A few years ago, I was invited to a glamorous party in London, full of well-known writers.
As a suburban teenager, it was the kind of event I dreamed of attending and I felt I had to go, even though I had no plus-one. But as the evening drew closer, I felt nothing but crippling terror.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said my friend when I confided in her. ‘You’re always the life and soul!’
There was some truth in that. I spent my 30s co-hosting riotous dinner parties, and had gained a reputation as the Fun Person in my small group.
But what I generally ignored was that this social whirl came at a significant personal cost — because ever since early childhood, I’ve been struggling to cover up my deep-seated shyness.
Writer and journalist Flic Everett (pictured) spent years covering up deep-seated shyness
I did attend the party, my face crimson with nerves. I necked two glasses of champagne before I could bring myself to speak to a stranger — of course, when I did, they were lovely and I was glad I’d gone. But the experience reminded me that as a natural introvert, every event is a challenge.
I always assumed that my hidden shyness was rare, but according to a new Yougov survey, 47 per cent of people ‘identify as shy’, with a huge 58 per cent saying they lack confidence in new groups, and 10 per cent admitting to being ‘very shy.’
There is no clinical definition of ‘shyness’, of course, and most of us feel a ripple of nerves before walking into a noisy party, or turning up at the school gate for the first time.
It’s just part of who I am — but rather than accepting it and building a life to accommodate it, for many years I did my best to ignore it.
I always assumed that my hidden shyness was rare, but according to a new Yougov survey, 47 per cent of people ‘identify as shy’ (stock photo)
I was in my 40s when I realised that pretending to be a cheerful extrovert when in truth I’m a shy introvert, was both unnecessary and very tiring.
Shyness usually starts early. An only child, I liked playing with my dolls, reading stories, and dressing up in my grandma’s hats. It seems incredible now, in this era of play-dates and baby groups, but I didn’t know any other small children.
Going to nursery at four was a huge shock. Rather than excited by the possibility of new playmates, I was horrified by the rough and tumble, like a kitten in a playground full of puppies.
On my first day, I remember painting a doily with green poster paint, then attaching myself to our teacher Mrs Wetton’s tweed skirt for the rest of the afternoon — and as years went by, nothing really changed.
I found school demanding, and although I made friends eventually, I only wanted to spend time with them one-to-one. Group dynamics were confusing and I held back, silent and worried.
At primary school, I would always prefer to stay inside and learn spellings than roll outside with the gang.
As a teenager, I attended an all-girls’ school, and didn’t meet boys until I was 17 —around the time I discovered Dutch courage.
I have never ‘had problems’ with drinking, but over the years, I certainly drank a great deal of cheap wine to boost my confidence. Without it, my shyness would leave me paralysed, one foot out the door, the other yearning to be back to the fire and a book.
Introverts may thoroughly enjoy themselves, but are drained by socialising, whereas extroverts are energised by being around other people (stock photo)
Once, aged 25, I set off to catch the train to a small birthday party at a friend’s house, reached the station and turned back because I couldn’t bear the idea of having to socialise with strangers.
It’s not that I was genuinely scared of the other guests, or truly believed I wouldn’t be able to summon up mild conversation — it just felt too overwhelming.
One of the definitions of introversion and extraversion is simply how tiring you find company. Introverts may thoroughly enjoy themselves, but are drained by socialising, whereas extroverts are energised by being around other people.
Despite knowing this, I spent my 30s trying to ignore it. I didn’t want to be the boring, shy one, stuck at home feeling bereft while others had fun elsewhere. I would have a drink, rally myself and transform into a party girl.
And more often than not, I had a good time in the end — but I was always shattered afterwards.
At work, my job as a journalist has involved me in meeting new people. But I’ve seldom felt shy, because I’m just there to do my job. Like actors who crumble away from the stage, it’s when I’m required simply to ‘be myself’ that shyness kicks in.
And I will always avoid using the phone if an email will do. It’s usually seen as a millennial affliction (or affectation) to be ‘scared of the phone’. But some of us were feeling that fear back in 1982, pretending to our parents we ‘hadn’t heard it ringing’ rather than risk an awkward conversation.
Yet I have never attempted a formal cure for shyness. For an introvert, the very idea of a ‘workshop’, where I’d have to open up to strangers about it is anathema.
The cure in the end, though, was not an assertiveness course or a self-help book about feeling the fear. It was simply accepting that I’m a shy introvert and arranging my life accordingly.
A few years ago, I moved to the West Highlands to live with my partner, Andy, and I’ve never been happier. I no longer have to summon up school gate chit-chat (my son is grown up) and I don’t have to attend parties in case people will be offended if I don’t. Living where we do, social occasions are few — we have a small group of friends and that’s fine by me.
Once I didn’t need to drown my terror in Dutch courage, I realised I no longer needed alcohol and gave up drinking two years ago.
Now, I have rediscovered my childhood passions. I love reading, I adore long walks with the dog, I like to write short stories and watch movies in front of the fire. I work by myself, and I love it that way.
Seeing other people is no longer a test of social courage – it’s now a treat because it’s a choice, not an obligation.
I’m 50 next year, and I’ve always assumed I’d have a big party. Now, though, I’m thinking differently. Sometimes, admitting that you’re shy means you’re free to enjoy life a whole lot more.
How To Be Sober And Keep Your Friends, by Flic Everett, is published by Quadrille £12.99.