Almost everyone has experienced a sense of being somewhat awkward or uncomfortable in particular social situations – it may have been feeling their heart-rate go up in front of a high school crush, avoiding public speaking opportunities for fear of ridicule, feeling nervous at a party with people they don’t know, or any of a list of other similar symptoms. Around 90% of people report to have felt shy at some point in their lives, while 40% would go so far as describe themselves as shy people.
For many, shyness is a short-lived feeling which can easily be overcome with a little willpower – the nervous teenager committing to asking their friend to the matric dance takes a deep breath and forces themselves to speak, attempting to ignore their fear of rejection, and blurting the words out in a jumble of jitters. Corporate employees may feel uncomfortable about engaging directly with large groups of co-workers, but motivate themselves to do so, knowing the possible rewards of recognition and promotion that await them for overcoming their concerns. While it is often uncomfortable to force ourselves through these moments, we tend to learn that the rewards of social interaction often outweigh the temporary
It’s likely that most people wish they could overcome feelings of shyness, as it often gets in the way of things that we want. For this reason, it might be useful to look at the thought processes that we go through in these situations, and which are the root cause of our shyness.
Perhaps the easiest thought process to recognize is catastrophization – predicting the worst outcomes of a situation. “If I talk to the person I’ll have a crush on, they’ll laugh in my face and embarrass me in front of everyone I know.” While these fears may sometimes have a tiny basis in reality (“There is a chance that I may be laughed at to my face”), we have a tendency to overemphasize their severity and their likelihood.
It might be useful to get a second opinion to help with a more objective perspective on the situation, from someone who is less attached to the outcome. This can help to weigh up the real risks of the catastrophe we have imagined, as our own anxieties can often skew our sense of the problem.
Practising a conscious process of acceptance can also be very useful. There’s sometimes an underlying thought of “it would be awful if” or “I can’t stand it when” the situation does not play out the way we want it to. A more adaptive way to approach your shyness and associated anxieties might be to tell yourself, “I don’t want it to end up badly, but it’s not the end of the world if it does.”
Focusing on your breathing pattern, and on reducing it to a slow and steady rate, can be very useful for controlling anxiety before it
Bringing your attention to your body can help to pull your attention away from anxiety-provoking future possibilities, and settle it on what is happening in the present moment. Scan your body from head to toe for any feelings of tenseness, and consciously relax each tense muscle you notice it
The more you expose yourself to situations in which you might ordinarily be shy, the less you will feel impacted by shyness later on. Give yourself regular activities to overcome your shyness in gradual steps – try talking to the cashier the next time you’re buying groceries, or chatting to a random stranger at the bus stop. Just be careful to start with small steps, and make gradual progress!
Re-emphasizing the benefits of successfully managing your shyness can also be a useful strategy, as we often lose sight of these while hyper-focusing on the potential negative consequences. This allows us to take deliberate actions which are more likely to be in our best interests, rather than being unconsciously affected by irrational fears of disaster.
Shyness is a manifestation of anxiety that, while potentially useful in saving us from possible embarrassment, also runs the danger of being given too much reign to take away opportunities in our lives. Becoming more aware of its effect on our lives, and practising methods of dealing with it successfully, can allow us greater freedom to achieve our goals and live our lives.
For more information contact Meaningful Minds Psychologists 081 759 4849