Kitty Flanagan, a middle-aged female Australian comedian, recently admitted in an article in the SMH that she suffers from social anxiety when she is forced to mix in large groups. You often hear about comedians being described as ‘boring’ when the public meet them in the flesh, but it still amazes me when you hear about how many successful performers suffer from anxiety. It seems crazy to think that a comedian could be shy at a house party, or that some of the consummate performers of our time throw up out of fear before going on stage.
I get it, though, coming from a family that suffers from inherent anxiety. Kurt has spent a week at his youth hostel but has yet to venture into the kitchen. New people are terrifying to him. The first of my four daily calls yesterday was spent trying to inspire him with ideas for foods he can eat in his room; that don’t require preparation. Give my boy a few ciders and he’ll dominate that kitchen space; put him on a stage and he’ll perform like a seasoned professional, but when I ask him to come and say hello to my friends at a dinner party, I know that simple request will spoil his evening.
I was always shy, unconfident child. It was something my father, who was an actor as a young man and is now a respected public speaker, despised.
It’s not that I didn’t want to be the gobby, popular girl in the group. I was desperate to be that girl and I had all the lines, was naturally sharper than a lot of them with a mature, self-deprecating wit ahead of its time; yet, crossing the bridge from the safety of anonymity to the vulnerability of centre stage always appeared to be an impossible feat.
Even if, once on the stage, I owned it.
That shy person is still at the inner core of my personality, the difference being these days that I have learned strategies to manage my shyness and I also have the choice now whether I go to that terrifying party or stay on the sofa.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy socializing. As the old man will vouch for me, I am the biggest, small-talking, chit-chatterer there is, WITH PEOPLE I KNOW – but I have an abject horror of meeting new people.
Because when it counts, when I really want to be someone’s friend, my body shuts down from the pressure. My mouth dries and clams up, I can’t look them in the eye and my body language becomes feral and gives out all the wrong signals. Which is a problem at this stage of life, when people already have enough friends, and they slink off apologetically and give up on me unless they are truly inquisitive, have no friends either, or can distinguish enough in me to give me a second chance.
We never truly leave the school playground.