Sayonara, Shyness

We consider feelings to be so central to our actions in Western culture that we strive to change them, even when it is actually behavior that we're after.

Take the case of shyness. In one of America's most popular approaches, therapists first explore the negative messages a person gives himself in social encounters, then try substituting positive ones.

But the gap between thoughts or feelings and behaviors is sometimes difficult to bridge. The Japanese avert the difficulty altogether by using Morita therapy--a treatment quietly making inroads among the bashful on this side of the world as well.

Named for the late Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita, the therapy is based on the notion that all emotions are part of life. So it attempts to change behaviors instead. "Shyness is a universal human experience," explains psychologist F. Ishu Ishiyama, of the University of British Columbia.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

When he recently treated a student too shy to approach girls, Ishiyama advised him to go head and approach them despite the anxiety. "I feel more self-confident when I accept that I am not a surefire person," the student reported afterward. "I'm confident, however, that I will get things done."

Morita technique is similar to Zen Buddhist meditation, where a person focuses attention on breathing. Thoughts are acknowledged when they arise, then attention is returned to the breath. In Morita therapy, the focus is social interaction: First the fear itself is acknowledged, then the socializing is attended to.

The principle of accepting negative emotions flows directly from Buddhism's first noble truth: that life is suffering. But you don't actually have to he Buddhist to like or benefit from Morita therapy: long-term studies show that 80% to 90% of those treated overcome their bashfulness.

Although it's still too new in the West for comparable studies, the therapy is available from Ishiyama in Vancouver and at the Morita Institute in Montreal. And anthropologist David Reynolds runs Morita therapy seminars around the United States.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): BREAKING THROUGH: A new focus helps tear down that shyness barrier.

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?