As a child in the seventies my favourite TV show was The Six Million Dollar Man. “We can re-build him—we have the technology,” the voice-over promised. Then along came The Bionic Woman, offering the hope that girls like me could be re-built too. These glossy American series were so optimistic about the possibility of improving on humankind. Stronger, better versions of us were just a few technological breakthroughs away.
Can I blame these fictional caricatures of post-human perfection for my attempts to ‘re-build’ myself over the past four decades? Or was I genetically pre-programmed for self-improvement? Who knows, but I have certainly worked ridiculously hard to re-shape the personality I was born with.
Perhaps the most arduous attempt to ‘re-build’ myself was producing a memoir. In 2014, after five years of research and writing, my memoir Shy was published by Text. The book explored my experiences of grappling with a shy temperament and the social anxiety that accompanied it.
Burrowing into the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology and linguistics, I discovered that perfectionism, self-consciousness and social awkwardness were all common features of shyness. I emerged from the research process with a much clearer understanding of the causes of my irrational fear of other human beings. Deep down, I hoped all this research would bulldoze my shyness into submission.
Re-reading my youthful diaries, I discovered that I had been trying to cure myself of shyness for at least 40 years. As a teenager I had logged my successes and failures in social encounters. Approaching someone I was interested in counted as a success; withdrawing from or actively avoiding someone interesting was a pathetic failure. Imagine my delight when my memoir research revealed that shyness is a temperament trait described by psychologists as being on the “approach-withdrawal” spectrum.
Even more thrilling was the revelation that I was not responsible for my anxious, avoidant behaviours. They were not a sign of weakness or a flawed character. I had been born with this temperament trait (both my parents were shy) and therefore my autonomic nervous system was hard-wired to respond to strangers as if they were threatening.
After the book was published I began to receive emails from readers, shy folk like me, many of whom felt relieved when they read the results of my research. “You were writing about me,” they said. “I have been struggling to deal with this stuff forever. At least now I know why I am the way I am.” Many of them related their valiant attempts to be different people—more confident, outgoing, extroverted people—stronger, better people, like those bionic TV stars. Just as my readers felt comforted by the information I’d offered them, I took comfort in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only shy person trying to re-build herself.
While I was writing Shy: a memoir I had a mentor who read the earliest drafts and made suggestions about how they could be improved. His feedback was often hard to hear, but always useful. One day he sat me down and asked me a simple question: “What’s this book about?”
“Well, I guess it’s about me,” I said. “And my shyness.”
“Here’s the thing,” he responded. “I don’t really know you that well, so why should I care? And I’m not shy, so why should I care? How can you make me care about this memoir? What’s it really about?”
His question echoed in my mind for a long time. It wasn’t until the book was finished and published, though, that I could produce a more satisfactory answer.
The memoir I had written was about fear, and loneliness, and fear of loneliness. It was about being ashamed of your presence in the world. It was about wanting to be someone you could never be, and about learning to accept who you really were. You didn’t need to be shy to understand those things, because they were all universal human experiences.
My secret hope—that writing a memoir about shyness would cure me of my shyness—was never realised. I could not re-build my personality with words. What I did, though, was cure myself of the desire to be someone else. I no longer feel ashamed of my social anxiety. On the contrary, I feel compassion for the younger self who diarised her self-therapy and her suffering all those years ago. If only someone had written a memoir about shyness and handed it to her in the university café one day. Perhaps she would have suffered a little less.
And perhaps she would have been less keen to eradicate the shy part of her temperament. My research for the book also turned up some positive character traits that often accompany shyness, including empathy, sensitivity and honesty. Just as the fictional bionic woman had to lose bits of herself in order to gain her post-human superpowers, re-building myself as a non-shy person might have involved erasing my better qualities.
I now run workshops for The School of Life (Melbourne and Sydney) called ‘Wrangling Your Shyness’. Over the course of a day I explain to the mostly shy participants exactly why their bodies leap into fight-or-flight mode whenever they meet someone new. And I invite them to consider the benefits of having a shy personality; like being good listeners, and being non-aggressive, conscientious and helpful in social situations.
Like me, the workshop participants often decide they no longer need to try and re-build themselves. Being human is good enough.