If there’s one thing that I hate about myself it’s my history of debilitating shyness. In fact, it’s something I was chatting with my counsellor about just a matter of weeks ago. I said I was so ANGRY with young, shy me. I wanted to look back on a teenager who was punk rock, riotous and out there. A teenager who stood up for herself and who knew how to get what she wanted.
Instead, I reflect on a teenager who was mute, reserved and very much hiding inside her own shell.
And, as I told my therapist, I despise her.
But then we did that thing that you do in therapy around self-compassion, and seeing that young girl as exactly that – a young girl.
And I realised I was being pretty fucking mean and nasty to 15 year old me. Forty-somethings shouldn’t behave like that should they. That poor girl! That total bitch!
The reason I’m writing this post is because I’ve just watched Rhod Gilbert’s Stand Up To Shyness documentary. And of course you’re watching thinking, but he’s a bloody comedian. There’s no way he’s as shy as I’ve been…
But then he tells you that he can’t walk into a coffee shop and sit down with a cuppa because he’s too self-conscious and you think, well, maybe he is more shy, but he’s definitely better liked than me…And I bet he doesn’t get obsessed with the idea that he’s going to pee his pants. Or that he’s going to sweat so much that half of his wardrobe’s out of bounds for any social event.
And on it goes…did someone say self-compassion? What’s that about again? And how do I get some?
I’m really not shy today, but I still struggle with self-esteem. And I still struggle with weird little things. Why can’t I join in with the chants at a basketball game? Why can’t I strike fun or silly poses in front of a camera like everyone else can? And why do I break out in sweats at networking events (sorry for saying that word – I know just the mere mention of it can bring some people out in a cold sweat).
Going against the (shy) grain…
There was an interesting scene in the documentary where Rhod sees a therapist about his shyness. She says that in some ways he’s already done the things he needs to do to combat shyness. He’s a stand up comedian so he’s kind of facing his fear of not wanting to be noticed head on. He’s been recorded and played back time and again on screens big and small – something, the therapist tells us, is a tool that is used in CBT to help shy people see how they really come across.
I asked my oldest friends about shyness after watching the film. One of my friends suggested that maybe the reason I went to work in PR for a theatre company was purely because I was shy. PR she said, is audacious.
And when I think back there’s definitely something in it. As a kid I was always performing in plays, going to disco dance class, dressing up as Madonna (and then Courtney Love as the years ticked by…) but I couldn’t speak to boys and I hated being asked a question in class.
I was never shy when it came to dancing or pretending to be Madonna as a kid. (that’s me far left at the back). This was taken around the same time I went to school in a shrunken old woolly jumper to avoid attention from the boys.
Still, in my 3rd year of high school, I picked GCSE Drama as one of my options and my teacher actually warned me about how daunting I might find it. After all, I barely spoke a word in high school and I still had flashbacks from the last Christmas play we did in junior school (I was cast in a small part as a character called ‘Fairy Lights’ and therefore had to wear a leotard and tu-tu which, due to my current state of adolescence was blatantly highlighting my need for a trainer bra to the rest of my class and all the parents in the audience. I therefore performed the whole thing with my arms crossed over my chest. MORTIFYING).
I was so cripplingly shy. But I did drama GCSE anyway. And I passed. Just.
I remember in junior school, one of the lads in class wolf-whistled at me on the walk home one day and I was so red-faced that the next day I went into school wearing one of my mum’s old jumpers. A classmate asked what on earth I was doing – ‘you’re normally pretty cool’ she said. I couldn’t bear to tell her why I’d really worn that shrunken old woolly jumper. Especially when all I really wanted to wear was my backless top a la Kylie Minogue in her I Should Be So Lucky era. (I did wear that top to school once and ALL the boys in class wolf-whistled. Honestly, I just wanted to get swallowed up by the grey lino floor of the mobile classroom we were learning in. The lino never opened up to take me away from my catastrophic embarrassment. So I just put my jumper back on and sweated even more.)
I remember when I was a bit older as a teenager, one friend said to me that she wished I would open my mouth and speak. I’d sit silently, almost mute, occasionally laughing along but feeling completely unable to join in with whatever conversation was flowing along with the taboo and lemonade. I felt I had everything to say but I was far too afraid of making a fool of myself. So it always went unsaid.
When you realise that shyness is getting in the way of your teen years – the years that are meant to be the most fun and experimental – what can you do?
Drink lots of cheap Lambrini.
That horrible bottle of sweet fizzy wine was my saviour. To a degree.
It got me out enjoying my nights out, dancing all night at clubs – sometimes even getting up on the podium in my friend’s silver PVC hot pant space suit (you’d do a bit of podium or stage dancing to get free entry to ‘Mantra’ when you were a skint college student).
I was usually quite comfortable on the dance floor though. I didn’t need to interact with anyone. And I could pretend to be someone else entirely…
Taboo, Lambrini, Drambuie and the various white pills and powders that forced me to talk and feel a little bit special actually were a God-send. Even if they more than likely played a starring role in the ensuing panic attacks that I lived with for many years since…
I never really considered why I went for that job in PR at a theatre company before my friend brought it up today. She was right though – it was one of the most out there professions in one of the most out there industries. I was surrounded by actors and directors and artsy types and I loved every minute of being in that environment. Except I didn’t love the minutes where it was down to me to take control of a situation, deal with an interview that was going off track, speak in front of an audience or appear live on radio (I’ll never forget my impromptu Viking FM radio appearance. It still makes me cringe).
I also fell in love while working at that theatre company – with an actor who I eventually married. I acted so aloof with him that he thought I absolutely HATED him. I even, literally, ran away from him if I saw him in the supermarket. But inside I was desperate to snog the face off this talented and funny Geordie bloke – I just couldn’t bear the thought of him knowing I wanted to snog the face off him, which is probably why it took about four years and lots of Hull Truck Theatre Christmas party booze to make it happen.
Don’t expect everyone to love your true self when you finally let her out…
One thing I have learned, however, is that the consequences of stamping out your shyness aren’t wholly positive. I still struggle with self-esteem, but I don’t think I could claim that I’ve been shy for a good few years now.
People who meet me generally wouldn’t think I was shy in any way at all. I’m fairly outspoken, I enjoy public speaking, I’ve enjoyed podcasting and speaking on radio and TV (and I’m much better at it than I used to be in those disastrous early PR days).
So maybe the shy part of me that dominated my life for so long has vanished over time. But there is one thing that makes me nervous. One context that I simply cannot thrive in – and that’s the workplace.
I don’t know what it is about workplaces but, for many years I’ve been fairly unpopular in the office. I think the only times I remember not being especially unpopular was when I was still fairly shy. I guess it was because I didn’t put enough of myself out there for people to make a judgment either way. But now I’m fairly gregarious when it comes to my work – I love what I do, take great pride in it and become overly focused on achieving things. And so maybe I forget how to be socially acceptable? I really don’t know what it is…
Nobody has ever directly said to me that they don’t like me. But there have been moments that made such feelings incredibly apparent. Being given a new job and literally moments later one of my new team telling me they were going to ‘work to rule’. So that set me off on a good start. And the time when a bunch of us were going to London for the day and I booked onto a different train because I was convinced they wouldn’t want me sitting with them. And there was a time when a colleague leading on a project bought everyone a little gift and thank you card for their work on said project. But there were two of us who worked on the project who didn’t get a card never mind a gift – and I knew that the other person wasn’t very popular with the colleague so I kind of came to the same conclusion about myself. I still wonder what it was that I did – or didn’t do – but I try not to worry too much. Because I made the best decision I could ever make – I’m self-employed. I don’t have to worry about being the unpopular one in the office anymore!
So perhaps letting down the guard and being your true self isn’t going to make you instantly likeable or popular. Perhaps, like me, you’re a bit marmitey for whatever reason. But then I guess that’s the next stage of dealing with shyness and poor self-esteem – accepting that not everyone’s going to like you and that it doesn’t have to make your life any less fulfilling.
I mean, if my idol as a teen was Courtney Love, then in some ways I’ve got that marmitey thing in common with her.
But then she’s so punk rock and riotous and out there and I’m just…
…clearly in need of some self compassion…
If you enjoyed this blog, you might enjoy my novel, THE TWENTY SEVEN CLUB. Set in the 90’s, it’s a story of friendship, fandom and mental health – with a good dollop of humour in.
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