Imagine This: Reflections on Writing the Shy Body

Sian Prior, author of the acclaimed memoir Shy, reflects on how shyness manifests in her body - and on writing a memoir to trace its effects.

Imagine you are about to deliver a talk to a room full of strangers. Perhaps your palms are sweating, your face slightly flushed. Perhaps your heart rate has increased. Perhaps there is a slight tremor in your hands as you shuffle the pages of your talk, anxiously checking that they’re in the right order.

Imagine yourself imagining that everyone in the audience is staring critically at you, waiting for you to stumble over the first paragraph.

Imagine yourself standing in front of that critical audience, wishing that you were invisible. Imagine feeling like this every time you find yourself in a social situation with people you don’t know intimately, because you are shy.

Imagine trying to write a memoir about how that shyness might feel in your body, in moments, or for hours, or over years, or throughout decades.

Imagine using that writing as a way of tracing how a life lived in a shy body might profoundly shape your sense of identity.

This talk is called ‘On Shyness’ but perhaps it should be called ‘IN Shyness’ because shyness is a state you inhabit, fully — physically, as well as mentally.

Shyness locks you up and throws away the key. Shyness freezes you over and refuses to let you thaw out until you feel safe. And feeling safe is the hardest thing, when you’re shy.

So what are we shy people actually afraid of? Why are our autonomic nervous systems telling us there’s a hungry lion about to pounce on us, when in fact we’re just standing minding our own business in the corner of someone’s balloon-strewn living room?

Shyness, according to the experts, is a temperament trait. That temperament trait is a spectrum. A spectrum from withdrawal to approach. Picture a bird on an electricity wire. If you’re very shy you’re hanging around on the far left of the wire, the withdrawal end, staying away from the other birds, but every now and then chirping hopefully at them – hoping simultaneously that they’ll ignore you and that they’ll chirp back.

Because you really want to be hanging with the other birds, but you’re afraid of them.

Okay — enough with the bird-on-a-wire metaphor. I don’t want to stretch it too far. (And enough with the bad puns…)

You’re afraid of people because you’re afraid of their judgment – their negative judgment – of you. You fear their negative evaluation. You fear their rejection. And there’s a voice in your head telling you that you probably deserve their negative evaluation and their rejection, because you’re a bit weird and a bit hopeless and very, very afraid. And that very fear makes you feel a bit weird and hopeless. So maybe you are. And so the cycle goes on.

And if you’re lucky, like me, you might find a strategy or two for hiding that fear, or for setting it aside when it really counts.

Like in the workplace.

In the workplace I had a collection of superhero cloaks I could put on. I could be Super-Greenie in the environment movement, or Super-Comrade in the union movement, or Super-Broadcaster at the ABC, or Super-Teacher at the university. I could let go of my fear of rejection because if people wanted to reject a Super-Greenie, well, they were idiots. Anyone could see the world needed saving!

But away from work, when I was at the pub or at a party or sometimes even just having dinner with a couple of friends, the fear came back and I had to keep my face very, very still so no one could see the fear. I suspect I would make a good poker player, with my still face.

Except if there was a camera anywhere near. Because cameras can see through the masks – through my masks – cameras unmask me, as mirrors do. Cameras and mirrors make me long for invisibility. So I try to steer clear of cameras and mirrors. But staying away from mirrors is hard because mirrors are useful for checking that the mask is in place.

So – back to the shy body, and temperament spectrums, and what the experts reckon. Here’s some expert language for you.

According to psychologists, shyness manifests as a form of social anxiety (or, at its most extreme, social phobia) that usually provokes a range of physical symptoms, from blushing, trembling, sweating, hyperventilating and feeling physically stiff, to hyper-vigilance and hyper-awareness of one’s physical presence in social environments.

Shyness induces intense physical self-consciousness; a perpetual state of performance anxiety when in company. The shy person’s mental preoccupation with how they are being perceived — and perhaps judged — by others stimulates the physical symptoms listed above via the autonomic nervous system. The visible aspects of arousal (the blushing, trembling, etc.) can in turn increase a person’s feelings of self-consciousness. In social situations, the shy body can easily become caught up in a distressing feedback loop of awkwardness and discomfort.

Over years, even decades, these repeated experiences of anxiety-related distress (and the mere anticipation of these experiences) can become inscribed upon the body. Deciphering these inscriptions has been part of my task in writing a memoir called ‘Shy’.

In the book I describe shyness as a kind of poison that enters my body, a slow-working poison of anxiety that has eaten away at my digestive system so that now I can really only comfortably eat what I ate as a baby – comforting, squishy, easy-to-digest foods like potato, pumpkin, rice and porridge.

I also describe a lump in my throat that used to appear every time I felt acutely socially anxious, a lump that no amount of swallowing could remove, because it was a constriction, a spasm, it was my own body trying to strangle itself, my own body punishing me for my idiotic fears. ‘Globus hystericus’ it’s called – the hysterical globe in my throat that only disappeared when I started trying to prevent the hysterical destruction of our globe.

I describe the marble blocks from which Michelangelo carved his religious sculptures — imagined that my shy body was like the immobilised, as-yet-unrevealed figures awaiting the artist’s chisel to free them from their solid rock casing — imagined the shy body as physically entrapped, longing for metamorphosis and for the chance to escape the casing of awkward self-consciousness and to emerge fully formed into the waiting world as a ‘true self’.

I describe the visceral sensation of liquefaction that can accompany the experience of social anxiety. I describe the shy body temporarily liberated from anxiety through the liquefying sensation of sexual desire; I describe my longing to be limpid, a liquid state defined as ‘absolutely serene and untroubled’. And I describe the way my shy body, weighed down by anxiety, revels in the weightlessness of immersion in the surf.

And, finally, I describe a condition called ‘body identity integrity disorder’, a psychological condition that makes people think that one of their limbs is an interloper – that it doesn’t belong to them – and that it is possibly dangerous to them. So they must get rid of it – even if that means amputation. For me, shyness has been like a form of body identity integrity disorder, except that the interloper is a temperament trait – my shyness – and I have been trying to get rid of it my whole life. I have been berating myself for its existence my whole life. It doesn’t belong to me, I thought – and it is dangerous – it gets in my way.

At the end of writing my memoir I have not managed to get rid of my shyness, as I hoped – but I have come to this realisation – that shyness belongs to me, it is mine, it won’t go away, but it can be managed. And I have been managing it, pushing myself over a million small cliffs in the effort to not let shyness get in the way of me doing many of the things I’ve wanted to do.

And, as Morrissey sang – ‘Shyness is nice’. Shyness has its own gang – it comes with a whole bunch of positive character traits and qualities, like empathy. Shy people care about what other people think — sometimes too much – but too much is better than too little, don’t you reckon?

And shyness isn’t something I have to be ashamed of. It’s normal. It’s necessary. If we were all bossy, un-empathic extroverts there would be even more wars. Possibly ONLY wars.

And maybe there would be fewer good writers, because being a writer usually requires you to think carefully about how other people think and feel.

Imagine this – you’re standing in front of an audience of people, strangers, who you’ve suddenly realised are not here to judge you. Your hands aren’t trembling, your face is not flushed, and you don’t need to be invisible. Because these people here, these people sitting quietly and generously listening to you talking about your shyness, are probably here because they’re shy too.

Portrait of Sian Prior

Sian Prior is a writer, broadcaster and creative writing teacher. She presents programmes on ABC Radio and writes a monthly column for Fairfax. Sian's essays have been published in Meanjin and her first book, Shy: A Memoir, was published by Text in 2014.

Related posts