I’m 45 years old and have been shy for as long as I can remember. As a child I hid behind the sofa when guests came and blushed if anyone said hello to me. As a fully-fledged adult I still suffer from shyness, I just wish I could find a bigger sofa.
When I was six, my mother found my schoolbook smeared with “I love Karen” and “I love Jason.” This wasn’t some epic love triangle. She knew Karen and Jason were my best friends but she chased me around the house chanting, “Gemma’s got a boyfriend” and left poor Karen out of it. When my dad came home, she did it all over again. The whole thing made me terribly self-conscious and I barely looked at another boy again until I was an adult. My overbearing coyness took hold that day and never let go.
One of the worst things about being bashful is that it can be interpreted as bad manners. When I met my first boyfriend’s parents at 15, I felt my face flushing before I even walked through the door. I stared at their living room carpet during the entire ordeal and couldn’t think of anything to say. When they offered me a coffee they didn’t hear my pathetically meek “no thank you” and assumed I had ignored them. Afterwards, my boyfriend told me that I was weird and rude to them. Then, he dumped me.
Anyone who suffers from shyness will tell you about that dreaded feeling when the flush rushes up the chest, into the neck filling the cheeks with hot pink embarrassment. We become fearful of going bright red and terrified of awkward situations. There’s nothing we can do to stop it and it stops us doing things that we want to do. It’s incapacitating.
As an adult I’ve tried everything; from grounding myself to overt acknowledgment, such as saying loudly: “Oh no I can feel myself going scarlet!” For some reason I thought that shouting something like, “LOOK AT ME EVERYONE, I’M BLUSHING!” would somehow make the ruby wave of doom too embarrassed to pop up ever again. Sadly shyness itself isn’t shy.
The recent backlash against open plan offices didn’t mention how awful these environments are for the socially awkward. I get palpitations at the thought of getting up for a coffee - bored eyes leave computers at any given opportunity. There are over 80 people on my floor. My face reddens when a colleague says good morning to me. It’s absurd that a grown woman - a wife and mother - turns crimson at such bland everyday things, like as a simple ‘hello’, but anything that draws attention in a public space is painful. It’s debilitating. I cannot do my job properly because of shyness. I email co-workers who live a few desks away rather than speak to them because I’m so scared of blushing.
In many ways, shyness is a type of phobia: we’re scared of public humiliation and petrified of feeling uncomfortable in social situations. My palms are sweating just writing this.
In nature however, timidity is a survival technique; reticent animals are much less likely to be eaten than their brave extrovert peers who might do something crazy like attract attention to a passing hawk or a stalking lion. But people don’t have a daily risk of predators like animals do. Being torn limb from limb is not a risk to us stammering humans as we approach that cringe-inducing office party. Not in the literal sense anyway. So where does this awkward social phobia come from?
German scientist Dr. Andreas Forstner thinks that shyness is genetic. His team at the University of Bonn in Germany is studying the correlation between social phobia and a missing serotonin transporter gene. Serotonin is essential for preventing anxiety and depression. The research has already shown that there is some consistency with the missing serotonin transporter gene and people with adverse social anxiety, meaning that the condition could prove to be hereditary.
So did my shyness come from my parents? My mother is the biggest attention seeker on the planet, so it’s definitely not from her. I didn’t grow up with my biological father, but he was a social misfit and lived like a hermit crab. My siblings are also notoriously anxious in public. So perhaps it’s all in my genes.
If this is true, I need to find ways to support my four year-old. He hides behind my legs as we enter kindergarten. He won’t speak when there are lots of people around, so maybe I have passed on this rogue gene.
The research carried out by Dr. Forstner also suggests that severe social anxiety could be treated with Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), commonly used to treat depression. This seems like an extreme way to deal with shyness, but if it’s stopping people from living a ‘normal’ life, then perhaps there is help for severe social shyness.
It’s too late for me but I can help and support my son. I will try not to humiliate him if he declares love any friends or put him on the spot. But I will keep some space behind our sofa, just in case.
As for me, I’m considering surgery for the blushing. Yes, there is actually surgery to prevent us going scarlet. It’s very popular amongst high-ranking businessmen apparently. Endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS) involves the severing of the nerves that cause facial blood vessels to expand. My face would never redden again, even during a workout. Is it worth it?
Personally I’d rather save the money for a facelift. I am going to work on my self-confidence and just accept that I’m awkward and socially inept. And anyway, is it necessarily a bad thing to be shy? In a world full of precocious brats and self-absorbed twats, many people think that being a little coy and timid is quite endearing.