Does the thought of walking into a room full of strangers make you nervous? Do you feel like the ‘odd man (or woman) out?’ Well, you’re not alone. Shyness, and the anxiety that goes with it, is a common psychological problem. According to a 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,’ timidly avoiding all the other little (happy) bouncing things, only to finally bounce in, smiling, 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 mixing the little bouncy pills into their porridge, you can help your overly shy loved ones 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 what they’re missing.
Look for opportunities to help. 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’re motivated, suggest they form a relationship with a counselor or therapist. An experienced professional can help them take 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 discover more details about the root of their fears. Many of my shy clients have moved beyond the therapy relationship into enjoyable associations and friendships.
Gently 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 deeply embedded (yet mistaken) 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 I do. I’m odd and totally different.’ This last one, in my experience, is a key trait of socially anxious people. They think they’re somehow alien, as if nobody else has ever felt the way they do.
By learning to question these mistaken mindsets, a shy person can start to change them. It’s crucial to follow up with action, that is, small steps into the anxious situations to 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. As with all phobias, inaction can eventually lead 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’re shy, the alternative, of course, is to recognize that you don’t HAVE to change. You can forego the therapy, the desensitization, the action plans and all that. But your life will remain the way it is now. Given that alternative, doesn’t it seem reasonable to take some risks, and maybe earn the added value that friendship (or perhaps even romance) can bestow?
Shy people tend to feel that they’re different, so they avoid contact with other people. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because this habitual avoidance will, in a sense, actually MAKE someone seem weird and different. But it never had to be this way—and it doesn’t have to stay this way. Everyone feels vulnerable at times and we’ve all had embarrassing moments.
The shy person merely feels more vulnerable because he never gets close enough to anyone 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 permanent cure for social anxiety disorder.