An attractive, forty-something woman peers around a gallery, trying vainly to find her partner in the buzzing party crowd. ‘A familiar sensation was sweeping through my body’, Sian Prior writes. ‘It was as if someone had spiked my drink so that instead of sparkling mineral water I was now sipping a kind of effervescent cement’. Unable to spot a familiar face, she starts to sweat and her stomach churns. Alight with panic she flees the party, not even recognising the ‘calm, confident blonde woman’ she glimpses in a mirror on the way out.
Prior, a successful arts journalist, choir master, public speaker and media consultant, suffers from crippling shyness. But this Renaissance woman is also a published author and writing teacher, and the incident jolts her into an exploration of the paradox of her life – that someone so comfortable in the public spotlight could also be felled by terror in unstructured social situations.
That paradox makes this book unique. Its author was born to tell her own story of shyness because her professional persona is the perfect vehicle for spreading the message.
Shy is no conventional memoir, but nor is it a self-help book. Prior ditches a chronological account of her life and replaces it with a panoply of elements – interviews with psychologists (including her own mother, Margot) and her own research; playful lists; play-offs between incidents from her past and theories of shyness – to present a frank account that is often funny, sometimes poignant and always engaging.
Although the result can feel anarchic at times, it works beautifully; experience and vivid recollection step in where the research evidence is simplistic, suggesting both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific definitions.
To cope with the shyness she has battled all along, Prior developed a persona she calls ‘Professional Sian’ – a confident, polished performer who knows how to fake it till she makes it.
But ‘Shy Sian’ surfaces when there is no script, no structure. And for Prior this has meant a lifetime of lost social and romantic opportunities – from Sally, the school friend round the corner who the young Sian is too scared to visit, to ‘the beautiful dark-eyed boy glimpsed in the stairwell of my first high school’. She has missed out not just on sex but ‘the subtle semaphore of attraction’.
For Prior, shyness is as much about fearful thoughts – what she calls the ‘what ifs’ – as it is about the intensely discomfiting physical symptoms: ‘armpits drenched, throat clenched, locked in battle with myself’. While travelling in Europe in her twenties, Prior develops a stubborn throat lump: ‘Lying on my hostel bunk in the night I would feel it resting there, nuzzling at my vocal cords’.
There is a central narrative here that anchors Prior’s account to the recent past. For ten years she lived with the musician Paul Kelly (whom Prior calls Tom in the book) – an Australia folk hero, one of our national bards. She reveals their slow-burning courtship, which blossomed into a shared life, and the cocooning effect of this relationship on her sense of self.
Her relationship with Tom and other life experiences are held up to the light to examine what shyness isn’t as much as what it is. Is it genetic? What is its relationship to social phobia? Is it the same as introversion, or can a shy person be an extrovert? How does Tom’s fame relate to Prior’s own contradictory stance towards being in the spotlight? Is shyness related to hypersensitivity? She explores the positive character traits that go with shyness, like empathy, conscientiousness and a willingness to listen.
Then the unthinkable happens and Tom announces he is leaving. Suddenly the very rejection that all shy people fear has come to pass.
Upheaval follows, but it is viewed in the light of a formative childhood event – deepening the examination of the origins of shyness in ways that take it far beyond the biological.
Prior’s writing is fresh, visual, funny. She has a sharp recall of the quotidian detail but also the insight and hard-won wisdom of someone who has battled to live a socially and emotionally fulfilling life in the midst of a sometimes crippling fear.
Yet there is something implicit in this book that Prior herself doesn’t pay much attention to. Given the rise of positive psychology, I looked for the protective factors that enabled Prior to seek out significant relationships and pursue professional success.
Without diminishing her pain, I was also interested in the class aspects of her success – her psychologist mother is an obvious factor, as is her immersion in the world of classical music and love affair with the clarinet. But what about schooling – was a private school, with its small class sizes and individualised attention, a strengthening influence?
Prior, intent on exploring a trait that has been hidden and denied in her public life, seems mostly oblivious to these broader questions, although two things stand out that will be useful to anyone who is shy. ‘Professional Sian’ first came into being because Prior was able to find, in a high-profile environmental job, a cause far larger than her own insecurities. She also singles out a passionate curiosity about other people and the world as an incentive to push past her fears.
In public appearances since writing the book, Prior has discussed how risky it felt to break the illusion of her professional competence by publishing Shy. While her discoveries did not lead to the cure she originally hoped for, they have enabled a new-found acceptance, and Prior claims she is no longer embarrassed to be shy.
While Prior’s level of professional success may seem out of reach to many of us shy people, I found this encouraging rather than dispiriting. I suspect most of us have our own version of Professional Sian, and although she may not be as reliable or fearless as Prior’s version, this writer offers a bold role model for risk taking and a path to self-acceptance that many readers will benefit from.