friendship

The curse of shyness: What I wish people knew about the most misunderstood personality trait.

She couldn’t do it.

I watched as this woman, whose name I’ll never know, placed her arms above her head, her right hand over her left, and tried to dive into the ocean.

My partner and I were snorkelling, and as I tread water I watched the young woman put a toe in, and then swiftly take it out.

She had hired an instructor to teach her to snorkel. She had the mask on – slowly fogging with the air of panic, and he waited for her to take the leap.

But she couldn’t.

Every part of her wanted to. You could tell by the look in her eyes, the tension in her jaw – you could almost hear her brain begging her body to just dive.

We’re not that simple, though.

If human beings were capable of making a decision and then executing it the world would be a very different place. Often, we make a decision, promise ourselves we’ll drink more water or be on time or eat more fruit and veg, and then, for whatever reason, we don’t.

‘Tomorrow will be different’, we often assure ourselves in bed, before we drift off to sleep. It isn’t, though.

I’ve never been afraid of the water, but a few hours later I found myself in exactly the same position as the woman who never did dive in.

As we were having drinks, I glanced over to the table next to us. There was a couple, who I’d noticed were outrageously friendly to everyone, sitting with about six other people.

They’d all met on the holiday. They’d probably started chatting to the other guests by the pool, and then someone suggested they meet for a drink, and eventually they’d spend every night of the trip together.

They laughed and told stories and connected seamlessly – like it was the easiest thing in the world.

A part of me longed to be able to do that, like the woman putting her toe in the water. But I couldn’t. I’ve never been able to do that. Because I suffer from an affliction called shyness.

I’ve been like that for as long as I can remember.

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I grew up clutching the hem of my mum’s dress, hiding behind her left leg. I always had my index finger in my mouth, and if I wasn’t squeezing on to my mother’s hand, it was my twin sisters. Sometimes I’d become shy around my grandparents for no reason.

I’d make friends eventually. It would just take me a little longer than anyone else. I’ll never forget my Nana’s advice on my first day of Kindergarten: “Wait for people to come to you…” She knew, even then, that I didn’t have a choice.

Saying “hello” to someone I’d never met – even, sometimes, people I have met – felt then and feels now like I’m standing on the edge of the highest diving board muttering to myself, “Just do it, come on, please, just do it.”

But my body betrays me.

Like Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, I’m an insect trapped, flying madly around in circles, wishing the glass enclosure would be lifted and there would suddenly be nothing between me and the outside.

The problem, I suppose, is the nature of glass itself.

It’s transparent. To the naked eye, it looks like nothing is there at all.

So as you sit inside, looking out at a social world you feel so detached from, people assume there is choice involved.

You’re standoffish. Rude. Detached. Aloof. Unfriendly. Cold. Unapproachable. Stony. Unwelcoming.

I am all of those things and I am none of those things.

Mostly, I’m just terrified.

While I assumed it would get easier as I got older, I’ve found the opposite to be true. And while shyness is endearing at five, it’s rather unacceptable at 28.

“I take a while to warm up,” I say to some people, apologising for the paralysis they first encountered.

It is something I’m forever apologising for.

To my mind at least, shyness is not a pathology. It’s a disposition. And one that is fundamentally incompatible with the world in which I live. In a hustle culture where you are your brand, and the pressure is on to network and connect, you can feel like you’re always failing. While you might appear lively and assured on social media (like everyone does) in the comfort of your own bedroom, there’s a sense of letting people down when they realise you’re just the opposite.

I think I expected that one day I’d grow out of the shyness, but maybe I never will.

I’ll always be standing by the edge, my snorkel fogging up, wishing I had the guts to dive in.

I just wish people around me knew how desperately I want to.

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