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Social Anxiety and Shyness: Two Strategies For Reconquering the World

Updated on April 19, 2012

You'll know if this applies to you, despite it seeming downright strange to other people. You can call it social anxiety or being "painfully shy." Polite society might call you a loner or a wallflower; the impolitic might call you things far ruder. In any case, having social anxiety is a dreadful thing: it can reach the point of being physically painful, it can be utterly isolating, and it can ruin your life.

Before we begin...

There is a point where being "shy" is no longer a quirk of your personality. It's not something cute or fun, and it doesn't make the sufferer seem mysterious. Some get to the point where it significantly impedes the living of their lives, whether it be at home, work, school, or all of the above. This is the point of "disorder." Whether it's Social Anxiety Disorder, a phobia, or a panic disorder (or some combination of the three, which can have a fair amount of overlap), these are all treatable. If your life is impeded substantially by any sort of anxiety or fear, there is a strong likelihood that some combination of talk therapy and drug therapy could lead to partial or total remission of your symptoms. The first step is to get an appointment, which a medical doctor, university health center, or local hospital would be able to help you with.

If you're reading this, you might be depressed. Anxiety, fear, and isolation can do terrible things to the human mind. If it's truly bad, and especially if you have been considering self-harm, please get immediate attention (the local hospital). Getting out of your current environment and into the care of professionals can make a world of difference.

What if it's not a disorder? What if it just... sucks?

Oh, well, then you've come to the right place. While therapy would still certainly be helpful, there are some steps and strategies that you can try on your own, at your own pace.

Strategy One: Little Victories

Also known as "baby steps," or "crawling before you walk." You know, all sorts of demeaning stuff. What it really comes down to is having mastery experiences. Put simply, this means setting out to do something that you think is difficult, and doing it. When you do this, you're not just proving something to yourself, or to the world: you're proving it to your unconscious mind.

There's a construct in psychology known as self-efficacy. It is a measure of how able you consider yourself to be, either regarding something specific, or in general. No matter how capable you consider yourself ("I could go up to that person and strike up a conversation if I felt like it"), your unconscious mind might have a different opinion ("SITUATION FEAR-INDUCING; ABORT"). This dualism isn't 100% accurate (the different parts of your brain are always consulting one another, and there's more than just two "parts"), but it's a useful metaphor. While you might consider yourself perfectly capable of leaving the house to go to that party, what's with the sudden brick wall of fear and doubt?

Mastery experiences promote higher self-efficacy. Why? Each time you accomplish something that seemed difficult, your brain compares that outcome to all of the feared outcomes (defeat, humiliation, pants-wetting) that it had conjured prior to your success. When they have failed to come to pass, the perceived odds of them occurring in the future is lessened in your unconscious calculus. Indeed, your brain raises its estimation of your ability to succeed in difficult circumstances.

Does this mean that you should jump in with both feet and start going to parties every night, no matter how much anxiety that provokes? Well, no, because you're probably not able to do so with any degree of comfort, not yet. Your brain is still throwing up those failure scenarios, and it's probably doing so pretty powerfully where your most feared events are concerned. That brings us to the idea of a hierarchy of feared scenarios, and to the idea of little victories.

A hierarchy of feared scenarios is a list in which you rate situations that provoke anxiety. While parties might be a "10" on the fear-o-meter for some people, a date might score highest for others. Your list is your own. A little victory is a mastery experience in which you conquer one of your lower-ranking fears. This might be going to the grocery store and using a cashier rather than self-checkout, or calling up an old friend who you'd been ignoring because it'd been "too long."

Achieve these victories, and label them as such. It is a dreadful habit of the mind of depressed and anxious people to amplify negative outcomes while minimizing successes. This means that the C on your first algebra test is a catastrophe, one that has profound implications for your ability to succeed in college; while the A on your second test is you "doing fine," with no deeper meaning about your ability to bounce back from adversity. Failure is disaster, while success is par for the course.

This must change if you are ever to defeat anxiety. This is where you start: each time you achieve a small victory, you mentally pat yourself on the back and say "good job, me."

Strategy Two: Be Willing to Fail

I know, this seems to go against what I just said. Success fosters self-efficacy, so failure must reduce it... right? Not really.

As I've mentioned, depressed and anxious people tend to catastrophize, magnifying the negative component of any given life event. Think of the number one item on your hierarchy of feared scenarios (let's say it's going on a date). You've rated this one a 10/10 on the fear scale. Why? Well, you have a general feeling of foreboding, a sense of impending doom, and an unpleasant feeling in your gut when you even start to contemplate going out with someone. Your brain is saying "this situation is dangerous." You might think this is completely irrational, but you might also have some conscious fears as well. You might see yourself getting humiliated, or freezing up.

Does this warrant the gut-wrenching fear that you feel? In paleolithic times, that level of fear would have only been felt at the sight of an oncoming snake, or tiger, or automobile (how scary would that have been?). There is obviously a mismatch here, a glitch. Your brain is overreacting, and it needs to be taught a lesson. This is how you start to face the scenarios that rank higher on your list. Not only do you need your brain to realize that "hey, maybe I'm capable of succeeding," you need it to figure out that "failure isn't so bad." For more on working with automatic thoughts and maladaptive mental biases, see the books linked above and to the right.

There is a saying, "failure is the mother of all success." Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you want to make an omellete... in short, you need to fail, and you need to face the outcome. You need for your brain, at an unconscious level, to decouple the concept of failure from the concept of catastrophe.

Once you've worked up your self-efficacy, you need to venture out and screw up. Get your hands messy. Once you've failed, I want you to pat yourself on the back and say, "good job, me."

A Few More Tips

Sorry if the above seems glib or flippant. It's going to be a long process, and it's going to take a lot of accumulated successes and failures to undo years of conditioning. Still, it never hurts to be nice to yourself, and to acknowledge your unique journey toward self-actualization.

There are a lot of little things that you can do to accelerate your journey. I already mentioned drug and talk therapies. Meditation might do the trick, as well as anything that reduces overall anxiety (deep breathing, exercise). There's a saying that goes "fake it 'til you make it," where you put on a brave front and act outgoing until you're no longer acting. The trick is to keep tinkering, keep pushing back against the "wall" of anxiety (it has soft spots), and keep expanding your repertoire of mental and social skills. I've linked a book that you might find handy called "Goodbye to Shy." I like this one because it's broad and covers a huge range of little tips. I'm a big fan of my two strategies above, but what if you just need to make a few small changes to nudge you toward a victory or failure? This book will give you plenty of ideas.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading and, as always, be kind to yourself.


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    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      SUCH good advice. I'm (naturally) very anxious and shy, but most of the people I interface with would say that's far from the truth. My success (in fooling folks) is thanks in great part to the little victories and willingness to fail that you've outlined above. Hurrah!

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 

      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Interesting. I'd say you've covered the bases...Still, I'm wondering if some people are too shy to leave a comment!!!!!!


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