By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
It’s one thing to be an introverted or quiet person, but it’s quite another to be shy. Shy people find interacting with others to be painfully threatening. They are hyperconscious of their actions as they focus keenly on the reactions of others. And they only make their problem worse by attempting to avoid their anxiety, such as by refusing to go to parties or other social situations. Their avoidance might be subtler, such as finding ways to keep busy without having to interact much with others (e.g. helping clean up even as the party is going on). Whatever their way of managing anxiety, their shyness – or social anxiety – remains a problem that interferes with their life. Fortunately, they can overcome it with some effort.
It helps a lot to understand when you are unintentionally increasing your anxiety through a chicken-or-egg kind of spiral. You may react to your physical symptoms (e.g. sweaty palms, racing heart) by thinking more catastrophically about the situation. For instance, you might find mild anxiety increases to the point where you think, “If I go to this party, I will say something dumb and then no one will want to talk with me. I’ll be alone in the world.” Then, if you avoid the party, you will find that the next party invitation makes you even more anxious about socializing and more determined to avoid being anxious.
You can begin to change this pattern by figuring out exactly what you fear. Generally speaking, you are probably concerned with others viewing you negatively. But, to understand your struggle more completely, consider your thoughts about going into a social situation.
For instance, you might think any of the following:
- I won’t know what to say.
- I will say the wrong thing and make a fool of myself.
- They will think I’m boring.
Now, think about what you fear will happen. And ask yourself:
- Am I totally sure that this will happen?
- What other outcome might there be?
- What’s the worst that could happen? How would I cope with it?
Consider realistic ways of responding. For instance, if you fear being “dumped” by your friend after saying the wrong thing at a party, re-think this. It is unlikely that a long-time friend will cut off your relationship if you show ignorance about something or are not the most scintillating of guests at a party. Or, if you fear turning someone off, you might realize your life can continue to be a full one – minus that particular person.
Next, think about handling social situations differently. Imagine being in a social situation. Allow yourself to become anxious. Make sure that you include your fear of what will go wrong. Then imagine continuing in the situation. Talk yourself through it with more rational thinking. If your anxiety goes down, then that will obviously help you feel more prepared for “the real thing.” If it doesn’t, it’s important that you remain in the imagined situation for a while. Note how you are able to function despite your anxiety. If you have friends who are willing to help you, you might play-act the situation, or at least talk this through with them. And then, of course, you need to practice in the real world, challenging yourself to face your anxiety.
It’s important that as you work on this problem, you be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that you are struggling with a tough issue. Be sure to give yourself credit for any progress, from just being willing to think about this directly to actually lessening your anxiety. With persistence, you will learn to enjoy your social life more.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.