As Labor Day approaches, what used to be a ghost town is no more. We still get our share of crowds, especially on weekends. For some people, however, the thought of walking onto a crowded boardwalk or into a busy restaurant makes them nervous. If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Shyness and the accompanying anxiety are common psychological problems.
Shyness doesn’t refer to a behavior as 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 and a total evasion of situations in which the individual will be the center of attention, including a prevailing worry over being perceived as stupid or foolish.
According to a study conducted by Ronald Kessler, Ph.D., more than 13% of Americans experience the symptoms of social anxiety disorder some time in their lives. Social anxiety disorder is the third most common mental disorder in the nation, after depression and alcoholism. So how can you help your overly shy loved ones? One of the best ways is to not pressure them into doing social things merely because you insist that they do so. What you can do is to gently encourage them to see what they’re missing. For example, when they feel lonely, point out that they do have choices, and that maybe this is a chance 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 baby steps to break the cycle of constantly avoiding social situations. At a minimum, counseling can help shy people get used to talking about personal matters, and perhaps discover 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 become gradually desensitized to what they see as a threat. Help them to make the places they fear less mysterious and hostile.
A therapist might help the individual discover deeply embedded core beliefs that contribute to the anxiety. For example, “I must be interesting at all times.” Or, “Everybody must like me at all times.” 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, i.e., small steps into the anxious situations to help desensitize the person to their fear. It’s fine to understand the reasons why you’re shy, but at some point you have to start doing something about it. As with all phobias, inaction can lead to paralysis. Solution-focused or cognitive-behavioral therapy can help develop a plan of action.
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 bring?
Shy people tend to feel that they’re different, so they avoid contact with others. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because this avoidance can make someone appear to be weird and different. But it never had to be that way. Everyone feels vulnerable at times and we’ve all had embarrassing moments. The shy person feels more vulnerable because he never gets close enough to anyone to find out that he’s not the only person who gets embarrassed. The key is to break the cycle and see that interacting with others isn’t so terrible after all.
Changing thoughts and behaviors through a steady and consistent regimen is the only permanent cure for social anxiety disorder.
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