We fear other people virtually as much as we fear spiders and snakes. Studies of anxiety disorders show that social phobia afflicts 12 percent of the U.S. population, right behind fear of specific objects and situations. Short of having an officially diagnosable social phobia, though, occasional bouts of shyness can affect everyone. Without warning, you find yourself tongue-tied, afraid of making a public mistake, or overwhelmed at the prospect of meeting new people. As a result, your stellar qualities are temporarily sent into hiding by your feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment.
The core of social phobia is fear of embarrassment. People with this disorder have difficulty performing ordinary tasks in front of other people for fear of making a mistake or doing something that others perceive as foolish. Although you may think of social phobia as fear of public speaking, the actual disorder encompasses a much wider range of circumstances. In extreme forms, the socially phobic avoid eating or drinking in public places. They don’t want to be seen chewing, swallowing, or far worse, spilling food or liquids.
Although diagnosable conditions of social phobia involve complex disturbances in thoughts, emotions, and perhaps underlying physiology, ordinary shyness can range from occasional bouts of self-consciousness to a broader range of personality traits. When those bouts of self-consciousness strike you, there can be many possible causes.
One reason we fail to shine in a social situation is common egocentrism, the belief that other people are focused entirely on you and, hence, seeing your mistakes. The less confident you are about your abilities, the more likely it is we fear that the eyes on you will be critical. Simple conditioning can also make you hyper-sensitive. If an older relative or teacher constantly harped at you about your posture, for example, you may feel awkward about the way you walk now. Rather than put yourself out there in the bright light of the public eye, you go out of your way to avoid attention. You’ll take the back stairs instead of striding through the center of the room to get from one end of a building to the other. If there’s no other route available, you’ll cling to the outer walls, hoping to melt into the shadows.
As difficult as physical shyness can be, verbal shyness can be even more disabling. It’s hard to avoid attention in clutch situations in life in which you are expected to speak, such as a job or school admissions interview. A question is asked, and you are expected to answer. One-on-one social situations can also call for you to step out of your comfort zone. We’ve all had the stressful moments when we’re sitting next to a virtual stranger at a meal or in a party and are expected to keep the conversational ball rolling. The classic scenario of meeting your loved one’s friends or relatives for the first time can put anyone on edge, even the best talker in the world. Throw in a touch of shyness, and your anxiety can rapidly escalate.
Progress in the treatment of diagnosable social phobia is coming from the evidence-based treatments using cognitive-behavioral approaches. Therapists ask their clients to do “homework” in which they analyze the situations that cause them to be most fearful. Armed with the data, the therapists then work with the client to identify the so-called dysfunctional thoughts that crowd their mind and cause their inner panic to skyrocket. Once those thoughts are brought to the surface, the therapist works with the client to challenge and ultimately change them. One of the most critical steps in treating social phobia is overcome the individual’s social isolation. The new thoughts must be practiced in real-life settings for the treatment to work. Starting with small steps, the client can gradually experiment with the new thinking patterns, and feel better in a greater variety of previously threatening situations. Clients can also benefit from relaxation methods, mindfulness, and meditation in coping with the previously crippling feelings of social anxiety.
The same principles can be applied to helping people manage shyness, whether chronic or occasional. Unlike social phobia, ordinary shyness isn’t a disabling condition, but it can be problematic when you need to make a favorable impression by what you say or do.
The first step to help you show off your social self is to identify the situations in which your shyness reaches this problematic level and has actually prevented you from reaching a desired goal in life. We learn many of our dysfunctional social behaviors through old-fashioned classical conditioning. Just as you had to deal with the relative criticizing your posture, you may have lurking in your memory a time when you blurted out a wrong answer to a question that cost you a desirable outcome. Having burned your chances by speaking too quickly, you naturally enough adapt by taking your time before you answer, or perhaps by saying nothing at all.
Even if you can’t remember an exact moment in time when your shyness first took hold, you can nevertheless examine the thoughts going through your head when you’ve recently felt particularly shy. The chances are good that you felt unduly conscious of making a mistake of some kind or perhaps felt that you were being judged.
Now let’s take those thoughts and challenge them. Are you actually being judged as harshly as you think you are? Did you really say or do something worthy of someone’s eternal and scathing criticism? Or did you exaggerate its importance in your own mind? Even if the worst case scenario were true, and you did in fact offend someone else or say something that made you look bad, are you certain that it bothered the other person as much as it does you? Isn’t it possible that the other person actually is willing to forgive you? If someone offended you, and then apologized, wouldn’t you be willing to consider accepting the apology. How about if someone else tripped in front of you, much to that person’s dread? Would you really and truly judge that person as hopelessly clumsy for now and forever more?
You might well argue that this line of questioning is fine if someone already knows you, but what about the impression you make when you meet someone for the first time. Of course, first impressions are important. However, even if you mess up in your first moment of meeting someone by saying or doing something awkwardly, all is not lost. If we go with the “most people are forgiving” theory, it’s even possible to make up for that glitch in the situation within milliseconds of its occurrence.
Now turn to the awkward pause in the conversation when you feel that the onus is on you to keep things going. Conversations are two-way streets, so if there’s a lull, isn’t it up to you to fill it? It’s true, that person may be waiting for you to say something, or it might be expected that you do (as in an interview). In those particular situations, though, your job becomes slightly different. Turn down your internal monologue about how badly you're doing and instead focus on what is actually happening in the room. Don’t listen to yourself, listen to the other person. Really pay attention to what he or she is asking, not on how miserable you’re feeling. You got to that interview for a reason: you look good on paper, you had impressive recommendations, and you are the kind of person that they’re looking for. This should help you build your confidence so that you stop worrying about how inadequate you must seem and instead be that person they expected to meet. Your social self will shine even in the toughest interview if you turn down that critical inner voice.
It’s also important to recognize the benefits of shyness. Shy people may think that they’re flawed when they compare themselves to their extraverted friends and family. However, think of your shyness as an asset. It takes a mix of personalities to make up a well-functioning social environment, whether it’s a two-person couple, a large family, a classroom, or a work setting. Too many extroverts in a situation can lead to chaos. They clamor for attention and drown each other out. When something goes wrong, they let you know. You don’t have to feel bad or ashamed of yourself just because you’re not the noisiest person in the room. Shy people have the virtue of not being the squeaky wheel. Other people will appreciate you for who you are, not how loudly or frequently you make your presence known.
When it comes right down to it, challenging this negative view of yourself may ultimately be the most important step you can take to conquer your bouts with shyness. Accepting your personal qualities will help you focus more on enjoying social situations doing well in them, and giving yourself the confidence to do even better the next time you're in the spotlight.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012