When I was eight, I moved to a new primary school. I’d spent the summer holidays writing an appeal to my mum, putting forward an argument for staying at the old school – that I loved – rather than starting at this strange new school. But to no avail. September came and I found myself in a new classroom, with a new teacher, surrounded by 30 new faces. As a shy child, this was fairly terrifying. And so when I was asked to stand up and introduce myself, I was trembling.
That first day, as I walked into the school hall for assembly, I didn’t know which hymn book to take so I copied the boy in front of me. When we sat down, cross-legged, on the floor, the head teacher spotted my error. “You were meant to take the blue book, not the green!” she shouted. I hadn’t realised and as a result it meant I messed up the whole line. I felt my cheeks burn as all heads turned to me.
That same head teacher announced in another assembly that I was going to be singing a solo in front of the 300 children I was sat among. I’d had no idea that this was going to happen. She called me up to the front, instructed the piano player to begin and I very reluctantly sang “Cuckoo, cuckoo, pray what do you do…” in a barely audible, high-pitched voice, with a sea of silent children staring up at me. The teacher stood next to the piano, shouting: “Louder! Louder!” But I didn’t know how to project my voice; I couldn’t make it any louder.
On reflection, I wonder if she was trying to exorcise my shyness. She thought that calling out my errors publicly and forcing me to perform, unprepared, in front of an audience, would somehow shake the shyness out of me. But it didn’t. It made me quieter and more withdrawn. I was scared of her and of whatever she might make me do next. And this made me not want to 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 is something that is very much part of who we are – and has a good evolutionary basis. We can’t all be explorers; some of us have to make sure the children are safe. But in a society that values external reward, independence, confidence and individuality, shyness can be seen as an affliction.”
The teacher stood next to me and shouted: ‘Louder! Louder!’
That’s certainly how it felt for me growing up. Aside from my parents, who were always very accepting of me, I felt most other adults found my shyness difficult. A friend of my mum’s once described me as a “dark horse” because I was less forthcoming, socially, than her daughter. And then there was the reception class teacher who was keen for me to have a go on the monkey bars. I told her that I didn’t want to, that I couldn’t do it, but she forced me to try. Perhaps she thought she was helpfully pushing me out of my comfort zone. As I went to swing from the first bar to the second, I didn’t manage to reach it and fell flat on my back. She pushed too hard and it went wrong. An ambulance was called.
“Generally, if shy people are encouraged to feel safe – whatever this may mean to them – and given time to feel comfortable, they will thrive,” says Dr Svanberg. “Probably the worst thing we can do for a shy person is to push them into situations they don’t feel comfortable in – this will raise their anxiety and leave them feeling even less secure. With support, even the shyest children can become more confident about new situations.”
This is echoed by child psychologist Dr Ruth Erskine, who says that if she has a child coming to see her who is shy, this in itself is not a cause for concern. “We over-psychologise lots of things,” she says, “but unless a child can’t manage school, for instance, shyness is not a problem.” And if they are struggling at school, she says, this isn’t something that the child needs to deal with; it’s instead down to the teacher to make the environment more welcoming for that child.
This wasn’t my experience and, sadly, I suspect childhood shyness is still largely unsupported in schools. But when I started secondary school, something shifted for me. I was still on the quiet side, but I had lots of friends and I loved performing. So I spent my lunch-breaks making up dance routines and plays that I’d then perform in front of the school, in assemblies and end-of-year concerts. While reading aloud in front of the class or doing presentations filled me with dread, I had this inner performer. Getting up on that stage made me buzz. Perhaps it was because I was choosing to do it rather than being instructed to. But I started to see that if I worked hard at something – practising lines, learning dance moves – I could do it. I was never the best, but I was always determined. And it started to pay off. My only A* in GCSEs was in performing arts.
Shy people often have a greater feel for social dynamics
What I wish I’d known, as a child and through my teens into adulthood, is that shyness is incredibly common. Nearly 50% of the population experiences shyness and it can manifest as a wariness of social situations – arriving at a wedding, starting a new job, the office Christmas party – or as more general quietness. For instance, not knowing how to contribute to a conversation. Deep thinking, rather than blurting out. Shyness can hold us back from doing certain activities that will focus all attention on us, like presenting or performing. But it doesn’t have to. 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 may have wanted to at times, they decided to use their shyness to their advantage.
Shyness teaches you empathy. When you’ve skirted around the edges of the school playground, wondering how to get involved, you understand how it feels to be left out, to feel different. And you notice when others are feeling that way. It also, perhaps surprisingly, educates you on social dynamics. Educational and child psychologist Hannah Abrahams says that because shy children need to survey, observe and make sense of the world and new situations around them before feeling they can fully participate. “They often have a greater understanding of social dynamics and networks since they have taken the time to watch.” Spending all that time quietly observing can also make you more introspective, which is useful for creative work and for generally understanding yourself better. I believe my shyness is what led me to becoming a writer; it was my way of making sense of the world.
Alongside writing, I teach women how to launch and grow online businesses via my website, the Robora, and while at first I wasn’t sure I had the entrepreneurial flare required to successfully run a business, I soon learned that shy people lead differently. According to various studies, shy business owners listen more attentively, monitor themselves more closely, refrain from action and encourage team members to become more involved. There is less ego involved. And this more collaborative approach is what has helped me to grow the 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 record Instagram Stories with ease. But put me in an actual room, with an audience, and it’s rather different. Not impossible – I’ve done it, do it and always enjoy it in the end – but it takes next-levels of preparation.
That said, I do love real-life socialising. I’m shy but extroverted, so I love weddings, big parties, busy markets, music festivals and live events. I’ll often be first up on the dancefloor or the stage. But it needs to be my choice. If someone pulls me up there before I’m ready, I recoil. In stereotypical “shy” fashion, I need to move at my own pace. And this, I’ve learned, is OK. So instead of carrying my shyness around like a shameful little secret, I am now reclaiming it. My shyness is literally part of me; it’s in my DNA. It’s informed many of my life decisions. If I was offered the chance to have it stripped away? No thanks. I’m shy. And proud.
Shy: How Being Quiet Can Lead to Success by Annie Ridout is published by HarperCollins at £12.99. Buy a copy for £11.30 at theguardianbookshop