‘Shyness Didn’T Happen Overnight. It Was A Process Of Feeling Exposed’

For Hayley Webster, shyness was a way of hiding herself in life. But finally she decided she didn’t want shyness to hold her back any longer…

I wasn’t always shy. Snapshots of complete confidence: a choir concert, my mum and dad singing, and in the audience, toddler me. I climbed on to the stage after one song, tapped the conductor on the shoulder, and said: “Is it my turn now?” I sang Do Re Mi from The Sound of Music, in front of a paying audience. There was thunderous applause. I remember the look on people’s faces: “Ah! How delightful!” My dad told this story for years.

Shyness didn’t happen overnight. It was a process of feeling exposed. It was the feeling I had to be better than the sum of my parts and any time I couldn’t pull that off, the shyness would come. Heat along my spine, a fast heart, the red on my face like handprints. A stranglehold. That was shyness to me, the feeling I had the power to make the sky fall in, just by being me.

Another memory: my parents never taught me the words bum, poo, wee. It was bottom, motion, urinate. By the time I started school I’d never heard them. They wanted to bring up a child who was… I actually don’t know, and they’re dead now so I can’t ask. They named me after Hayley Mills. I’ve always felt that was significant.

Anyway, I put my hand up and said: “I need to go for a motion.” Maybe time has made all those little five-year-old faces laughing, bright with shock and incredulity, more exaggerated than they were. But I remember gaining the knowledge that they were laughing at something I’d done. It was something about me, but I still didn’t know what it was and if I didn’t know what it was they were laughing at, how could I fix it?

That’s what shyness felt like, a shift in who I felt I was, from pride, self-knowledge to something else. Shame. Shame in happily inhabiting as much space as I did, like the first time you see yourself in a photo and you don’t look the way you thought you did, and you have that choice: be happy with that person in the photo, or change.

(These days I always feel sad when I see people berating old photos of themselves, as though that person was a different person they’ve now shed. I want to say, be kind to that person. That person is you.)

At seven I was abused by someone. It started off with playing a game; a game I thought I was winning. My dad had taught me to win. I remember the feeling of “I’m winning!” and the shift, the realisation I’d been tricked, that I was falling into something I didn’t understand. My parents, for reasons I’m sure made sense at the time, dealt with it inadequately. They had my long hair cut off. I was put into trousers and sweatshirts. I was told never to tell anyone about it. I was to become invisible, responsible for what had happened, and to be silent. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that after that, most of who I was became interior. Don’t be noticed. Don’t win. Don’t make a fuss. Don’t embarrass us.

Hiding things for adults when you’re a child, whether it’s alcoholism, neglect, depression, abuse, whatever it is they teach you to hide for them, has its effect on how you feel about being yourself in the world. You don’t relax. You create elaborate covers, where you take something you’ve baked into school and say: “Look what my dad made me!” or write a letter in your mum’s handwriting telling you how much she loves you. You create the world you long for, and that hides your truths. You think if people know them the sky will fall in. “Don’t be shy!” they say, as if it’s ever as simple as that.

I wasn’t shy at all in certain situations. I was loud in lessons at school. I told jokes. I had friends, people who seemed to get me. But, I still kept so much of myself hidden. It was hard work, all that hiding. I’d love to say I consciously put into place some kind of Operation Don’t Be Shy, but as with many things that need to happen, it has happened, is happening, in increments.

I wasn’t shy at all in certain situations. I was loud in lessons at school. I told jokes

In my teens, trying to not be shy started off as odd and out-of-character jolts of extremely confident behaviour. “So,” I boomed, aged 17, leaning back in my chair at the doctor’s surgery like a 57-year-old MP in a mockumentary: “Contraception!”

I’d found the secret. Stop shyness by being someone else – by being perfect! What could possibly go wrong?

I dieted myself into what I thought (and other people told me) was perfection. I did 250 sit-ups in the morning, and 300 at night. I ate one meal a day. I found I could stop being shy by disappearing. I didn’t see it that way, of course. I saw it as being the Best Me. I was congratulated enough for it. Boys started asking me out. The real me, whoever that was, was hiding inside my head trying not to be noticed. Not even by myself.

Teaching teenagers was the turning point. I put off applying for years, and finally started when I was 29. I didn’t want the shyness to hold me back. They filmed our first lessons. There I stood, an apologetic, well-meaning, softly spoken trainee teacher. I cringed as I saw myself as others might. But there was a truth in what I saw. I was that person. I did shrink into myself to not inhabit space. I didn’t want to be too loud, or much, or too anything. But, that’s not what makes a good teacher. I had to learn to be confident, yes fake it, but also, if I wanted teenagers to learn, I had to take my ego out of it. They wouldn’t learn if I stood there worrying about them laughing at me. Sometimes they did laugh at me. Sometimes I made a fool of myself. The sky didn’t fall in.

I am better with people now. I notice that. I wonder how many people who I have known in my life, personally or professionally, thought I was arrogant, rude, or unreliable because I was frozen with the fear that comes with shyness. How many times has my finger hovered over a button, unable to make a phone call? I still find phone calls hard, but I make myself do them. The alternative is loss, regret, a side effect of shyness I’ve only recently acknowledged. It’s changing.

You create the world you long for, and that hides your truths

This summer I stood on the stage with my friend, the writer Louise Voss, and sung a folk song at Bloody Scotland’s Crime at the Coo. It didn’t matter if I was awful. It didn’t matter if anyone laughed. It didn’t matter that my body is what it is now, one I care for, and don’t starve. I like it. I like me. I don’t have to be perfect. None of it mattered. For me, shyness was a way of life that happened because I wasn’t living an authentic life, I’d been taught being honest about imperfection was weak, detrimental, the worst thing.

Learning to embrace my body, not to punish it, to get rid of fatphobia in my head, and call it out when I hear it, has helped me not be shy. Refusing to criticise my body in front of my daughter has also had its effect. Why do we criticise ourselves so much? There’s no need. It’s a waste of life.

Not being shy any more means I don’t have to apologise for how I look, how I sound, how I am to anyone. I can just… be. I can let others be, too. I believe that’s what love is, in part: allowing someone to inhabit their space, the entirety of their space, without shame. We don’t punish the ones we love. When I understood that, truly understood it, the shyness disappeared.

Decide if you actually need to overcome shyness. Being labelled “shy” is so often to do with how other people feel about your behaviour. Remember you don’t owe “overcoming your shyness” to anybody.

If you think it is negatively affecting how you live, start off by making a list of how it does. Can you make small changes, or do one thing differently?

Pick one thing, like karaoke or speaking at an event, and do it. That sounds simple, but as long as you know it’s something that isn’t likely to hurt you or put you at risk, it’s a really good place to start.

If your behaviour and feelings are overwhelming, and you’re not sure where to start, it’s always best to see a health professional. The one-to-one conversations I had with a therapist after going to my local NHS Wellbeing centre made such a difference to how I saw my place in the world, and I couldn’t have made final changes without it.

Meet the Twitches is Hayley Webster’s first book writing as Hayley Scott in The Teacup House series (Usborne, £5.99). Order a copy for £5.09 at guardianbookshop.com . Follow her on Twitter @bookshaped

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