After a lifetime controlled by social anxiety, Sian Prior began investigating why it was holding her hostage and how she could overcome it.
People who are shy – or socially anxious or socially phobic, whatever they want to call it, wherever they fit on the spectrum – will have plenty of “Yes, yes, yes” moments of recognition reading Sian Prior’s memoir of a lifetime coping with the affliction.
For many, it will come a few pages in, when Prior writes about standing on the fringe of a group of strangers at a birthday party, a familiar sensation seeping through her body.
“It was as if someone had spiked my drink so that instead of sparkling mineral water I was now sipping a kind of effervescent cement. My limbs were growing rigid and my smile was the tight rictus you see on the faces of young ballet dancers.”
Before long, Prior’s stomach is churning and she’s sidling towards the door, her movements “as fluid as a cat after a bird” as she heads for her car so she can make her escape.
“If it hadn’t been so pathetic I would have laughed out loud. What was a polite middle-aged woman doing leaving a party without even saying goodbye to her partner, let alone the host?” Prior asks.
Social phobia, according to the 2006 Te Rau Hinengaro: The New Zealand Mental Health Survey, is this country’s second most common anxiety disorder, reported in about 5% of those surveyed.
Although Shy is still a week away from release when we meet the day after her session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Prior has already become accustomed to people opening up to her about their own shyness.
“There was a piece in [newspaper magazine] Good Weekend last week and I’ve had a lot of emails coming to me via my website from people wanting to tell me their stories,” she says, “and a lot of them just thanking me for writing about this stuff nobody ever talks about or nobody understands.”
There were more people with stories to tell at the signing table after her festival session, during which, she says, someone in the audience had told her, “‘You know you’re going to be the Shy Queen’ – which is a little bit ironic.”
PUBLIC LIFE, PRIVATE FEARS
Melburnian Prior, 49, is a former broadcaster, newspaper columnist and journalist, as well as a singer and musician. She now teaches creative writing while working toward a PhD (for which Shy forms a part).
For 10 years she was the partner of revered Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, who appears in the memoir under the pseudonym “Tom”, his bolt-from-the-blue ending of their relationship forming the book’s climax. One minute he’s telling her “You make monogamy a good place to be”, the next, in 2011, that he wants to be single again and “Yes, I have been with other women”.
“You know the hideous irony of what happened?” says Prior. “I’d just got to the point in my research [into shyness] where I’d realised, ‘Okay, shyness is fear of negative evaluation.’ What is fear of negative evaluation? Fear of negative evaluation is fear of rejection, and what happened to me was the socially anxious person’s worst nightmare.”
Given her professional guises – masks, even – many Australians will be surprised by Prior’s outing of herself as having endured a lifetime of chronic shyness.
“Some people will be disbelieving – I’m hoping only until they’ve read the book. If there are still people disbelieving after reading the book, then I’ve failed,” she says, laughing.
“But I also think there will be a lot of people who will recognise themselves, particularly performing people, who will go, ‘Oh, right, so that’s why I can get up there and stand on a stage and be perfectly comfortable but die if I have to be at a dinner party or something.’”
Although Prior hasn’t written a self-help guide and Shy is billed as a literary memoir, the book is as much an account of her investigations into the condition as of how that condition has manifested itself in her life. To define shyness, she didn’t have to go far – her mother, Margot, is a behavioural psychologist involved in a decades-long birth-onward study of temperament among 2500 Australians.
She calls shyness an “inborn but not immutable biological disposition” and tells Prior: “The more extreme the shyness, the more likely it is to persist. If, by the time you’re nine or 10, you’ve been shy all along and you’re still shy, then it’s a pretty enduring characteristic. It also usually means you’re going to be vulnerable to anxiety as an adult. But lots of kids are initially shy and grow out of it.
“The way the parents handle it can make a difference, whether the parents are shy or anxious themselves. It’s hard if the parents are biologically inclined to be shy and are modelling shy behaviour. But if the parents model brave behaviour, that can help. If the kids try to reach out and become less shy, it can become less scary.”
Shyness is not the same as introversion, Margot points out. Introverts don’t find it distressing being in the company of others; they just choose not to be.
As Prior’s experiences testify, that element of choice is missing for the shy, preyed upon as they are by self-consciousness and fear of rejection; standing alone and apart, looking rude and aloof, while in fact battling their inner turmoil and desperate to join in; forever feeling regret for missed opportunities.
Prior quotes British sociologist Susie Scott: “The shy person is extremely concerned about the risk of making a social faux pas and exposing what they see as secret flaws in their characters, most notably their perceived lack of social skills. At the same time, shy people report feeling as if everybody else seems to know the unspoken rules of interaction and thus are able to provide a more poised, socially competent performance. This feeling of relative incompetence is central to the experience of shyness.”
Once you’ve learned more about shyness, as Prior has, or have undergone treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy, you realise the people you thought of as being so competent perhaps aren’t so after all – or are simply masking their own difficulties better than you are.
You come to recognise the characteristics of the shy – the discomfort and self-disguise – in those around you.
“I think I am getting better at that,” says Prior. “Although sometimes I still fail in that way. And sometimes I’ll misinterpret aloofness as someone not being interested in me. You’d think that after all this research I would have got that. But I think that comes back to a shy person’s tendency to assume someone is negatively evaluating you. So you have to go the extra mile to say, ‘Oh, no, they’re just being shy too.’”
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Prior hasn’t had treatment or medication for her shyness. “I have consulted counsellors in the past but didn’t go to them knowing this was my main problem, and none of them said to me, ‘Your main problem is social anxiety.’ It’s almost like my masking of that stuff was so effective even the counsellors didn’t figure out that was what was going on.
“I do have regrets that 30, 40 years ago someone didn’t say to me, ‘You know what’s going on? You’re dealing with social anxiety. And here are some simple things that work for everyone with social anxiety.’ I would focus on the kind of immediate problems in my emotional life and no one saw the big picture.”
Not even her mother – a psychologist and shy herself. “She certainly knew I was shy as a child. And she says she observed me grappling with it and felt proud of me for doing so. But she also said she was kind of surprised by what I wrote about in the book because she didn’t realise the extent of it. And I think that’s partly because we all spend so much time hiding it. Even from our mums. And probably even from ourselves.”
Researching and writing Shy has been Prior’s therapy. “Maybe this comes from growing up with a mother who’s a behavioural psychologist. It’s like mother’s milk to me to actually understand behaviour modification. So without actually thinking, ‘I’m going to put myself on a programme of behaviour modification’, I have forced myself into exposure therapy situations. I’ve made myself do the things that caused me fear and found strategies to deal with it. It doesn’t mean the feelings have gone away, but it means I’ve worked really hard not to let them disable me too much.
“And I do think writing about it and thereby reducing the shame and embarrassment has brought the level down. At least half the equation has been ‘I’m having these stupid feelings – what an idiot’. And then feeling bad about myself because I’m behaving like an idiot. Now I can go, ‘Here come those strange feelings. I know exactly what’s going on at a very detailed level. I know I can’t stop them entirely, but I don’t have to feel embarrassed about them and I know if I just wait long enough until I feel safe, they’ll go away.’”
Guy Somerset travelled to the Sydney Writers’ Festival courtesy of Destination NSW and Qantas.
Saving private Englishman
Guy Somerset recounts how an unlikely catalyst helped him overcome his own social anxiety.
Gay, crop-haired, Doc Marten boot-wearing and withering of manner – Philippe was an unlikely saviour. But a saviour he was: a catalyst 17 years ago for my epiphany about suffering from social anxiety and a supporter in the initial stages of my recovery.
Shyness had plagued me – on and off, to different degrees – since my teens.
Reading Sian Prior’s account in her memoir of desperately escaping a birthday party took me back to a wedding reception in the grounds of a British country hotel, when I abandoned my wife and fled from the good time being had around me to the quiet solitude of our room. There I hid for the next two hours, feeling a mixture of relief and shame, before working up the courage to return and answer with some cock-and-bull story the inevitable enquiries about my whereabouts.
The most ridiculous incident during my years of shyness came while I was still single, when at 6am on a winter’s morning I clambered over a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes to climb out the window of the ground-floor flat of friends who’d had a party the night before. Unable to face fellow guests who’d slept over and with the front door still locked, I exited by the only means available. It was the sort of low comedy Kingsley Amis might put one of his hapless characters through.
In 1997, aged 32, I was living with my wife in Sydney, working as a copy editor on an early Microsoft foray into internet publishing: a city guide and listings website called Sidewalk. I had fled to the job from another where the sporty uber-masculinity of my Australian workmates, with their lunchtime games of office cricket, had left me – a fey, sports-loathing Englishman – on the outer edge.
That sense of cultural dislocation was exacerbated in a different way at Sidewalk, based in Sydney’s Paddington and staffed mostly by journalists from the city’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) press. One memorable element of my duties was checking the inclusion of “lube provided” in the details box for sex establishment listings. The office’s Christmas party was in Oxford St and drag-themed.
I had never felt squarer-pegged or that I had less to offer at work social gatherings, and I began losing it. The breaking point came on a day when, returning from one of my customary lunchtime reading sessions in a nearby park, I walked the long driveway towards the office, praying as always there would be no one coming in the opposite direction I would have to dodge eye contact with. Instead, I encountered Philippe, muttering something incomprehensible (but surely about me) under his breath and adopting an exaggerated swagger (clearly mocking my gait).
Surely? Clearly? Of course not. But such was the extent of my self-consciousness, and now it only got worse. Intolerably so.
My first inclination was to flee a second job, but my wife dissuaded me and instead I found my other saviour – Joe, a cognitive behavioural therapist. Joe told me there were two ways to tackle my social anxiety: we could excavate its causes for years in thrice-weekly therapy sessions of Woody Allen proportions or he could give me the tools to combat the consequences.
For financial (if no other) reasons, I opted for the latter: six weekly sessions in which Joe taught me to challenge the words “surely” and “clearly” that had come to dominate my interpretation of social situations, and to put myself through aversion therapy, where I actively sought the exchanges I had spent so long trying to avoid.
One of the first of these exchanges was the hardest email I have ever had to write: to Philippe, explaining how difficult it was for me to walk that driveway to the office every day and asking him to spare me his mockery, for it placed a burden on me he could not begin to imagine.
Mockery? Philippe, of course, hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. It had all been in my mind. If he remained withering of manner in so many other ways, he was kindliness personified towards me. I was soon on a pub quiz team with him and his bearish offsider Kerry. Strange days, but ones for which I will be eternally grateful.
Looking back, I can see that, with his nervous energy and pained demeanour, Philippe was probably shy himself; that his own insecurities helped attune him to the lost souls he kept about him.
Gradually, I rebuilt my social confidence. The more I exposed myself, the easier it became. Within a few years, I was back to normal – or what passes for normal. Because one of the things cognitive behavioural therapy does is enable you to see the symptoms of social anxiety in others.
Now, where once I might flee social gatherings in terror, I take calm stock of an event. If I think it’s run its course for me, I leave openly and with confidence, under my own terms and not those of anxiety.
The power is all mine.
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