The only thing I wouldn’t change about my house? My shyness | Life and style
When I was eight years old, I moved to a new primary school. I had spent the summer vacation writing an appeal to my mom, making an argument for staying at the old school – which I loved – rather than starting at this weird new school. But in vain. September arrived and I found myself in a new class, with a new teacher, surrounded by 30 new faces. As a shy kid, it was pretty terrifying. And so when I was asked to stand up and introduce myself, I was shaking.
That first day, as I walked into the school hall for assembly, I didn’t know which hymnbook to take so I copied the boy in front of me. When we sat cross-legged on the floor, the headteacher spotted my mistake. “You were supposed to take the blue book, not the green book!” she screamed. I didn’t realize and therefore it meant I messed up the whole line. I felt my cheeks burn as all heads turned to me.
This same head teacher announced in another assembly that I was going to sing a solo in front of the 300 children among whom I was seated. I had no idea this was going to happen. She called me up front, asked the pianist to start and I reluctantly sang “Hi, hi, pray, what are you doing…” in a barely audible, shrill voice, with a sea of silent children staring at me. The professor stood next to the piano shouting, “Louder!” Louder! ”But I didn’t know how to project my voice; I couldn’t make it louder.
On second thought, I wonder if she was trying to exorcise my shyness. She thought that publicly calling my mistakes and forcing me to perform, unprepared, in front of an audience, was going to somehow shake my shyness. But it was not. It made me calmer and more withdrawn. I was scared of her and anything she could make me do next. And it made me want to not go to school. I developed a nervous cough.
“It’s interesting that we have such an aversion to shyness, ”says psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg. “Like other personality traits, it’s something that’s really a part of who we are – and has a good evolutionary basis. We cannot all be explorers; some of us have to make sure the kids are safe. But in a society that values outward reward, independence, confidence, and individuality, shyness can be seen as an affliction.
This is certainly what I felt growing up. Aside from my parents, who were always very accepting of me, I felt that most other adults found my shyness difficult. A friend of my mother’s once described me as a “dark horse” because I was less socially open than her daughter. And then there was the teacher in the welcome class who wanted me to go to the monkey bars. I told her that I didn’t want to, that I couldn’t do it, but she forced me to try. Maybe she thought she was helpfully pushing me out of my comfort zone. Going from the first bar to the second, I failed to reach it and I fell flat on my back. She pushed too hard and it went wrong. An ambulance was called.
“In general, if shy people are encouraged to feel safe – whatever that may mean to them – and if they have time to feel comfortable, they will thrive,” says Dr Svanberg. “The worst thing we can do for a shy person is probably push them into situations where they don’t feel comfortable – it will increase their anxiety and leave them even less safe. With support, even the most shy children can become more confident in new situations. “
This is echoed by child psychologist Dr Ruth Erskine, who says that if she has a child who comes to see her who is shy, that in itself is not a cause for concern. “We over-psychologize a lot of things,” she says, “but unless a child can’t handle school, for example, shyness isn’t a problem.” And if they are having difficulty in school, she said, it is not something the child has to deal with; rather, it is up to the teacher to make the environment more welcoming to this child.
It was not my experience and unfortunately I suspect that childhood shyness is still not sustained in schools. But when I started high school something changed for me. I was always on the quiet side, but I had a lot of friends and I loved to play. So I spent my lunch breaks creating dance routines and plays that I then performed in front of school, in assemblies and end-of-year concerts. While reading aloud in front of the class or giving presentations, I was scared, I had this inner interpreter. Going on this stage made me vibrate. Maybe it was because I had chosen to do it rather than being educated. But I started to see that if I worked hard on something – practicing lines, learning dance moves – I could do it. I was never the best, but I was always determined. And it started to bear fruit. My only A * in GCSEs was in the performing arts.
What I wish I had known, as a kid and from my teenage years to adulthood, is that shyness is incredibly common. Almost 50% of the population experiences shyness and this can manifest as a distrust of social situations – arriving at a wedding, starting a new job, having a Christmas party in the office – or as more general tranquility. . For example, not knowing how to contribute to a conversation. Thinking deep, rather than fainting. Shyness can prevent us from doing certain activities that will draw full attention to us, such as presenting or acting. But it is not obligatory. After all, according to interviews, Elton John, Beyoncé, Nicole Kidman, Richard Branson, Thom Yorke, and Greta Thunberg are all shy. But instead of retreating, as they perhaps sometimes wanted to, they decided to use their shyness to their advantage.
Shyness teaches you empathy. When you have walked around the school playground, wondering how to get involved, you understand what it feels like to be left out, to feel different. And you notice the rest of them are feeling it. It also informs you, perhaps surprisingly, about social dynamics. Educational and pediatric psychologist Hannah Abrahams says that because shy children need to examine, observe and understand the world and the new situations around them before they feel they can fully participate. “They often have a better understanding of social dynamics and networks because they took the time to look.” Spending all this time in quiet observation can also make you more introspective, which is useful for creative work and for understanding yourself better in general. I think it was my shyness that led me to become a writer; it was my way of making sense of the world.
Along with writing, I teach women how to start and grow online businesses through my website, the Robora, and while at first I wasn’t sure I had the entrepreneurial flair to run a successful business, I quickly learned that shy people lead differently. According to various studies, shy business leaders listen more attentively, watch themselves more closely, refrain from acting and encourage team members to become more involved. There is less ego involved. And this more collaborative approach is what has helped me grow Robora over the past two years, to now support our family of five. But it also helps that we operate almost entirely online because the online world is my friend. I can do Facebook live presentations and talk into my iPhone to easily save Instagram stories. But put me in a real room, with an audience, and it’s quite different. It’s not impossible – I did, I do and still enjoy it in the end – but it takes extra levels of preparation.
Having said that, I love to socialize in real life. I’m shy but outgoing, so I love weddings, big parties, bustling markets, music festivals, and live events. I will often be the first on the dance floor or on the stage. But it must be my choice. If someone pulls me up there before I’m ready, I back off. In a stereotypical “shy” way, I need to move at my own pace. And that, I learned, is OK. So instead of carrying my shyness like a shameful little secret, I’m getting it back now. My shyness is literally part of me; it’s in my DNA. It informed many of my life decisions. What if I was offered the option of withdrawing it? No thanks. I am shy. And proud.
Shy: How Being Calm Can Lead To Annie Ridout’s Success is published by HarperCollins for £ 12.99. Buy a copy for £ 11.30 at the guard shop