Overcome your or your loved one’s shyness with an action plan

Does the thought of walking into a room full of strangers make you nervous? Do you often worry that somebody might not like you? Do you feel like the “odd man (or woman) out,” and that everyone knows it? Well, you are not alone. Shyness, and the anxiety that goes with it, is one of the most common psychological problems in the United States today.

According to a 1998 Harvard Medical School study conducted by Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., more than 13% of Americans experience the symptoms of social anxiety disorder (the psychiatric term for extreme shyness) at some point in their lives. The same survey found that social anxiety disorder is the third most common mental disorder in the nation, after depression and alcoholism.

You’ve probably seen the drug company’s TV commercials starring the sad little bouncing “thing,” avoiding all the other little (happy) bouncing “things,” only to finally bounce in, smiling timidly, after downing a couple of the company’s magic pills. Regular readers of this column know what’s coming next: Are chemicals (in spite of the fact that they are, indeed, happy and bouncy) the ONLY option?

Shyness doesn’t refer to a behavior so much as a set of emotional experiences that mental health professionals have chosen to label “social anxiety disorder.” These experiences include a fear of embarrassment so strong that social situations are regularly avoided; a total evasion of situations in which the individual will be the center of attention; and a prevailing worry over being perceived as “stupid” or foolish.

Short of secretly mixing the little bouncy pills in with their porridge, you can help your overly shy loved ones and friends by not forcing or pressuring them to do social things merely because you insist that they do so. At the same time, encourage them to see the good results they might personally obtain. Help them, if you can, to see what they’re missing.

Look for specific opportunities to help your shy friend or loved one conquer their fear. For example, when they feel down or lonely, point out that they do have choices, and that maybe this is an occasion to take some steps toward meeting people. If they become motivated to overcome the shyness, but are not sure how, suggest they form a relationship with a counselor or therapist. An experienced professional can help them overcome their timidity by taking gradual “baby steps” to break the cycle of constantly avoiding social situations. Counseling can, at a minimum, help shy people practice talking about personal matters, and perhaps, in the process, discover more details about the root of their fears. Counseling has helped pave the way for many of my shy clients to move beyond the therapy relationship, into personally satisfying associations and friendships.

Aside from therapy, gently offer to ease your shy friend or loved one into social environments so he or she can gradually become desensitized to what they see as a threat. Help them to make the places they fear less mysterious and hostile. Be persistent, but never forceful.

A specific technique a therapist might use with a painfully shy individual is to help him discover mistaken, yet deeply embedded, core beliefs that contribute to the excessive anxiety. For example, the irrational belief that, “I must be interesting and fascinating at all times.”

Or, another mistaken belief: “Everybody must like me at all times.”

Or: “I can’t be myself, because being rejected would be a catastrophe.”

Or: “Nobody feels like me. I’m odd and totally different. My feelings of shyness are not just stronger than others’, they are fundamentally different.” This last one, in my experience, is a major trait of socially anxious people. They think they’re somehow alien, as if nobody else has ever felt the way that they do.

By learning to question these mistaken mindsets, a shy person can gradually start to change them. It’s crucial to follow up with action: that is, small steps into the anxious situations. These steps can systematically desensitize the shy person to their fear. It’s fine, and even necessary, to understand the reasons why you are shy, but at some point you have to start doing something about it. The problem with many socially anxious people, as with all phobias, is that inaction eventually leads to paralysis.

If the shy individual feels completely lost about how to go about this, solution-oriented or cognitive-behavioral therapy can help develop a plan of action.

If you happen to be shy, the alternative to all this, of course, is recognizing that you don’t have to change. You can forego the therapy, the desensitization, the action plans and all the rest. But if you do this, your life will remain the way it is now. Doesn’t it seem reasonable (given the alternative) to take some risks, and maybe, as a result, earn the added value that friendship (or perhaps even romance) can bestow?

Shy people tend to feel that they’re weird or different. As a result, they avoid contact with other people. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because, over time, this habitual avoidance will, in a sense, actually make someone kind of weird and different. But it never had to be this way, and it doesn’t have to stay this way. Everyone is unique, but in certain respects we’re all alike. Everyone feels vulnerable at times; we’ve all had embarrassing moments. The shy person merely feels more vulnerable than most. Why? Because he never gets close enough to anyone else to find out that he’s not the only one who gets embarrassed. The key is to break the cycle of isolation, and to see that interacting with others isn’t so horrible after all.

Changing thoughts and behaviors, not just gulping little, temporary, bouncy pills, is the only real, permanent cure for social anxiety disorder.