‘Dad has no idea how paralysing this thing is. I never want to talk to him again’.
These miserable words appeared recently in a Facebook message from my teenage friend Anna*. Her father had been giving her a hard time about not finding a part-time job. He accused his daughter (and not for the first time) of being lazy and of sponging off her parents. In fact Anna is suffering from a form of anxiety so severe that some days she can’t leave the house.
Anna’s father is a fearless extrovert. Like her mother, though, Anna is very shy. Shyness is an inherited temperament trait that often manifests as social anxiety; our nervous systems are hard-wired to avoid those we don’t know intimately. Some of us may eventually find ways to feel safe in the company of strangers. Others develop full-blown social phobia and endure lives of quiet desperation. The difference sometimes comes down to how we are parented.
One of the first people to make a study of the experience of shyness was Charles Darwin. A century and half ago Darwin described shyness as one of ‘the mental states which induce blushing’.
‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance’, Darwin wrote, ‘but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush. Shyness seems to depend on sensitiveness to the opinion, whether good or bad, of others, more especially with respect to external appearance.’
The scientist writes tenderly about his two year old son who behaved shyly towards his father after Darwin had returned from a weeklong absence. Darwin begs his readers not to judge shy children when they avoided the scrutiny of ‘the unmerciful spectator’.
One hundred and fifty years on, Darwin’s findings have been confirmed by psychologists specialising in social anxiety. According to Professor Ron Rapee, head of the Centre for Emotional Health in Sydney, at the core of social anxiety is fear of negative judgement. ‘A diagnosis (of social anxiety) requires that people avoid social situations because of that concern about being evaluated by others.’
Rapee says a lot of shy people have physical symptoms like shaking and blushing. Some of them are able to ‘get on with life and don’t let it stop them. But people who are highly shy are the ones most likely to be socially phobic’.
The Centre for Emotional Health offers a range of resources for the parents of anxious kids, including public talks, downloadable fact sheets and treatment sessions. They also conduct research into the impacts of shyness on children. For example, one study shows how an innate dislike of uncertainty is part of the distress experienced by young people with socially anxiety. Another confirms that social anxiety can get in the way of children making friends.
I recall my own mother trying to encourage me to deal with my dislike of uncertainty when it came to making childhood friends. In my memoir Shy (Text Publishing) I describe how I found it almost impossible to visit my friend Sally who lived just around the corner.
My anxious mind was so full of ‘what ifs’ (what if she doesn’t want me there?) that my mother had to bribe me with coins to make the journey to Sally’s place.
My mother’s instincts were right; gentle encouragement with rewards for risk-taking can be very helpful for shy children. On the other hand a response like that of Anna’s father – punishing a shy child for her fears – can only add to their distress.
Later in life my mother pursued her interest in children’s behaviour and became a psychologist specialising in the study of temperament. In researching my memoir I interviewed Professor Margot Prior (aka mum) about her findings.
‘If, by the time you’re nine or ten, you’ve been shy all along and you’re still shy then it’s a pretty enduring characteristic’, she told me. ‘But lots of kids are initially shy and grow out of it. The way the parents handle it can make a difference. It’s hard if the parents are biologically inclined to be shy and are modelling shy behaviour. But if the parents model brave behaviour, then that can help.’
According to a set of guidelines distributed by the Centre for Emotional Health, the three most important things a parent can do for a socially anxious child are to show them affection and acceptance, to stay emotionally in touch with them and to support their attempts to be more independent.
‘Respond consistently to your child in a warm, loving, supportive and respectful way, and support their autonomy. Be involved in the various aspects of your child’s life and engage in fun activities. Know who your child’s friends are, take an interest in what (they’re) doing,’ the guidelines advise.
Everything in moderation, though: ‘Being over-protective of a child gives them the message that the world is a dangerous place. It is important that children be allowed to take age-appropriate risks, attempt difficult tasks and learn from their mistakes’.
Being impatient with their anxiety can be unhelpful, as can pushing them too far too fast. ‘For example it may not be helpful to encourage your teenager to enter a singing contest if they’re not yet comfortable singing in front of the family.’ In Anna’s case, perhaps fronting up for a job interview is simply a bridge too far for a teenager struggling with social anxiety. If fear of negative evaluation is a problem then she may need to gain more confidence dealing with unknown adults before she puts herself in a situation where she is being judged as a job applicant.
Writer Kate Holden, author of the best-selling memoir In My Skin describes herself as having been a shy child: ‘My mother tells me that when we’d go to my friends’ birthday parties I wouldn’t leave her side. Then she would invite all these people for my birthday parties and I would run away and hide while they all sang happy birthday to the cake,’ she laughs.
Holden has vivid memories of being tormented by her fears. ‘I remember at school being asked to do something for a theatre class and freezing up. I sat on the side curling tighter and tighter into a little bundle with my knees up to my chin saying ‘no no no’. Eventually my teachers contacted my parents and suggested I see a psychologist. After six weeks the psychologist said ‘Leave her alone, stop pestering her, she’s not comfortable with this and not good at relating to people in these situations.’ ’
In my own battles with shyness I discovered that I could behave more confidently and take more risks in the workplace than in social situations. Feeling professionally useful allowed me to focus less on my own anxieties. Kate Holden describes in her memoir In My Skin how she found an escape from her shyness whilst working in a brothel, where she could hide behind her professional persona as a sex worker.
Understanding more about the causes and effects of my shyness has certainly helped me to feel less embarrassed by it and to take more control of it. I’ve sent copies of the guidelines for parenting anxious children to both Anna and her father. Perhaps the advice they contain will help this father and daughter find common ground.
- Anna’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
This article was first published in The Best You magazine (UK)
This week I’m heading off in my little white camper van for three months. North, then further north, then even further north, seeking the warmth of the tropics in winter.
Yesterday I bought a mobile phone holder to stick in the van (for map-reading) and these are the instructions for putting it together:
a: First about to A green colour part insert lead plane.
b: A second about to B plate the base down a windshield.
c: To push C the switch instruct in fixed
d: Moves the D-palace go-between,may adjust the angle and the direction wilfully.
I am still looking for my lead plane.
Maybe I left it in the D-palace.
If you never hear from me again, you’ll know why.
I recently reviewed a memoir for The Age newspaper.
Fallen by Rochelle Siemienowicz (Affirm Press)
In a popular TED talk on infidelity, relationship counsellor Esther Perel argues that having an affair is not so much about looking for someone else as looking for a new self. Evidence to support Perel’s theory can be found in Rochelle Siemienowicz’s memoir Fallen. In this frank account of the dying days of a marriage, the author describes her twenty four year old self searching feverishly for a new identity through a series of intense sexual encounters whilst on holiday in Perth.
The twist in this tale is that ‘Eve’ (as the author re-names herself) has an open marriage. Sex outside the relationship is condoned by her husband so long as she asks his permission first. To be ‘unfaithful’ Eve must not only sleep with someone else, but she must conceal the encounter from her beloved spouse.
If you’ve ever felt betrayed by infidelity, Fallen makes for uncomfortable reading. Witnessing Eve’s frantic attempts to both search for, and escape from, a moral framework for her actions is like watching someone wrestle with a snake. Morality matters deeply to this narrator; growing up in a Seventh Day Adventist family, the shame attached to any moral failure – particularly when it came to ‘fornication’ outside marriage – was acute. Eve began losing her faith soon after marriage. Her attempt to forge a new identity through the embrace of sexual freedom could be seen as a final attempt to shed her old skin.
Siemienowicz’s writing is fluid and sensual. Almost every scene – from playing with Barbie dolls to observing a glass vase in a display cabinet – is suffused with the protagonist’s physical longings. Freud’s theory of polymorphous perversity haunts this tale; any person or object can be the spark of desire for the sexual imagination. Even decay can be sexy. Eve describes one of her lovers as ‘heavy and blonde and I can see his youth dying all over him’.
The story ends with the still-married couple boarding a plane to return home from their Perth holiday and the denouement is delivered a little too swiftly in an epilogue. Occasionally, too, we can feel the reconstructive effort that has gone into recalling two-decade old conversations.
When Siemienowicz is describing body language, though, her observations are painfully authentic: ‘Sometimes I see a shrewd and wary look in the women’s eyes, as if they’re assessing me for potential threat. They thought I was safe and partnered, out of bounds. But here I am, shifting the lines of what’s possible’.
Theories abound about the causes of extra-marital affairs. Evolutionary psychologists have been falling over themselves in recent times to persuade us that infidelity lurks in our genes; that men are compelled to sleep around in order to procreate and that promiscuous women have genetic variants that lead them to seek engage in ‘extra pair bonding’.
Science may provide us with persuasive explanations of the role of things like oxytocin and vasopressin receptor genes in our sexual behaviour; this is called non-narrative knowledge. The narrative knowledge conveyed through memoirs like Fallen offers us far more complex and poetic insights into the emotional parameters of infidelity. After reading all about Eve, you may find yourself concluding that some betrayals are not only inevitable, but necessary.
I recently answered these questions on how to overcome writers block for the Australian Women Writers website:
Q. How would you define writer’s block?
The term is an over-simplified way of referring to a multitude of reasons why we sometimes find it hard to write the things we want to write. I try to de-mystify the term by breaking it down to a series of clear and soluble problems. Sometimes fear gets in our way, sometimes planning and logistics are the main problem, and sometimes we actually need to stop writing and allow our brains to do some of the work internally. Guilt is a common symptom (and sometimes a cause) of so-called ‘writer’s block’ and shedding this guilt can often help us kick-start our creativity.
Q. As you’ve reminded us, Thomas Mann wrote ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ In your words, what’s he getting at?
I try to interpret this statement in a positive way. Writing is more difficult for writers because we care more about the quality of the writing than others, and we understand better than most what makes the difference between good writing and bad. Ironically it is this very fear of writing badly that enables us to write well. So in my workshops I look at the benefits of this fear and how we can use it to our advantage rather than allow it to disable us. Writing is tricky. Not every idea or everything we put in a first draft is going to be worth salvaging. But almost all ‘bad’ writing can be made better.
Q. Do you think most aspiring writers lack confidence in their writing and how important is confidence in getting published?
Most of us have doubts about the quality of our writing, and again. Those doubts can be useful. When I interviewed best-selling author Christos Tsiolkas a few years ago he said a very interesting thing:
‘There’s this voice on my shoulder that says, “Are you good enough? Are you a fraud? Are you deserving to be… a writer?” [But as well as] that voice… there’s the other one that goes, “You’re a bloody genius.” Equally wrong. I think.’
So too much confidence can be equally dangerous. We need a balance of confidence (or optimism) and realism. It is useful to show your work to others – people whose opinions you trust – before submitting it to a publisher, to get a reality check. I would say discipline is more important than confidence. If you are disciplined about your approach to the logistics of your writing practice and the quality of your work, you will inevitably have more confidence in it.
Interview by Sarah Menary. Sian Prior is teaching Overcoming Writer’s Block: Unlocking your Creativity on Saturday June 13 at Faber Writing Academy go to www.faberwritingacademy.com.au for details.
This interview was published recently on The Big Smoke website:
Through Sherryn Groch’s interview with Sian Prior we learn that while writing is an act of creativity for some, it is therapy for others. Prior’s “Writing as Therapy” workshop takes place later this month.
When Sian Prior sits down to tell a story, it is more than just the impulse of a seasoned writer, more than habit leftover from a career in journalism. It’s repair.
For most of her life, the broadcaster and author has turned to the “straight line” of the sentence to make sense of her experiences – including, at times, a paralysing social anxiety.
“Something about the process that goes on between the mind and the fingers tapping on the keyboard and the pace at which that happens helps me to think more clearly,” Prior tells The Big Smoke. “I will literally just sit down and have a conversation with myself in text and say, ‘well, what’s going on, why am I feeling like this?’”
This month, Prior is holding a Writing as Therapy workshop at The School of Life in Melbourne to help others take away the same benefits from their writing.
“I guess it’s a natural fit given the subject matter of my memoir, which was in many ways a deeply therapeutic process for me as a writer,” says Prior. “I hope to give people some practical tools on how to use writing as a way of understanding themselves better, of finding some relief from whatever it is that’s causing them suffering.”
For Prior herself, that suffering has been a life-long struggle with what most of us call “shyness.” As she recalls in her memoir, Shy, social anxiety has always been an unavoidable reality for Prior – something she suspects may have just been hot-wired into her DNA.
“I have a memory of being on a beach at only three or four years old and hiding behind my mother’s legs because my big scary, teenage cousins were there,” says Prior. “That anxiety is something I don’t ever remember being without.”
Yet, even back in those early moments, Prior says there was another feeling too – a growing excitement for stories.
“My mother recently dug up a story I’d written when I was still at primary school, a little crime thriller involving the family dog,” says Prior. “It was very cute to read back over it and think there’s so much wrong with it but what’s right about it is the impulse to tell a story. I was clearly really excited by the possibility of story.”
That passion has since thrown Prior into a long line of very public careers – first as a campaigner for the Australian Conservation Foundation, then as an ABC broadcaster and now as a creative writing teacher and author in her own right.
“I don’t think any of us are a singular, unified identity,” says Prior. “I think we all have different versions of ourselves; different voices and different roles we play. It’s about turning all that babble that goes on inside our heads, all those contradictions, into words.”
And it is there on the page that the writer will often find catharsis, Prior says. Teaching at RMIT University, she has now witnessed countless students begin to make sense of their lives through memoir.
“I have one student at the moment writing about dealing with incurable cancer and staying alive and, by writing about it, she’s realising that she’s not letting it get on top of her,” says Prior. “I have another student making all kinds of personal discoveries and revelations by going back over her past as a stripper and figuring out how it changed her. Writing can be incredibly transformative in the right circumstances.”
But, while confessional memoir is “a great way of outing shame and embarrassment,” Prior believes writers should also understand its limits.
“Just blurting out all of your innermost secrets is not enough. You need to craft it into a story, to manage things like self-pity. You should always be asking yourself: ‘what’s the story in this situation?’”
Fortunately, the author is not expecting a class full of Hemingways made to order ahead of her Writing as Therapy workshop this month
“I don’t want people to worry too much about the quality of their writing when they’re first starting out,” Prior says. “Do it so that it’s pleasurable and useful for yourself and then you can start to think about how to apply a bit of craft to do it even better.”
After all, just as writing can be healing, it can also be a whole lot of fun.
(Sherryn Groch is a freelance writer and journalism student from Melbourne. She enjoys writing short stories, frolicking in unsecured meadows and sometimes tweets.)
This week I learnt a new term: notional ekphrasis (sounds like ’emphasis’). It means writing about an imaginary artwork. I learnt about it in a workshop with Robin Hemley, Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at RMIT.
And then I tried my hand at it:
The ceramic tiles will come from the demolition of a kitchen in which a woman only ever baked one pie (from a gift her husband gave her called ‘The Slut’s Cookbook’).
The tile fragments will be stuck in place by an artist who used to be an ornithologist (before an artery in her neck grew a lining of cells that promised to stop the blood flowing to her head next time she went bush).
The image will be of a rainbow bee-eater I once saw on an island where dingos outnumbered people (and where a woman whose child was bitten by one put out poison bait just before she boarded the ferry).
The ceramic bird will be attached to the back wall of my garden (over which I sometimes hear a man bullying his son into playing the drums while the piano-playing man belts out the same Elton John song at least fourteen times in a row).
The mosaic will soon be streaked with shit from the mynahs (who perch on the wall in a neat queue before taking their turn to bathe in the ceramic bowl I put in the garden for the native birds.)
In spring the jasmine vines will grow over the mosaic until all I can see from the kitchen window are kaleidoscopic fragments of a dirty rainbow.
(But it will smell great.)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And then there is simple ekphrasis: a verbal representation of a visual representation. Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts (1940)’ is a lovely example.
I had a go at that too, with an old postcard of Mt Etna erupting:
Without imagination, there would be no science.
Stephen must have forgotten this.
He never believed the sky had turned purple.
He knew the postcard from his Italian uncle had been given the same technicolour treatment given to Dorothy before she clicked her imaginary heels in Oz.
Besides, even if those billowing clouds of ash had somehow washed the sky purple, this time there would be no clouds, no ash, no purple sky, because now all was dormant.
It had been ninety years since the last eruption. Tourists had been crawling all over the crumbling rim of the crater for the last sixty of those.
But perhaps Stephen had been carrying this image in his mind since boyhood. The invitation. The seduction. The promise. Perhaps this was the version of the world he’d secretly been hoping to find at the summit.
Stephen was a scientist. He looked for signs that came in clusters, for clusters that could be corralled into evidence. Imagination was the enemy of evidence. Imagination turned a blue sky purple.
When he felt a tightening twinge in his left shoulder as he knelt there in the crumbling pumice, he didn’t read it as a sign. He blamed his imagination.
The sky was blue, after all.
Try this short quiz: given the choice, would you prefer to A) make small talk with a stranger or B) chew your own arm off? If you answered A) you are probably shy. Don’t worry, you are in good company: approximately forty percent of us identify ourselves as suffering from shyness. And if you’d rather chew both arms off than engage in chit-chat with someone you’ve never met, you might even be one of the five percent of the population who are stricken by social phobia.
According to psychologists, shyness is a temperament trait that exists on a spectrum between approach and withdrawal. ‘Approachers’ are the ones who’ll try to strike up a conversation with you on the bus about the weather forecast or the football results. If, like me, you were born on the withdrawal end of the spectrum, you probably put your sunglasses on and bury your head in a book to avoid having to chat to any public transport approachers. For shy people small talk can be an agony.
According to Professor Ron Rapee, head of the Centre for Emotional Health in Sydney, shy people often suffer from social anxiety, at the core of which is ‘worry and fear about being negatively evaluated’.
‘A lot of shy people avoid social situations because of that concern about being evaluated by others. They have physical symptoms (of anxiety) like shaking’.
So it makes sense that engaging in small talk could induce distress in those of us who struggle with ‘stranger-danger’. As a young traveller backpacking solo around Europe for six months, the most frightening part of the trip for me was being called upon to chat with other travellers at youth hostel dining tables.
According to linguists, though, small talk is a vital part of human discourse. It oils the wheels of interaction and generates social cohesion. Think about the trust and goodwill generated between the new client and the hairdresser as they chat about the latest celebrity updates in the salon’s fashion magazines, or the stress relief for disappointed fans as they commiserate with strangers about their team’s loss on the train ride home from the match. Even the outcome of job interviews can be influenced by the tone set during those initial verbal pleasantries before the serious questioning begins.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes human chatter is a form of social grooming, a bit like monkeys picking insects out of each other’s fur. In ‘Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language’, he writes ‘it’s the tittle-tattle of life that makes the world go round, not the pearls of wisdom that fall from the lips of the Aristotles and the Einsteins. We are social beings and our world… is cocooned in the interests and the minutiae of everyday social life.’
But what if you’re shy and don’t think you can ‘do’ small talk? Won’t that increase your anxiety in social situations?
According to Robert Coplan from the Psychology Department at CarletonUniversity in Ottawa, Canada,‘it’s fairly well established that shy children and shy adults tend to talk less, typically because they are feeling nervous or self-conscious in situations, so they produce less language. Some people have suggested that if you speak less then you have less opportunity to practice your language skills.’ Psychologist Ron Rapee has a different take on this debate: ‘My view is that it’s all perception. Socially anxious people perceive themselves as incompetent at small talk but they are perfectly competent.’
Whatever the cause of our anxiety about small talk, we shy people are probably more interested in finding the solution. One American self-help author believes the best strategy is to focus on helping others as a way of helping ourselves. Debra Fine’s book ‘The Fine Art of Small Talk’ offers a strategy involving two basic rules.
The first could be seen a form of exposure therapy: ‘Take The Risk: it is up to us to take the risk of starting a conversation with a stranger… even if we are shy’. This is all very well, but when your shy brain is full of ‘what if’s’ (what if they don’t want to talk to me? what if they think I’m an idiot?) it can be almost impossible to make the first move.
Fine’s second rule has proved more useful for me as a way of tackling my aversion to small talk. ‘Assume the Burden’, Fine suggests; ‘it is our responsibility to come up with topics to discuss… to assume the burden of other people’s comfort’. According to psychologists, shy people are often deeply empathic. After all, we spend a lot of time wondering what others are thinking. We can employ that empathy to help ourselves in awkward social situations by focusing on helping the other person out. If forty percent of us are shy, there’s a good chance the stranger we’re stuck next to at the wedding party buffet is feeling just as anxious about making small talk. By ‘assuming the burden’ and making the first conversational offer, we can be simultaneously altruistic and self-serving.
This strategy can sometimes lead to even more awkwardness. At a book launch recently I took the initiative and began chatting with a young Asian woman who was standing alone, looking bereft. My chatter ground to a halt when I realized she spoke almost no English, and I skulked away in embarrassment. More often, though, I am finding that my Small Talk Super-Heroine impersonation leads to an enjoyable conversation with someone who soon feels more like friend than foe.
The fact that I’ve written a book about my own shyness is proving to be an excellent conversation opener when I’m targetting the most socially anxious person in the room to practice my small talk. Before long we are swapping tales of social terror and giggling about our irrational fears. And nothing oils the wheels of social discourse – and banishes terror – like sharing a laugh.
(A version of this article was published in Fairfax’s ‘Sunday Life’ magazine on June 14th)
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