During an interview, Sian Prior’s anxiety is palpable. Her breath is rapid and her body struggles to find a safe place to come to rest. But she does not shrink from the spotlight. Her exposing memoir, Shy, is an offering up that very fear to the reader, in an attempt to accept it.
“My gut instinct was saying, ‘You’ve always pushed yourself into this fear and even if it’s crazy, you’ve just got to do it,’” Ms Prior said when talking about her memoir at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Although she is a poised and confident singer and musician, Ms Prior describes herself as a shy, yet socially engaged person.
“According to the experts, shyness and introversion are on different spectrums,” Ms Prior said. “If you’re an introvert you don’t necessarily have a problem with being sociable, but you might just prefer your own company. Shy people, on the other hand, want to connect with other people but find it distressing due to an overwhelming fear of rejection.”
Her memoir explores the origins of her shyness and the attempt to reconcile ‘Professional Sian’ and ‘Shy Sian’ through a close examination of her own life.
A seasoned journalist, Ms Prior said she wrote the book by asking herself a series of questions and using both academic literature and self-help books to answer them. The memoir was also written with help from world-renowned research psychologist, Professor Margot Prior, who also happens to be her mother
“If there was anyone who was going to know about this stuff it was my mum,” she said. “And coincidently, she was happy to tell me anything about what I was like as a child as well.”
Excruciatingly painful symptoms of Ms Prior’s shyness are discussed in the book, including the need to remove mirrors from her bedrooms, and of the debilitating fear that arrested her love life in the early years.
“There were many missed opportunities of finding beautiful men and having absolutely no way of doing anything about that,” she said. “It was a revelation when a boy told me he thought shyness was nice …”
Shy also deals with the breakdown of Ms Prior’s long-time relationship with musician Paul Kelly, which she described as the event that gave the book its impetus. “By some very bizarre and hideous coincidence, I unexpectedly found myself dealing with the worst social rejection of my life when I was in the middle of writing this book, when the relationship I was in ended I found myself in the middle of the socially anxious person’s worst nightmare and the book became in part about how I dealt with having to confront a fear I had spent my whole life trying to avoid.”
She also addressed the cultural aspects of shyness. “We live in an increasingly narcissistic, self-presentation, extrovert-biased world and that’s partly to do with technology as well as the influence of American culture,” Ms Prior said. “But in China, for instance, shyness is seen as very socially adaptive for being in a culture which is so communal and so much about working well with a billion other people.”
Plagued with all the debilitating symptoms of acute social anxiety, including trembling, hyperventilating and “hystericus globus”, better known as a lump in the throat, Ms Prior offered advice for managing shyness at a practical level. She suggested taking on the responsibility of helping other shy people who may be struggling instead of keeping the focus on yourself in social situations and of allowing yourself to relate one on one. She also offered an explanation for why 40 per cent of the population suffer from some form of acute social anxiety.
“Maybe it’s an evolutionary thing and our lives are way too safe now for how our brains have evolved. We had to look out for lions and tigers before and now we are all sitting in front of the television waiting to feel afraid, so we have to look for something.”
Ms Prior had a revelation after writing a controversial opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald when former prime minister Julia Guillard admitted her own shyness as a child. “I was trying to say that women cannot afford to admit this thing because shyness is seen as a weakness, and women cannot be seen as weak because our culture tells us that we’re not as strong as men in the first place,” she said. “I’ve had to work really hard to hide my shyness to protect myself from that kind of assumption being made about me, and as a feminist, I just couldn’t bear it.”
Ms Prior said the book helped her alleviate much of the embarrassment she had felt. “I haven’t cured shyness but I’ve cured the shame around it …” she says. “It’s the same with any taboo or potentially shameful thing – just bring it out into the open and the boogieman disappears.”