Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

Overcoming Shyness and Social Anxieties

Successfully combat social tensions by stepping out of character

You want to stop feeling self-conscious, insecure, and socially inhibited. You want to stop worrying about making social blunders and looking like a jerk. You’re tired of receding into the background at social gatherings hoping no one will see or approach you.

Social anxieties and shyness often coexist. Each has its peculiarities, but also significant similarities. Some corrective techniques apply to both.

Knowing what to do and then doing it can help you to get past trepidations about going to weddings, joining colleagues at a restaurant, or meeting an attractive person whom you’d like to date.

You could put off this challenging work until you felt comfortable. Waiting until you feel ready to face your social fears is an excuse for procrastinating. However, if you are sincere about conquering your social anxieties and fears, there are many ways to conquer self-defeating social inhibitions. I’ll describe exposure techniques. These are the gold standard for addressing needless phobias and fears.

Dialing Down Anxieties

Use the following three exercises to overcome feeling conspicuous and awkward in social situations. Following these desensitization exercises, we’ll look at confident composure that can grow from effective actions.

Observational learning. We learn vicariously. If you watch someone you know engage a social fear, you may imitate the best of what you saw. You may keep adding to what you observe until you routinely do better. However, these observational experiences may not be readily available.

You may still benefit by substituting visualization for observation.

To set the stage for a visualization exercise, I’ll describe an activity that took place in a shyness and social anxiety workshop. Join the group in your imagination.

Immediately after the members introduced themselves and said what they’d like to get out of the workshop, I started a Shy Away dance exercise. Here were the instructions: Pantomime shyness through dancing and gestures. Symbolically show what it is like to be shy.  I started the dance. Within seconds, the entire group was doing the Shy Away.

I ended the exercise. We talked about whether anyone would ever consider doing a solo dance at a party. No one would. Some said that if they had enough time to think about it, they might have bolted for the door.

What did each learn from the experience? As you might guess, I heard many perspectives. “I didn’t think I could do that.” "Once I got into it, the exercise was fun.” Even the most anxious said that this was not bad.  A few said the exercise was too easy. Most felt neither judged nor threatened.

The Shy Away was a break through exercise. It demonstrated that when you don’t have time to think yourself into an anxious tizzy, actively engaging a fear could lead to new positive expressions.

Here is an experiment for you to try.  Imagine you are doing the Shy Away with the workshop group. Imagine that the most kindly people you know are part of the group. In your mind’s eye, pantomime your social anxiety and shyness experiences. Next, reverse the scene. If you imagined yourself looking down at the ground, imagine yourself maintaining eye contact with others (without staring).  This is your social confidence dance.

If you are part of the sub-group with trouble conjuring visual images, put yourself through the movements of doing the dance.  Do this when you are by yourself and continue doing it until you feel comfortable with your version of the dance.

Now you’re ready for a real-life stepping out of character exercise.

Stepping out of Character Exercises are for developing functional new behaviors and fact-based beliefs. You experiment with low risk activities that open options for moving from anxious apprehensions bout what others may think of you to fact-based understandings. 

Wear mismatched socks for a day.  At first, you may feel conspicuous. After a while, you may no longer worry what others may think about the socks. In fact, few will notice or care. Ask yourself, “What did I learn from the experience?”

Here is one of my favorites. Go to a mall at a busy time of day. Take off your watch.  Ask twenty people for the time of day. Use three minutes between requests. This is a great exercise for addressing fears of stranger rejection. Statistically, a small percentage will ignore you. Some may be people with their own self-consciousness problems. Can you emotionally survive a stranger passing on your request for the time?

You may find that you start nervous. You give yourself excuses to delay. Nevertheless, you push yourself to do the exercise. You log the results of each encounter. You later look at your findings. Here is what you are likely to find. Most will give you the time of day. Some will walk past you as though you didn’t exist. A few may engage you in a brief and pleasant conversation.

If you feared rejection before you began the experiment, what might the results tell you about how a sample of strangers responded to a simple request?

Build Confident Composure

By engaging what you know or suspect is a foolish social fear, you put yourself on the path to confident composure. With confident composure, you recognize that you can directly command only yourself, and you choose to do so. You don't demand that the world change for you, and you don't need it to. With this softer but stronger view, you can better influence the controllable events that take place around you. Free of needless anxieties, your psychological resources are more fully available to engage yourself socially.

If you find yourself procrastinating, see how to combat secondary procrastination:  The Ostrich Trap

For addressing social anxieties, see:  The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety.

 © Dr. Bill Knaus

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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