Shyness: More Than a Feeling

Wallflower. “The word describes me perfectly, as I’m such a loner,” Shannon, age 33, said. “I sit home alone every weekend, waiting for a friend to call. Then when the phone does ring, I don’t answer it. My heart starts to pound, and my face turns warm and red. I’m so afraid it’s someone I don’t know well, and I won’t know what to say. Lately I can count my friends on one hand, and even these friends are not very close.”

Jeff’s shyness problem is quite similar. “I never feel at ease, whether it’s on the job or at a family reunion. I’m always anxiety-ridden and worried that someone is looking at me, and I don’t measure up. Whenever I have to make a team report at work, I get a lump in my throat, my mouth gets dry, and I start to stutter. Sometimes I get so nauseated that I have to excuse myself to the men’s restroom. It’s pure torture to face the world each day being shy.”

What Is Shyness?

It is hard being shy. Ask any of the 84 million Americans who admit to having this exaggerated sense of self. If you are shy, you know all about the excessive anxiety, overwhelming feelings of insecurity, and terrifying symptoms you feel (the pounding heart, frozen facial muscles, and gnawing stomachache). If you aren’t shy, imagine how you might normally be a bit self-conscious in a group setting. Then, greatly magnify these high-anxiety feelings to the point where you constantly stay focused on how others perceive you instead of focusing on the moment. Your thoughts may run the gamut from They hate me to I’ll never fit in here to What will I say if someone speaks to me? Ultimately, you close the door to any intimate relationships.

More Than an Uncomfortable Feeling

Shyness causes intense self-focus, a preoccupation with your thoughts, feelings, and personal reactions. While shyness is uncomfortable and causes great fixation with what others may think, it also inhibits interpersonal situations and interferes with pursuing your interpersonal or professional goals. Shyness can range from being a bit self-conscious at a party to being socially awkward at work to having specific phobias that keep you from living a normal life.

Why Is Shyness a Concern?

“I can handle being shy,” Gary, age 44, said. “I mean, I spend a lot of time alone with my music, but after all these years, I’m used to it.” The problem with accepting being shy is that you may miss out on all that life can offer. For example, comprehensive studies have found that shy people date less, interact less with friends and colleagues, and are more focused on themselves than others when in conversation. Likewise, shy men and women report seeing themselves as inhibited, unfriendly, awkward, less physically attractive, and incompetent.

As far as jobs are concerned, a shy employee gets a “thumbs-down”. He or she is the least likely one chosen for promotions or advancement within companies. Many hold down jobs that are well beneath their abilities and education because of fear of job interviews, meeting the public, or having to be in charge of other employees. Research done at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma shows that the more shy a person is, the less prestigious his/her job title tends to be.

If you are shy, you may be perceived as less friendly, not interested, or just plain “snobby”–simply because you don’t know what to say in social situations. Or, while you may know what to say, to get the words to come out at the right time is so painful it is almost crippling.

Shyness or Social Phobia?

While shyness is not a mental disorder, social phobia or anxiety (a more serious form of shyness) is the third most common psychological problem in the United States today, affecting more than 15 million Americans. This anxiety disorder is a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. If you have social phobia, you may fear that you will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.

For example, when confronted with dreaded social situations–even a surprise party given by your friends–your anxiety levels can rise. Instead of feeling honored and excited that friends care about you, the moment they shout “Surprise!” you may experience panic, crying, or all-out fear. In more serious cases of social phobia, you may have other psychiatric disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, agoraphobia, attention deficit disorder, or depression–all of which require a doctor’s treatment.

Untreated shyness may turn into social phobia, and this mental disorder doubles the risk that you may become depressed or turn to alcohol addiction. Once you start to avoid all social and public interactions, you may be diagnosed with a more serious problem of avoidant personality disorder. That is why treatment for shyness is crucial– before it robs you of quality of life in an extremely social world.

Curing Shyness

When looking for a cure for shyness (or the more serious counterpart social phobia), keep in mind that it didn’t just happen, and it won’t go away instantly. The chances are great that if you are shy today, you will have shyness every day for the rest of your life.

While many therapeutic treatments have been tried, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the only modality that has been proven to work effectively. With CBT the therapist will help you work toward the goal of changing incorrect perceptions into rational and accurate thinking. Using such tools as role plays, acting, a tape recorder, or a video camera, you will use specific strategies to overcome your anxiety-producing fears.

For example, if you dread job interviews, working with a trained therapist, you will practice interviewing again and again until your anxiety is reduced. Your therapist will help you practice special techniques to reduce anxiety until you conquer the phobia. Some shy people have seen tremendous results in as few as 12 individual sessions with a licensed counselor.

Exposure Therapy Can Be Done at Home

If shyness simply makes you a bit nervous–but not phobic–try exposing yourself to the situations that bring on anxiety. Keep in mind that avoidance engenders more avoidance. In many psychotherapy groups, role-playing feared situations with other group members helps shy people face the “monster” of fear. Do this in small steps so you won’t feel too nervous with each step.

For example, if you have difficulty speaking before your coworkers at the weekly meeting, try giving your report in front of a mirror. Tape-record your voice as you do this; then play back the tape. Once your confidence rises, give the report to your spouse or a good friend. Ask them to videotape you, and watch the tape repeatedly.

Ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Sometimes if you can move beyond fear of the “worst that can happen,” you can begin to conquer your demon of shyness.