really the same as introversion?
If so, how could I account for my complicated professional life, which had mostly involved being a show-off in front of a multitude of strangers? Showing off as a radio presenter, showing off in newspaper articles, showing off as a musician, showing off as a writing teacher, showing off so often that most people would never believe me if I told them I was shy.
Where had it come from, this fear?
Was shyness born or bred, or both?
Were there any advantages to being shy?
Did shyness ever magically disappear?
Why was I still fighting this battle after all these years?
And why did that matter so much to me?
One of my extroverted friends used to roll her eyes and say ‘Shyness is SUCH a waste of time’ and she was right.
All the blushing, trembling and hyperventilating – or working hard not to blush, tremble and hyperventilate – chewed up an insane amount of emotional energy. I wondered whether there could possibly be any evolutionary benefit from such an affliction.
Affliction; what a word – almost biblical. The work of evil spirits acting on behalf of the Devil. We the afflicted must battle the malicious authors of these mysterious maladies in order to attain a state of grace.
In my family we held no truck with the Bible and its invisible agents of evil. In my family, mysteries were simply things about which you hadn’t yet asked enough questions. And yet that state of grace, or at the very least equanimity in the presence of human company, that was something I had battled for. And the cause of my distress had remained a mystery.
This is an extract from Shy by Sian Prior, published by Text, RRP $32.99, You can purchase the book here.
Sian Prior is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in the arts and popular culture, a media consultant, and a teacher at universities and writers centres. She has a second career as a musician and recording artist. Sian lives in Melbourne. Shy: A Memoir is her first book.
For similar content, why not try ...