Shyness has been part of Alice Sanders’ make-up for as long as she has been self-aware, so she’s more than qualified to offer an account of the reality behind the downcast eyes, blushes and temperature fluctuations that come bolted on with bashfulness.
When I was 17, a boy asked me out. You might think this sounds like no big deal, but it was. I went to an all-girls school; I was shy, thick-thighed, and surly. My go-to outfit was a pair of jeans and an enormous baggy sweater that reached my knees and covered my hands. I had a bad, centre-parted haircut, and I read a lot of Sylvia Plath poetry.
Weirdly, I just wasn’t that popular with teenage boys. So, it was a pretty big deal.
This boy asked me out over the phone. I’d known him for a while, and I liked him, I really liked him. Someone I liked was asking me out on a date, and that was a thing that had never happened to me before. (Now? Oh, all the time, mate. Three times a week.)
This is the bit where the record skips and everything goes silent; I said no.
The reason I said no was thus: I imagined us going on a date (nerve-wracking but bearable), a few more dates (a bit easier), then I imagined the point when we’d be alone in his bedroom and I realised that I would have to take my clothes off in front of him. The idea of this filled me with more horror than Pennywise the murderous clown. So I said no, and that boy never really spoke to me again.
I didn’t sleep all that night, rigid with terror at the idea of undressing in front of anyone, ever. (Now? Oh I get naked in front of people all the time, mate. Three times a week.)
“Other people might think that you are odd, or worse, mean, stand-offish and supercilious. But really you are drowning, slipping down into the vast, black ocean unnoticed.”
If you are a Non-Shy, I want you to understand what shyness is like, so I’m going to use a series of uncomfortable analogies until you feel so awkward you’ll just have to up and leave the room. Here’s the first one – shyness is like being colder than an average person. The shyer you are, the colder you are. An average person is 37°C, a shy person might be 20°, 10° or even 0°. That poor freezing Shy will take longer to warm up to regular social interaction. It’s not that they don’t have funny anecdotes to tell, stories to share, empathy and affection, but it might take them a little longer to get it out, because they have to thaw, and then gently warm up to 37° first! (Note: Under no circumstances try to heat them up too quickly. They will burn.)
Also, shyness is like drowning. (How do you know? Have you ever drowned? All the time, mate. Three times a week.)
Imagine you are in the sea, and you can see a group of people nearby on the beach, but they are facing away. Water is filling your lungs and you cannot shout out to them to tell them what’s happening. You want so desperately to be able to communicate with them, but you are unable. The more you try to shout, the more water fills your lungs, until you are so exhausted and overwhelmed that you just let yourself sink.
In this case, sinking is leaving the pub or party after having spent an hour or two just staring morosely without being able to force a sentence out. Other people might think that you are odd, or worse, mean, stand-offish and supercilious. But really you are drowning, slipping down into the vast, black ocean unnoticed.
The best way for a Shy to confront shyness is head on. I’ve forced myself into social situations and jobs that I’ve found difficult, because practice makes perfect. As a Shy, you shouldn’t feel bad about preparing some questions for if you get stuck. The only way for this to feel natural eventually is to prepare and practise.
Showing up isn’t enough either; you can’t expect that other people will talk to you. It isn’t their job to drag you out of your shell. Focussing on other people, though, and asking them about themselves is a great antidote to shyness. Shyness can be quite a self-centred thing – the idea that the attention, albeit negative, is somehow on you, and that people are observing and judging you. Stop worrying about whether you will measure up and just be interested in the person in front of you.
“The best way for a Shy to confront shyness is head on. I’ve forced myself into social situations and jobs that I’ve found difficult, because practice makes perfect.”
Although I never saw that particular boy again, in the intervening years, I have let various people see me naked. Okay, maybe not three times a week, but often enough. Initially I used lots and lots of alcohol to help alleviate the symptoms of shyness when it came to socialising and dating, but I don’t believe that this is a practical or sensible way to deal with the issue. Now I regularly challenge myself not to drink at parties and on dates.
Fairly recently, someone told me that I was a hottie. It was by text message, so I could go bright red and quietly quiver for a few minutes until I responded. But I did let that person see me naked. And what’s more, I was completely sober.
It is not your job as a Non-Shy to make Shys feel okay. However, if you notice a very cold Shy struggling, a blanket will be received gratefully. Just make them feel comfortable and welcome. Try to show them you are trustworthy and non-threatening by flattening yourself against the ground, and making yourself look as small as possible. Or another, better way, that you can think of in your own head.
If you notice someone drowning, throw them a life ring. Just ask them a question, or relate the conversation to them and make them feel included. That might be all it takes to get them out of the water. And when they’re standing sodden but alive on the beach, they might just be a real hoot.8680 Views
Alice Sanders is a freelance writer. She writes articles, audio description for the visually impaired, and fiction. She also performs with comedy improv troupe The Pioneers. @wernerspenguin