Symptoms of higher levels of shyness or social anxiety include: blushing, sweating, shaking, racing heart, avoidance, apprehension of being around other people, self-consciousness, avoiding eye contact, appearing quiet and isolated at social occasions (which can also make you appear superior or you can be labelled anti-social), fear of being embarrassed or rejected, and in general being there without really being there.
Over time, if the anxiety continues we become conditioned to associate others with our fearful reaction and unpleasant feelings, and because we anticipate a poor outcome we avoid what we assume will be a loss in terms of creating relationships. This distancing from people before we even give them a chance means that we lose the opportunity to seek pleasure from a sense of affiliation as well as the chance of closeness with people who could become more important to us.
Imagine a teenage boy who is starting to have opportunities to interact with girls, and feeling a great deal of anxiety to the point where he freezes whenever he is around them. He then starts to avoid girls so he can feel less anxious, but over time as he compares himself to other boys this feeds into his sense of self, and his internal thoughts are that he is ineffective and unmanly. Eventually he pushes himself to go to a party and has a few drinks to try and calm himself down, but when a girl tries to talk to him he feels overwhelmed and leaves in a hurry. Word gets around his social circle that he is weird or possibly gay, which leads to him becoming even more isolated and then he starts showing signs of being depressed. It can be too easy to spiral into a self-defeating situation.
It is important to remember that humans are inherently social animals; we evolved to thrive on having a relational group to exist within, and if you do therefore find yourself becoming isolated in a way that leads to you to feel unhappy then here are 10 tips to help you:
- To overcome your shy feelings, you need to act in the opposite way, e.g., be non-fearful and outgoing. Make a list headed ‘How would I act if I was not shy?’ List all the behaviors people would see, e.g., making eye contact, smiling, being communicative. Then go out and practice, practice, practice, and keep a note of the level of discomfort you feel each time. Over time your discomfort level will decrease.
- Find a common interest group so you already have something to talk about, and when you find that group commit to yourself that you will keep showing up rather than making it a one-time deal.
- Communicate via social media some of the time so you can express yourself without that awkward feeling you get in person. This will help you to build some rapport and commonality with people you are interested in developing an association with.
- Test out whether your shyness thermostat has become set too high by going to a social occasion that you would usually avoid, and then compare your expectations with what actually happened, e.g., “I expected nobody would want to talk to me, but I struck up a conversation with someone and it went well”.
- Vow to test out your hypothesis that ‘other people are a potential risk’ with each new person you encounter. Most people will be okay, but know that if they prove your hypothesis to be correct by behaving badly then that says something about them, and not about you.
- Volunteer to take a role or to host, as this allows you to approach others at the event with specific requests, such as asking them to come and eat or pose for photos. Having something to talk about or a role you have to play can be a helpful way to ease into social occasions.
- Make a 10% change in your behavior, such as asking one more question in class or sitting one row closer to the front, and then when that proves to be survivable, make it another 10% next time.
- Think of open ended questions ahead of time so you have something to say, such as “how did you both meet?” or “I’m looking for something decent to read, what books have you read lately that you would recommend?” Know that lots of people are either hoping someone else will take the lead, or they like talking about themselves and appreciate the opportunity!
- Take a deep breath and commit to see a good therapist who will support you through your transition to setting your thermostat from socially anxious to liking yourself and being comfortable around other people.
- Remember that shyness is not valued in our society, whereas being assertive and extrovert is. In fact though, shy people can be more sensitive to what is going on around them and they often make keen observers of others, which can be a skill in many areas of life. Think about this quote by John Amodeo from his book The Authentic Heart: "If you experience shyness, consider it a blessing. Shyness is an entrance into a tender fold within your authentic heart … If you can allow yourself to experience shyness when it arises—if you can gently turn your attention toward the place in your body that feels this shyness—then it becomes a friend, not a threat. Embraced shyness transforms into sweetness … As your tolerance for shyness grows, there are greater possibilities for breakthroughs into the exhilarating pleasure of connecting."
Lastly, remember that while Facebook makes it seem as though everyone except you has hundreds of friends, in reality most people have just a couple of people they can call true friends, and it is those connections that count. Focus on being more socially comfortable and eventually you will make the acquaintances that lead to real friendship.
If you are facing a challenge in your life because of social anxiety and can’t see a way forward, then counselling can be helpful in providing support and a non-judgmental space to learn to find balance and confidence. For more in-depth help and counselling, consider contacting me in person. I also invite questions to be answered on my blog.