'To look at me, you'd never know I'm shy' – are you one of Britain's secret shrinking violets?

Antonia Hoyle 
'Everywhere I look, people seem superficially confident – are almost half of us faking it?' Credit:  Andrew Crowley

As half of Britons claim to feel socially timid, Antonia Hoyle explains what it feels like to be one 

The party was packed, and a group of women I knew were in a corner, laughing. Arriving on my own, I wanted to walk over and say hello but a nagging voice in my head stopped me. What if my sudden presence killed the conversation? What if – God forbid – the reason they were laughing in the first place was because they were guffawing about me?

I headed for the bar instead, downed a glass of wine and faffed around on my phone until my husband arrived, when, thanks to the anaesthetic effects of the alcohol and companionship of a man contractually obliged to support me, the social paralysis started to lift.

To look at me, you’d never know I feel shy. At parties, I am often the loudest (and drunkest) person in the room. As a journalist, I ask strangers intrusive questions for a living. On the school run, I am chatty and cheerful. Yet underpinning nearly every conversation is a stream of self-consciousness about how I will be perceived.

But I am not alone. Yesterday, a YouGov survey exploring personality traits and self-confidence revealed that 47 per cent of British adults describe themselves as shy, and ten per cent as “very shy.”

While comforted to realise nearly half the population feels the same way I do, I was also staggered by the statistic. Everywhere I look, people seem superficially confident. Are almost 50 per cent of us really faking this self-assurance? Are we actually a nation of secret shrinking violets?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, shyness elicits a “feeling of being nervous or embarrassed about meeting and speaking to other people.” But precisely why so many of us are afflicted, and how it manifests, is altogether more complex. 

“Shyness is the combination of a heightened sense of self-consciousness accompanied by low self-esteem,” says psychologist Silja Litvin, founder of emotional fitness app equoogame.com.

“It means seeing yourself as perceived by others and not feeling you have the social skills to deal with that perception satisfactorily.”

Shyness, she adds, can also be a narcissistic trait: “Shy people can have an over-inflated perception of the time others spend noticing and judging them. It’s a self-imposed bias.” In other words, chances are the women at that party were far too busy worrying about themselves to be judging me.

Psychologists also believe that the growth of social media could be contributing to a shyness epidemic. Now we’re much more likely to communicate online than in person, the confidence we develop through face to face interaction is in ever dwindling supply. 

Then there is the possibility that many of us have necessarily evolved to be shy – human societies have always needed the risk-averse, reflective nurturers as much as the uninhibited, outgoing explorers. Interestingly, however, the YouGov survey found it is men – traditionally the “explorers” – who are now *less* likely to feel they fit in than women.

'Experts agree shyness usually starts in childhood, but being labelled as “shy” at school often exacerbates the issue'

Factor in the relatively new phenomenon of the “shy extrovert” – contradictory personalities like myself who enjoy parties, but not necessarily being the centre of attention; who like conversations, but prefer listening to speaking, and who value solitude as much as social gatherings – and it is little wonder shyness, as an umbrella term, has reached such widespread proportions.

“Communication style – such as expansive gestures, laughing and a loud voice – isn’t connected to shyness,” says Litvin. “You can still worry about what others think of you.”

Indeed, while shyness might conjure up a stereotype of someone staring at their feet and blushing, some of the world’s most famous celebrities, from Nicole Kidman to Johnny Depp and Britney Spears, admit they suffer. All have apparently managed to mask their symptoms, although arguably none so well as reality television star Kim Kardashian, who famously broke the Internet by posting a picture of her naked bottom on social media in 2014, yet insists “the real Kim is very shy and reserved and not outspoken and loud like everybody assumes she is.”

So have they become successful despite their shyness? Or has shyness inadvertently helped them succeed? Certainly, it need not be a negative trait, says psychologist Linda Blair. “As long as you don’t feel ostracised, shyness gives more time for reflection, which is the best way to gain wisdom. It can be quite useful.”

Research suggests that shyness is roughly 30 per cent nature and the rest nurture. There is, says Blair, “a heavy genetic component, relative to many other personality traits, but it is partly learned behaviour.” She explains that unlike introversion, which is the avoidance of external arousal, shyness is more specifically about avoiding people. People with shy parents are more likely to experience shyness, she says, as are those who have grown up without experience of crowds: “You don’t find many shy kids in big families.”

Experts agree shyness usually starts in childhood, when we stop seeing ourselves through our own eyes and develop an awareness of the way others perceive us. Being labelled as “shy” at school often exacerbates the issue, as one friend, Charlotte, a management consultant and mother of two in her 40s, explains. “My teachers grew frustrated but being pigeon-holed didn’t help. It made me feel even more self-conscious.”

At university, Charlotte avoided parties. “I got a reputation for being aloof, especially among boys. Actually, I was terrified of most social situations. In adulthood, an instinct for shyness remained, but I learned to present a false impression of confidence.”

One of the most successful women I know, it took me years to realise Charlotte’s outwardly-poised exterior was a mask for shyness, a trait she believes she inherited from her mother, a retired head teacher who also showed no signs. “Her way of coping was to ‘role play,’ she says. At work, she inhabited a different persona. I think people respond to shyness in different ways. Some of the most confident people suffer, and you’d never know it.”

'The real Kim is very shy and reserved,' says Kim Kardashian Credit: NINA PROMMER/EPA-EFE/REX

Her beliefs echo that of another of my friends, Ruth, an events manager also in her 40s. “To me, shyness means feeling incredibly self-conscious,” she says. “I loathe walking into a room of people, even if it’s my own living room. I frequently feel left out and I definitely avoid letting people get to know me too well because I fear that if they do, then they won’t like me anymore. I hate receiving gifts – that whole ‘eyes on me’ thing makes me feel excruciatingly awkward.”

Yet if you didn’t know Ruth as well as I do, you wouldn’t realise. “On the surface I’m outgoing, but when I’m chatting to people, inwardly I’m panicking about what they might think of me, and I always, always fret about conversations, and whether I said the wrong things, afterwards,” she says.

Unlike Ruth, who rarely drinks, I compensate for my shyness with alcohol, which, Litvin says, “is a way of gearing yourself to deal with situations by dampening your amygdala – the part of your brain that deals with fear – and dulling your flight and fight response.” She says my loudness (or what my husband calls my “big, booming Hoyle voice”), meanwhile, “could be a way of trying to overcompensate.”

There is hope, however, that I may yet grow out of it. Anna, a successful writer in her 50s, says the “crippling” shyness of her teens has dissipated post-menopause, citing the amygdala, which research has shown is less responsive to negatively charged situations in older people than younger generations. “With age, you stop caring horribly about what everyone thinks of you,” she says, “it’s liberating.”

Still, in a world that often rewards the shameless, she believes it’s perhaps time we celebrate shyness in all its guises: “Only a fool or a braggart would not feel shy at some point. It is a sign of humanity.”