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 forty 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 realized. 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 diarized her self-therapy and her suffering all those years ago. If only someone has 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 ‘Shy: a memoir’ 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.
(This essay was first published in Dumbo Feather, October 2017)
If I’d consulted a de-cluttering expert this story wouldn’t have had a happy ending. De-clutterers advise us to throw away anything we’re not using all the time, and any objects that make us feel bad. My old Ipod ticked both boxes.
It had been a birthday present from an ex, about a decade ago. Not only had he given me the Ipod, he’d loaded it with a vast sound library; soul, pop, jazz, folk, country, reggae, hip-hop and classical music. Tedious tram rides into work were transformed by this glorious gift.
Skip forward half a decade. The break-up was punishing, the kind you’d like to have surgically removed from your memory bank. I packed everything of ‘ours’ into a cardboard box and hid it under the stairs – letters, books, photos – and the damned Ipod. I couldn’t bring myself to chuck them away but I had to get them out of sight, out of mind.
Skip forward to the present. An elderly relative of mine has fallen ill. He’s sick enough to need a long hospital stay but well enough to be conscious of the cacophony around him. The groans of other patients, the machines that go bing, the visitors on their mobiles – it’s driving him mad. What can I do to help?
One day as I’m sitting by his bed, trying to ignore the wet coughing of the next patient, I remember the Ipod lurking under the stairs. My elderly relative used to be an orchestral musician and he still loves his music. The Ipod was a fifth generation ‘classic’ with simple push buttons. Even an elderly technophobe could use it – if it’s still working.
Back home I ferret under the stairs, pull out the ancient device and blow the dust off. Charged up, it miraculously comes to back to life. There’s a ton of classical music on there, everything from Bach to Mozart to Wagner.
The next time I visit my elderly relative I slip some headphones over his ears and show him how to press the button for Beethoven’s fifth symphony. At the sound of the opening chords a beatific smile lights up his face. He nods and gives me the thumbs up.
Heading out the door I glance back at him. His eyes are closed and his hands are waving in the air, conducting an invisible orchestra. And he’s still smiling.
(This column was first published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in October 2017)
According to British singer-songwriter Morrissey ‘shyness is nice’. When shyness leaves you feeling breathless, voiceless and even friendless, though, it can be anything but nice. Shyness often manifests as social anxiety, and as Morrissey sings in his song Ask Me, it can stop you from doing the things you want to do in your life.
After spending more than four decades wrangling with my own shyness, I wrote a book called ‘Shy: a memoir’ (Text Publishing) in which I investigated the causes and symptoms of this inherited personality trait. I discovered that shy people often feel anxious about social encounters because we fear other people’s judgment – specifically, their negative evaluation. We torment ourselves with self-critical thoughts like “I look out of place”, “I sound stupid” and “I’m making a fool of myself”.
Our fear can manifest as a bunch of distressing physical symptoms, including sweating, trembling, hyperventilating and blushing. Shy folk feel self-conscious in the company of people we don’t know well and will cross the street to avoid having to speak to acquaintances. In the long term social anxiety can also mess with the digestive system. All that churning sometimes causes IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
The good news is that shy people are often those with the most empathy. We spend a lot of time thinking about what other people are thinking, and that can sometimes be a good thing. Many shy people go into the caring professions, like nursing, teaching and counseling.
So how can we best deal with the downsides of shyness and take advantage of the upsides?
Based on the research I did for ‘Shy: a memoir’ I’ve come up with a list of ten practical strategies for coping with shyness:
1) Use self-talk to reduce your discomfort. Remind yourself that 50% of the people around you are probably ALSO feeling shy. You are not alone in dealing with these feelings. Try to separate your mind from your body’s symptoms. Eg. tell yourself ‘oh there go those butterflies in my stomach again, they’ll disappear soon’.
2) Plan ahead. Prepare for social events that you feel nervous about. Spend some time trying to remember the names of the people who might be there. Perhaps find ‘safe’ friends who are also going to the event. Use self-talk to remind yourself that you won’t be able to control all aspects of this social interaction. Be prepared to deal with a level of uncertainty.
3) Help others at social events. Try to spot some other shy people and help them out by approaching them. This takes the focus off your own discomfort and gives you a focus to help you take the attention off yourself. Assume the burden of initiating the conversation by asking others questions about themselves.
4) Try exposure therapy. Give yourself regular small challenges in dealing with your shyness, to give yourself confidence (but keep them small to begin with because if you have bad experiences they might reinforce your fears). Then reward yourself for being brave in the face of your anxiety.
5) Organise or join social activities in ways that suit you It can help to arrange or go along to events that are regular or semi-regular (eg. book clubs, clothes swaps, meet-ups, classes, tree-planting) where you know who’ll be there, and where there is an activity as the main focus of the event. This gives you something to talk about that you all have in common, as opposed to free-form socializing, which can be full of uncertainty.
6) Confide your shyness to others rather than hide it. This can have a cathartic effect and reduce your sense of aloneness and/or shame.
7) Adopt a ‘persona’. In your professional capacity or your parenting capacity, for example, you can tell yourself that YOU are not being judged because you represent something bigger and more important than you (your place of employment, your useful work role, your role as a carer).
8) Keep a diary of your journey to management of your shyness/social anxiety. Note your progress and your challenges. Reflect on what you are going through.
9) Use social media to reach out, but be wary of the downsides. Monitor its effect on you and take breaks when you need to. Assess the positives and negatives (eg. FOMO).
10) Try other anxiety management strategies. Consider meditation, yoga, physical exercise, deep breathing and other forms of relaxation therapy. You can also seek professional counseling. Psychologists are trained to help people with social anxiety and can offer CBT and reassurance. You could also consider joining an anxiety support group at ARCVic (the Anxiety Recovery Centre). http://www.arcvic.org.au
This article was first published in The Guardian in October 2017.
Exotica: Songs from Another Time, Another Place
The Westgarth Ensemble explores the exotic as seen through the eyes of composers from the Baroque through to the 20th century. Experience the biblical lands as depicted in songs by Handel, feel the allure of the East as presented in operas by Puccini and Delibes, and travel back in time to the new world of Rameau’s ‘noble savages’.
A recent visit to the Islamic Museum of Australia inspired the Westgarth Ensemble to investigate how western composers have exploited the romance of distant lands to add a frisson of the exotic to their music and drama.
Come with us on a musical tour through history and geography with Exotica.
When: Sunday October 15, 2:00pm
Where: Bardin Centre
Christ Church Anglican Church
8 Glenlyon Rd, Brunswick
Who: The Westgarth Ensemble
Claire McDonald (Soprano)
Katrena Mitchell (Soprano)
Sian Prior (Soprano)
Kerrie Bolton (Mezzo soprano)
with Gregory Smith (Piano)
Admission: $25 ($20 concession) – bookings here.
Background: The members of the Westgarth Ensemble have been singing together since 1997. Graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio, they have all worked for a range of Australian opera companies and ensembles. In recent years they have been presenting themed vocal concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2015 they performed ‘Who Wears the Pants’ followed in 2016 by ‘Supernatural’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Clownfish to the left of me, goatfish to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle of a stunning coral reef which may not survive.
I’m snorkelling off Lady Elliott Island, a coral cay at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Below are handbag-sized clams with luminescent green lips and black sea slugs frosted with sugary sand. Every imaginable dance move is going on around me – flicking, swaying, shimmying, darting – a hyperactive ballet troupe, except the dancers are all fish.
Come to think of it, this reef has all the art forms covered: the Rembrandt blue starfish, the Ballets Russes damselfish, the Stravinsky-esque percussion of a million tiny mouths nibbling on coral.
Even football gets a look-in. I nickname a little black and white guy the Collingwoodfish (it’s actually called a humbug). Later I will discover there is another one (I kid you not) called the Chinese footballer cod.
Back on the beach I watch a woman from our tour group trying to cajole her young son into snorkelling. He’s shaking his head and whimpering. There’s scratchy sand in his fins. “Don’t you realise,” I want to whisper urgently to him, “this could be your last chance!”
Mass bleaching has affected two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef in the last couple of years, killing huge quantities of coral. Climate change is a major factor. The southern part, including Lady Elliott Island, has sustained less damage than the north. But a local ranger tells us there was worrying bleaching here last summer, halted only by the cooler currents that came with Cyclone Debbie.
Later our group bobs above the coral in a glass-bottomed boat. The boy who wouldn’t go snorkelling leans over the glass, spotting the fish and turtles mooching below us. With the encouragement of the ranger he pulls his goggles on and slides into the water.
Half an hour later the boy hauls himself back onto the boat, teeth chattering, eyes wide with the shock of pleasure. ‘I saw a manta ray!’ he tells us. ‘And Nemo!’
The Germans probably have a word for the grief you feel when you’ve not yet lost something, but suspect you soon will. As we fly back to the mainland over the endless blue, there are whales to the left of us, dolphins to the right. Here we are, stuck in the middle of paradise, and we’re running out of time.
For more info: ladyelliott.com.au
This column was first published by Fairfax on September 10th 2017.
Dear reader, your feedback is valuable to us, so would you mind completing a quick survey about this column? Need an incentive? You could be in the running for yet ANOTHER survey next time you read my column!
The world’s gone survey mad. I go to a symphony concert: the next morning there’s an email asking me to complete a questionnaire about my ‘experience’. I stop to buy some petrol; that evening the petrol station makes contact, wanting me to ‘tell them about my visit’. My campervan is serviced; by the time I get home they’re on the blower asking if I’m happy with the job. Worst of all, my friend is sent a complicated feedback form from the funeral home within hours of burying his father.
I’m no cleanskin when it comes to this madness. At the university I am required to hand out a long form after a short course so my students can immediately assess my ‘performance’ as a writing teacher.
Some things can’t be assessed by an instant survey. An Australian Youth Orchestra concert I attended recently would require a lengthy essay to express the thoughts and feelings that overwhelmed me in those two hours. Some of those feelings will take months to process.
Is this where we’re heading? ‘Dear Sister, please complete this short questionnaire to advise whether our phone conversation about your holiday plans has fully met your expectations. You could be in the running for a free hug from me when next we meet in person.’
I understand the theory. Feedback can lead to improvements (that’s why I complain about bad service.) Customer feedback surveys give consumers more power. But it’s all getting a bit silly. And remember, wages growth is stagnant. Maybe if we paid people better, the quality of service they provided would improve.
More importantly, by responding to all this knee-jerk instant feedback we run the risk of removing anything discomforting or edgy from what’s on offer, especially when it comes to culture. We live in an era of digitally-enabled grumpiness. Irritable online responses are the rule, not the exception. But if we modify everything to avoid provoking discomfort, we may end up with experiences that are only ever inoffensive and bland.
So don’t bother rating this column. Go watch some paint dry. I guarantee it will be more fun.
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2017)
‘Wrangling Your Shyness‘ at The School of Life (Melbourne) – Saturday 2nd September
- A one-day course designed to help you understand and grapple with the symptoms of shyness/social anxiety.
‘Writing as Therapy‘ at The School of Life (Melbourne) – Thursday 14th September
- A three hour workshop introducing you to some of the therapeutic benefits of writing.
‘Creative Non Fiction Writing’ at RMIT University – from Monday 11th September
- A six week course (one night a week) introducing to some of the forms and techniques you can use to write ‘creatively’ about reality.
‘Feature Writing‘ at RMIT University – from Wednesday October 4th
- A six week course (one night a week) introducing you to the kinds of journalistic articles you can write and pitch as a freelancer.
‘Memory Vs Imagination in Memoir’ at Writers Victoria – Saturday October 28th
- How do memoirist negotiate the tricky territory of the remembered vs the imagined past? A three -hour workshop packed full of practical advice for memoirists.
Thirteen times: that’s how often I’ve packed up my personal diaries and carted them from one house to another over the years. That’s a hell of a lot of cardboard boxes stuffed with notepads full of stuff about me. Why did I do it?
Recently I joined a small gathering of women who had volunteered to read out random excerpts from their youthful diaries. At the event dubbed ‘The Symphony of Awkward’ we fell about laughing as we paraded our unedited former selves in front of each other. How quickly embarrassment can mutate into hilarity when it is shared.
All through those thirteen house moves, I had resisted opening up my diaries to find out who Sian was twenty, thirty, even forty years ago. Delivering her private words out loud, I understood my resistance: she was horrible.
Not all of the time, of course. Sometimes she was wise and curious, helpful or funny. Clearly she saw herself as a future Author because she used terms like ‘vignette’ and ‘narrative’. At other times she was arrogant, petulant, vain and condescending. Young Sian used phrases like ‘bedraggled little thing’ to describe people she had just met. She had a deep certainty about how the world should be and brooked no arguments. She was easily annoyed by small things, which she duly diarised in ridiculous detail. She was a hypocrite, publicly espousing one view and manifesting its opposite in her private writing.
Even whilst I was laughing at this opinionated young person, I felt slightly guilty for betraying my younger self. Her words were definitely NOT written for public consumption and she would have been mortified if she’d known her older self would humiliate her in this way. I felt compassion for her. She was even more critical of herself than of those she was observing around her.
Mostly, though, reading her words out loud at The Symphony of Awkward was deeply cathartic. I teach classes in ‘writing as therapy’, advising people to track their emotional lives in a daily journal. That way, they can get a sense of not just how far they’ve come, but also what they’ve managed to overcome.
I don’t regret carting those boxes of diaries around for all those decades. They revealed some good news: I am less self-critical than young Sian was. Together, we’ve done okay.
(This column was published in the Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in June 2017)
The traffic was terrible. But that was okay because I’d spontaneously taken the day off and driven to a bay beach. This is the sort of thing you can do when you work freelance and have no children. I swam out to the yellow buoy and back then lay in the sun reading a book set in Iceland. The author’s name was Laxness (is there a term to describe the phenomenon of an author’s name matching the activity their book encourages? Nominal behavioural synchronisia? There is now).
On page 17 of the book by Laxness there was a sentence that made me reach for my dark glasses to hide my leaking eyes: ‘On such a day the sun is stronger than the past’.
On this particular day, that statement seemed to be true.
On the way back the peak-hour traffic was terrible but that was okay because now I was all salty and calm from my unscheduled daylong holiday. At the traffic lights I pulled up behind a little red car. Because of the angle of the sun the back seat passengers looked like shadow puppets swaying behind the rear window.
A head turned and I saw in profile a long sharp nose, almost a beak, a bird-woman with the blurry chin line of the elderly. Staring at that shadow-nose I saw the woman’s arms reach out to hug a tiny form hidden behind a child’s car seat. Her movements suddenly became jolly – that’s the only way to describe it – a jolly kind of bouncing about in the back seat as those tiny arms poked out from behind the car seat and clutched at her.
When the two hugging forms separated, a third shadow form emerged from the gloom, peering backwards from the front passenger seat. The same long nose, the same jaw line, but tauter. The daughter of the mother and the mother of the child. Three generations of lucky beak-nosed shadow people all together in their red car, all feeling jolly in the peak hour traffic jam.
And in my van, behind the darkened glass of the windscreen, I took one hand off the steering wheel and put it on my breastbone and cupped the past where it hurt. I watched the light glinting off the rear windscreen in front of me and tried to remember just how strong the sun could be.
(This column was first published in the Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald on May 14th.)
Am I guilty or not guilty? And do I really want to know?
Recently I was invited to give an evening talk about my memoir ‘Shy’. At the end of the night a woman whose face seemed vaguely familiar approached me diffidently and said, ‘I know you. Well, at least, I did.’ The lines on her face mirrored my own, lines earned in five decades of ups and downs. ‘I’m Lucy’. *
Behind that middle-aged face I could suddenly see an elfin girl from my years at a primary school in the sand belt suburbs of Melbourne. Lucy had been my friend and also my competitor, though she might not have realised it. She was one of the cleverest girls in the school, and the fastest female sprinter. She was incredibly popular for a few years, probably because of being clever and fast. And kind.
Then there was a turning. Something changed and I don’t know what it was but suddenly Lucy was the most loathed girl in our year. I’m talking visceral ‘Lord of the Flies’ loathing.
Did I play a part? It’s hard to recall. Later on I copped a bit of this stuff too from mocking boys and smirking girls. I learnt a lot about human behavior from those tidal surges of approval and disapproval in the primary school playground.
I have often thought of Lucy since then, and of her older sister who had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. Back then kids had vicious names for people like Lucy’s sister, names no one would dare to utter these days. Was Lucy’s sister somehow the cause of the turning?
Or perhaps it was because, like me, Lucy was shy. Perhaps the trainee bullies in our little community sniffed out her fear and took their chance to topple this girl? And did I play a part?
That night after my book talk I held Lucy’s hands and told her I remembered what she went through at our school, and this middle-aged woman wiped her eyes. It was forty years ago, half a lifetime, but lessons like that never leave you.
‘We must have a cup of tea together,’ I told her. ‘Will you email me?’
She hasn’t yet. And still I don’t remember. What part did I play?
* Lucy’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
This column was first published in the Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, April 2017.
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