This week I take a look at shyness. Research suggests about 90% of us say we have felt shy at some point, such as when we have to walk into a room full of people we don’t know, but many of us have figured out a defense system such as laughing or talking a lot. For some people this shyness develops into a more problematic situation and about 13% of the population could be diagnosed as having social anxiety, where our apprehension of being around others starts to inhibit areas of our life. It is a bit like imagining we each have a shyness thermostat inside us that leads us to interpret social situations with differing levels of fear, ranging from minimal to overwhelming.
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:
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.