I was giving a talk the other day, to an audience of around a hundred or more people, some strangers, some colleagues and I was really enjoying myself. I was moving around the stage, joking, ad-libbing even, making eye contact. The audience laughed in the right places, they even clapped when I finished. Then I stepped off the stage and tried to walk through the auditorium to the reception where there were refreshments from which to help ourselves while we mingled and chatted and that was when the universe shifted around me.
As I moved the stage it was as if I had walked into another world. One where the thick carpet clutched at my feet and my clothes shrank around my body restricting all movement, especially my attempts to breath. The temperature increased by 20 degrees. Everyone turned to watch me. I was dying. I was dying!
Except of course I wasn't. And no one was watching me that closely (I'm not that special) and the universe hadn't shifted. I am just shy. So cripplingly shy that I felt too embarrassed to get myself a coffee or help myself to one of the neat little sandwiches. So shy I couldn't engage with that same audience now that I was off the stage, because off the stage I was just me. Silly old me. And without the stage and my professional armour, I would be found out. Discovered.
It's understandable then that most people don't believe me when I confess to my utter phobia of social situations. They think because I can 'perform' that I must be super confident, but that's not the case at all, and I know I'm not alone. A good friend of mine experiences similar feelings, he told me that he trusts his professional self, he knows he's put the work in, done his research and is great at his job so speaking at meetings and giving presentations aren't a problem neither is meeting a new colleague; but when it comes to his off-duty 'self' he isn't so sure. That guy, he said, is sure to do something 'stupid'.
But it can be more debilitating than just finding it hard to talk to strangers. I am so shy I find it almost impossible to go to the hairdressers, doctors or dentist. I hate shopping, or leaving the house. Online shopping and delivery services are a godsend. Small talk chokes me. I feel exposed, vulnerable to attack, afraid and ashamed. It's not just my life that has been affected either, maintaining and sustaining a social circle for my children and family is crucial to their well-being and I've managed, just about, but it's excruciating and often leads to panic attacks.
And yet, I can walk on stage and talk to a theatre full of people, with no fear whatsoever. Why? I think it's because in our family hiding behind your mother's skirts to avoid talking to people was considered outrageously rude once you were old enough for school. Shyness showed poor character and a lack of manners and just wasn't tolerated. In a family as critical as ours, feeling ashamed of myself was par for the course but I couldn't show it; so, I learnt quickly to perform only my best self, to hide all everything considered unacceptable. The causes and consequences of our fears and shyness are so varied it's impossible to generalise, but I'd hazard a guess that feeling that deep down there is something wrong with you is a common root.
I'm writing and describing my shyness, but of course, I realise that really I'm describing the complexities of experience that make up most of us. We are formed and influenced by so many situations and relationships, and we weld ourselves from many materials, gathered as we live. So maybe what I'm writing here is a small suggestion that we consider the soft tissue under the shiny exteriors of our fellow humans, and that the boldest among us, might just be the most afraid.
Heidi James' latest novel, So the Doves is out now.