Tuesday, November 6, 2012

on shyness

This post brought to you by Trying Not To Think About The Election. Length ahead.

As the first anniversary of this blog approaches, and I read an obnoxious memoir (of which more in a later post), I have been thinking about the culture of exposure and the fact that, no matter how much we may deny it, all personal bloggers are hoping on some level to be "discovered" and to be offered buttloads of money to talk about ourselves, as a reward for the hard work of talking about ourselves for free. I'm not going to lie: I'd write a memoir in a second, and of course I think it would be better than most of the memoirs out there, and I would try not to make it obnoxious but there's a good chance it would be.

I started this blog as a place to publicly shame my husband and wallow in self-pity. The book reviews were an excuse because reading is pretty much the only thing I do with my time. (This is why I say that my memoir would have a good chance of sliding into the obnoxious zone: I like to think of myself as a mature and gracious person, but at thirty-four years old I still wanted to throw myself a pity party and talk about a person I once loved as a two-dimensional villain. I would need a very stern editor.)

Berowne refuses to classify me as an introvert because of this blog. And because the second time we met I just marched right up to him and started talking, wearing my interest on my sleeve. That was one of the bravest things I've ever done, quite frankly, and without seven years of practicing the art of social functioning I wouldn't have been able to do anything but sit across the patio and blush in his general direction (as it was, after two seconds of silence I panicked and launched into a ten-minute story about my family while leaving out the only fact which gave the story any point at all).

I'm shy. Very, very shy; in a slightly later era and with different parents I would probably have been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder around the time I started school, and been on medications who knows how long.

As things stand, I don't have a mental illness diagnosis which requires medication or regular therapy. I don't have any trouble reading social cues: I'm in fact hyper-sensitive to them. But for the first eighteen years of my life I could not talk to a stranger. I just could not do it. It was the most terrifying thing imaginable.

Then I discovered alcohol. And I didn't drink because I wanted to be the party girl. I drank because without alcohol I literally could not talk to someone I didn't already know extremely well. I could not function at a party without it. It was basic self-medicating.

So when I got sober, I was looking back at twenty-eight years of non-functioning socially. I had to learn how to function, the way you would learn to ride a bike or speak a new language. My theater experience helped immensely, and I was determined and observant, and learned quickly that if you are a youngish woman with a decent smile, you can get away with listening a lot and speaking a little (the flip side of that, of course, is the fact that Expert Guys will sense you from six rooms away and swarm like bees). But I am still terrified every time I land in a social situation with people I don't know. I can hide it, I can get through for a couple hours, I can think of it as a role I am playing. I can translate in my head the way you do when you're not fluent in that second language. I'm exhausted afterwards, but I can do it.

And when I was suddenly living alone, I had to learn to be able to pick up the phone and call to order the heating oil, the take-out; make my own appointments; deal with store clerks and repairpeople and neighbors. If I didn't do these things, they just wouldn't get done. So I do them. If the person on the other end of the phone is a jerk, I'll still get off the phone trembly and tearful and brood on it all day, but I can make the call.

I end up liking lots of people once I meet them, but I'm scared of almost everyone initially. I'm scared of women who are more glamorous than I am (that they'll pity my attempts to look good). I'm scared of women who don't feel the need to be glamorous (that they'll scorn me as shallow). I'm scared of good-looking men (that they'll think I'm trying to flirt) and men to whom I'm not attracted (that they'll think I'm trying to flirt). I am terrified to trembling-point of the woman who in another age would have been called the Vivacious Dame: the one whose physical appearance doesn't even matter because she is so outgoing and fun, the center of the room, the one with the loudest laugh and the most friends. The one who can dance and drink until three in the morning, never getting sloppy or maudlin, and meet you at brunch with bright eyes and a hug for the diner staff, because of course she knows them all.

I am terrified of that woman for two reasons: the first is because I believe she makes me disappear. In a sense she literally does; Berowne has yet to host a late-night party since I met him, but I know he does such things, and I know that around midnight I will pumpkin the hell out and scamper away to bed, leaving him to the Vivacious Dames. I don't fear that a Dame and Berowne would get up to anything untoward, mind (Dames are very capable of platonic friendships with men and Berowne is trustworthy). But the Dames get those hours, get those laughs, long after I've either stopped trying to contribute to the conversation or have literally left the room. 

The second reason for terror is that I can't be a Dame, and that makes me feel not-good-enough. I can stand my ground on, or shrug off, anything else that frightens me, because I know that for the people who matter in my life I am attractive enough, I am intelligent enough, I am interesting enough. I don't need to have everyone agree I'm the best at everything; don't need that universal validation at parties anymore. But the second a Vivacious Dame bombs into the room, drink in hand and energy ricocheting off the walls, I am reminded that no matter what else I do I can't be that. I can be the prettiest, smartest, nicest, wittiest woman in the room (if you pick the right room, of course), but I will never be the most fun woman in the room. I will never be the Cool Girl. (I am reading Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which there are passages about the Cool Girl which are so painfully close to home that I have had to physically walk away from the book on occasion lest I scream.) You can love me enough to think I'm the smartest woman in a room full of Ph.Ds, or the prettiest in a room full of supermodels. But no one is ever going to think that I'm the most fun woman in a room full of extroverts.

Lamenting that is like being in the hypothetical room full of supermodels and lamenting that I'm not the tallest. It's absurd and pointless. I have to stop assuming that everyone I love will eventually love a fun woman more, just because one person did it. But I've always felt inadequate because of my introversion. Felt that I wasn't normal, that there was something wrong with me, that it shouldn't be this hard. And when my boyfriend tells me he doesn't think I'm an introvert, I panic, because I think, What happens when he finds out I am? It's my very own Romance Novel Heroine's Terrible Secret! ("But when Vivienne Pomplemousse tells Ravensdric, Earl of Manmusk, that she is socially burnt out after only two hours at the party, what will become of their love?"*)

Blogs became a thing when I was in college (I was actually at college with one of the first personal bloggers). I didn't grow up with blogs, but as a twenty-year-old surrounded by similar people and faced with this phenomenon, I didn't see a paradox in the fact of shy or socially awkward people writing about their lives for public view. I still don't. I assume, as I think many shy bloggers do, that the people who are interested are going to read, and that they are interested because they find something applicable to their own lives here. Extroverted people assume that the interest is universally there. An introverted blogger is placing his/her thoughts in a place where those who have the interest can find them. I have about eighty readers, the vast majority of whom know me in real life. That makes sense to me.

I don't talk about anything I wouldn't talk about to someone who asked me directly. I don't talk about my sex life, and I try to keep my body image issues out of here because I find it hard to talk about those without sounding like I'm fishing for compliments. I am upfront about being a recovering alcoholic and about how terrifying cancer and divorce were, because those are things that happen, and they haven't happened just to me, and I don't want them to be things of which I'm ashamed. And, to justify myself, they do affect my reading. Many books feature addiction, illness, and marital collapse: those are all excellent sources of drama. If I were to attempt to review a book with an addicted protagonist while pretending I had no personal experience of addiction, that would just be odd.

Also, you can be introverted and want attention. I'm not going to pretend otherwise.

But, for me, what it comes down to is that I don't hate myself any more, but I'm still shy. My lack of social functioning in the past was a combination of self-loathing (why would anyone want to talk to me? everything that comes out of my mouth is wrong) and the basic personality trait that is shyness. That trait is still there, and always will be. New people and large social gatherings make me nervous and self-conscious and drain my energy fast. Period. I know I can be funny, and interesting, and say perceptive things about books, and this is an easy way to keep people updated on my life, and so I blog. And still new people and large social gatherings make me nervous and self-conscious and drain my energy fast. I don't see the contradiction, I guess. The things which it may seem extroverted, or boundary-crossing, for me to mention on a blog are the aspects of myself I used to be ashamed of, and I'm just not any more. 

I don't think that with my vast readership of eighty people who already like me I'm going to change society's view of addiction (that it's about a lack of self-control) or illness (if you get cancer it's because you did something unhealthy) or divorce (if you get divorced you just weren't willing to work on your marriage enough). And I am still a private person in many ways. But the previous version of me didn't avoid these topics because they fell into a category of what I consider private, the way my sex life does. I avoided those topics because I was ashamed of them. Now I'm not. 

I don't mean to call poor Berowne out here. He's not the only one who finds personal blogging an odd hobby for a shy person. But I have had a very enjoyable year writing this blog and I intend to continue. Just don't think that means you can take me to a New Year's Eve party, because those things are the devil.**

*What became of their love: Manmusk narrowed his piercing eyes and requested one hour more. Vivienne heaved her alabaster bosom and said that was fine. They chatted to a fabulous older couple and left after an hour and fifteen minutes.

**Does anyone really enjoy NYE parties? Discuss.


  1. As someone who devises complex plans to avoid talking to acquaintances I truly enjoyed reading this post. I panic when I see people I know casually in public. When I have to speak to parents at work my voice trembles and my palms literally drip sweat. It's something that's always plagued me, so I've reached the point of acceptance.

    Theater helped me a lot as well, because I can pretend to be socially normal in groups, but like you mention it is very hard work. My wedding reception haunts me in the form of nightmares. Having to talk to so many strangers was really trying, and when Jesse and I were alone I think I cried for two hours. I know that my very few friends accept my idiosyncrasies and don't mind if I am reading while they're visiting, or go to bed at nine. I've lost a lot of friends because I'm no longer willing to compromise who I am to be "cool" or to entertain them. I know I can be funny and engaging, but a lot of times I don't feel like it.

    Having a big-ish 6 months pregnant belly makes me avoid eye contact with people at the gym because I assume they'll just think I'm fat (as one yoga teacher already has done). It's crass, but my mantra has become "I do not give a fuck about what others think of me".

    As for new year's eve parties, all I have to say is that they are the most anti-climactic, over-inebriated, crap parties. I have always hated them. Who really cares about a new calendar year? Also, I am terrible at staying up late. I am happy that my husband agrees with me on this issue. I have a similar disdain for birthdays.

  2. Not *all* 80 readers know you. :) Nice, blog, BTW. I more than sympathize with shyness. I have to psyche myself to make a phone call. I've never been to a New Year's Eve Party, but remember when I thought I might be missing something other than being on the road with a bunch of drunk drivers after midnight. I can't quite bring myself to be "on" in a party situation, although I eventually realized that is the thing one does. I could go on, but I know why Berowne doesn't think you're an introvert. It's a relative concept. And he has a relative way further on the introvert scale.