Saturday 8 April 2006

Too shy? Maybe not quite shy enough

An article in today’s Times reports that shyness is now classified as a ‘syndrome’ and some experts believe that half the population suffer from it. Surely, half the population being shy means it’s just as normal as not being shy? Is there anyone who has never felt shy, ever – if so, he or she is surely the oddity.

It’s a carefully balanced article, which questions whether medicalisation of a personality trait is a good idea, whilst acknowledging the considerable difficulties shyness can cause.

I was the shyest child I have ever known. My life was paralysed by my inability to behave normally with other people. I never volunteered information or opinions at school and, although I did have friends, was never able to relax as I felt that there was a secret social code that I’d never learned and at any time I might make a frightful error that would make everyone despise and laugh at me. I never referred to anyone as a friend as they might not see me that way. I avoided calling people by their name but the reason for this is just too embarrassing to write. Parties were a nightmare. I did not use the telephone unless unavoidable - phoning people was just so intrusive.

Now I’m not shy. It took a while but I got over it.

I looked for the reasons for my shyness and realised that a lot of it was, not a lack of self-esteem, but too much of it. I didn’t try so that I would not fail but neither, of course, would I succeed. I realised that it didn’t matter if I made a fool of myself – this was a revelation. Even if I was embarrassed, even if everyone laughed, if I could see that it was indeed ridiculous and laugh too then I would feel closer to them, not more distant. If I concentrated on other people rather than myself, I might be kinder and more thoughtful.

I don’t necessarily suggest telling a shy person that he or she is self-centred, proud and arrogant, and I’m sure that many of them aren’t. But I wonder now if, instead of giving in to me or else trying to jolly or embarrass me out of it, someone might have had better results by pointing out that everyone feels shy, no one likes to get things wrong, but that’s the way it is. Cope with it. Who am I, to think that I matter? No one is really looking at me, after all. It might have worked, could have been surprisingly reassuring.

In the paper there was a shyness test from the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University (yes, really). Imagining myself 30 years ago, I scored maximum marks of 21 'shyness is preventing you from reaching your full potential.' Now I’d score 9 (minimum score 7 as you have to give yourself a point even if the question does not apply to you at all) and ‘shyness does not seem to be a problem’. Of course, I now classify any feeling of shyness in myself as pride, cowardice or understandable nervousness that I can overcome.

On the other hand, the last paragraph includes a quote from Jerome K. Jerome, who, shy himself, advises against finding a cure “Your attempt to put on any other disposition than your own will infallibly result in your becoming ridiculously gushing and offensively familiar. Be your own natural self, and then you will only be thought surly and stupid.”

Ridiculously gushing? – oh dear, I recognise myself. Nowadays it’s the surly and stupid part I try to hide.

You will notice that I’ve avoided mentioning offensively familiar.

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