A book I meant to write but now probably never will is a cultural history of shyness – partly because I’ve just read another good book about it: Christopher Lane’s Am I Normal? Lane’s bugbear is the way that modern psychiatry is caught in a Faustian pact with the drug companies, so that that it now attributes mundane, everyday conditions like shyness to chemical imbalances in our brains. ‘The logical, perhaps inevitable, consequence of the biomedical turn in psychiatry,’ he argues, ‘is a growing consensus that traits once attributed to mavericks, sceptics, or mere introverts are psychiatric disorders that drugs should eliminate.’
According to Lane, the first scientific discussion of shyness is found in Charles Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin wanted to come up with an evolutionary cause for shyness in response to religious authors like Thomas Burgess, who claimed that God had designed shyness so that ‘the soul might have sovereign power of displaying in the cheeks the various internal emotions of the moral feelings’. Burgess approved of this, believing it could ‘serve as a check on ourselves, and as a sign to others, that we are violating rules which ought to be held sacred’. Darwin disagreed, arguing that blushing makes the person ‘suffer and the beholder uncomfortable, without being of the least moral service to either of them’. He thought it strange that the inferred opinion of others could excite such strong emotions – ‘why should the thought that others are thinking about us affect our capillary circulation?’
Freud’s answer to this was that emotions can’t be reduced to biology: our minds have blind spots, irrational detours, short circuits. Freud saw social anxiety ‘less as a tension resulting from blocked energy than as a conundrum borne out of our stalled and unpredictable transition from biology to culture’. The agent of our woes ‘is not society or other people but an internalized variant of them distorted beyond recognition’.
‘Shyness is nice,’ sang Morrissey in the Smiths’ song ‘Ask’. I don’t like to contradict the bard of Whalley Range, but shyness isn’t nice. I’m with Freud on this one: shyness is a pain and no bloody use, evolutionary or otherwise, to anyone (admittedly, this doesn’t scan quite as well). So if someone offered me a pill to cure shyness, I’d have to think about it. I have also been told that cocaine is a pretty universal cure for shyness, but that it has the unpleasant side effect of turning you into a complete tosser.*
But on the whole I agree with Lane. You can’t simply medicalise your problems away. Shyness may not be nice, but you have to get over it. As Hamm says in Beckett’s Endgame, ‘You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!’
*As well as being naughty and illegal. Just say no, kids.
Mundane quote for the day: ‘Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to its vomit.’ - Samuel Beckett