Monday 22 October 2007

A Word to the Shy

I have always been shy. I remember at primary school the teacher used to occasionally ask a few children to come to the top of the class to read out their homework. I hated it. For a few seconds the teacher's gaze floated round the class like a searchlight. I would do everything childishly possible to go invisible for what seemed an eternity. Mostly I gasped in relief as another name was called, but occasionally my own name rang into the head like a siren. My heart accelerated as I walked, warm-collared to the top of the class, all eyes piercing my back. Then from the ankles up, as I turned to the class, I filled with heavy dread as a million faces appeared in front.

Secondary school was worse. I felt like an outcast because I was the only person from my primary school who went to the Christian Brothers school. Timidity is to making friends what amputation is to long distance running. I found it hard to break into established groups. As Autumn turned to Winter I used to grasp the radiator by the window and watch forlornly as the other boys enjoyed a game of soccer cum horseplay in the yard. One boy told me later that he had thought I was a haemophiliac and that this must have been why I stayed inside at breaktime. Eventually, however, I got used to this particular group of boys and I slowly turned silences into short conversations which grew into acquaintances. It was as if, over a period of about 6 months, I gradually faded in from a previously invisible state. Of course, this didn't mean I had become confident. It meant, however, that I felt alive, acknowledged, present, accepted. As the years went by my confidence grew, but only at school. Academically I was one of the brighter students in the class, and I think this helped blow off the cloud of inferiority which had enveloped me in the beginning.

While I mastered my self-doubt at school, however, I remained shy inside, and infuriatingly timid in any new environment. It would often feel like being more or less back in the first few days at school. This is exactly what happened at college. The same pattern applied. Shy and withdrawn at first, then slowly moving out of that horrid introverted shell.

When I would start a new job, again I'd spend the first 6 months as a shadow. Moving about in obscurity, forever listening but saying little.

Those who are assertive and confident probably don't understand the burden that shyness places on those who toil under its cruel yoke. The shy person makes the best point of the meeting a dozen times - but only in her head. All the while the cocky waffler is clocking up credit for merely opening his mouth. Eventually someone who is modestly clever clinches the bonus points by saying what the shy person knew but couldn't bring herself to air. The shy person leaves the meeting feeling defeated and robbed of the acknowledgment she deserved. And all this is often accompanied by a tinge of self-loathing for letting another opportunity, the millionth, pass.

A shy person accepts the shortest straw, settles for the smallest room, gives gratitude where none is due, responds to arrogance with submissive silence, gets paid less than the crank, misses the sweetest opportunities, fails to pluck romance when it dangles ripe before him, and always, always regrets his inability to change.

Where does shyness come from? The experts reckon it is partly environment and partly hereditary. This sounds like the long winded way of saying, we don't know. But I personally back the genetic theory. My father is deeply diffident. His unassertiveness has become a legend in our family. Probably his biggest fear is the prospect of being refused something he asks for. His defence is to never ask. If his daily bread depended on him having to ask for it, as opposed to work for it, we would have starved! I hasten to add, that in all other respects he is a wonderful man and an excellent father. But did he inherit this complex from his father too? Undoubtedly. My grandfather was known locally as being 'very civil'. Which meant he was submissive and incapable of protest or public anger. And I think that inability to make one's anger public, especially when justified, is another form of shyness.

But stop, you brash assertives! You are asking why on earth can we not just "get over it"? Well, if it were that easy, there wouldn't be many shy people left. How many of us are there anyway? What percentage are we, 10, 20, 30? One study suggested above 40%. How different would the world be if we were suddenly to change. If we, the shy, were to hurl our demands firmly and confidently on the world, perhaps life would be a much more contested space. Or, perhaps our addition to the collective quest for better and for more would help push out the boundaries of human endeavour. Who knows.

One thing is certain, though. Society offers us little help. Perhaps we are too timid to ask! But maybe it's just that shyness is not recognised by society as the real problem it surely is. I am tempted to think that a huge chunk of the population live, to varying degrees, diminished lives because they cannot overcome their timidity. If that is the case, our failure to help the shy is both a tragedy and a terrible waste.

Over the years, however, I personally managed to drag myself in from the shadows. In part a reserve of confidence began to build up naturally within me. And in part I made a deliberate effort to kick off the shackles of timidity. For example, speaking in front of a crowd remained for a long time the most fearful thing I could imagine short of being trapped underwater. Eventually, however, I summoned the confidence to take public speaking classes. It turned out to be a crucial turning point in the evolution of my self belief.

I am now quietly confident in most situations, though at times, in a moment of weakness, little pockets of doubt creep in around my feet. Perhaps timidity, like an addiction, is so central to our being that it cannot be cured, merely managed and overcome. But that's ok. For even if the destination of unshakable self belief is unattainable for the shy, the journey towards it is worthwhile. If you are shy, it's a journey that just must be made and it will take you through fertile valleys and over rugged peaks to horizons you could only imagine but never visit.


Donagh said...

Very well said. This morning, as it happens I was talking to my daughter’s primary school teacher about her being shy in front of adults. She is reserved initially with some school mates, but in general she’s perfectly happy to mill in. But with adults she just screws up her face and turns away when they try to talk to her. She was at a birthday party on Saturday, and when I picked her up the mother of the child who’s birthday it was mentioned how my daughter clammed up when she tried to speak to her. She made a big point about it, saying that if she continues to be shy she’ll miss out on so much. Now in fairness she was saying that her eldest child was shy too. Her own mother was there helping out, and she turned to her to ask if she herself (the mother of the birthday girl) was shy as a child. No, the mother (and grandmother to the birthday girl) said, you were a bit reserved maybe. I got the impression that granny didn’t tolerate shyness. ‘And look at me now’ said the mother turning to me with exaggerated openness, ‘and were you shy as a child?’. ‘Er, yes’, I said timidly, to which she replied, ‘well, there you go, you grow out of it’.

Anyway, my daughter’s teacher did agree that she was shy initially, but only in the first couple of days. I go with the genetic theory too. So what if my daughter is not outgoing with adults, she is only following in the family tradition, as my wife was the same when she was young. However, because we both know how debilitating it can be socially we are still going to try and help her with it.

Hugh Green said...

Nice post. Consoling to think that there are people with bigger shyness problems than my own.

Eh, anyway. I don't subscribe to the genetic theory, and I don't even believe that there is an essential attribute called 'shyness'. That is, I have no problem standing up and addressing a crowd of hundreds, but I cower in fear at the thought of having to ring some institution up to ask for something. And whilst I have no problem standing up in front of a crowd and speaking, I will run a mile from singing in front of one other person, even though I know I cana sing. Through school I was always first to stick up my hand in class, but this receded over time as I began to fear that I was garnering resentment. I rationalised this by convincing myself that I was not humiliating the dumb kid sitting next to me.

On the genetic question. If your father was generally shy, and your grandfather was too, I suspect that this just means that it's more likely that you will be brought up in a way that brings out the same traits in you.

You tend to have sets of twins where one is outgoing and the other is shy, but I'm not sure if this in itself proves there is no 'shyness gene', that is, twins may act out different roles in co-operation with each other. That said, I am sure there are adoption studies which should prove conclusively that 'shyness' is mostly environmental.

Proinsias said...

Someone said:

"If the meek do inherit the earth, who among them will step forward to claim it?" ;{)

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