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Life Beyond Therapy: Shyness and social anxiety

(This column originally appeared HERE on SDGLN media partner Gay San Diego.)

As a psychotherapist, lots of clients ask me if shyness or social anxiety is normal. It’s a tricky question: Aren’t we all a little shy in new situations? Most of us are, but some people are energized by a room full of strangers and find it stimulating: “Oh, wow, all these new people. How cool is that?”

If this is not you, never fear, it’s not true for most of us. Let’s look at shyness and social anxiety and see if we can understand them better.

Social anxiety is an intense fear of criticism from and/or rejection by others. You feel insecure or not good enough for other people, like there’s something wrong with you. As a result, you feel fear and anxiety in social situations. This fear is so great that you may feel anxious just thinking about social situations and will go to great lengths to avoid them.

Shyness is the less-intense cousin of social anxiety: you feel uncomfortable or awkward when you’re around other people, especially in new situations or with unfamiliar people. You’re afraid to say or do what you want. Smiling, starting conversations, being relaxed and making eye contact with others are not easy for you.

Shy folks may seem distant during conversations. Ironically, trying too hard to help a shy person join in a social situation can backfire, making them feel worse by drawing attention to them and reinforcing the idea that there’s something wrong with them.

Shy people feel reticence and hesitation in social situations; people with social anxiety experience panic and intense anxiety. What can we do about this stuff?

If you are shy or afraid of social situations, consider these tips:

• Acknowledge the conflict between your desire to belong and your fear of rejection

• Set specific, manageable goals (going to a party) and reasonable means to attain them (going with a friend who will give you moral support)

• Challenge negative thoughts about yourself

• Remember that shyness and social anxiety are common and universal experiences for most of us: you are not alone

• Be mindful about using alcohol and drugs to temporarily lower social anxiety.

The two most common ways to reduce shyness and social anxiety are psychotherapy and medication. If you’re working on your shyness/social anxiety, psychotherapy not only gives you a place to explore your needs and behaviors in a safe environment, but it also provides you with skills to increase your social risk-taking and self-acceptance. A good therapist will give you support and help you to reduce your self-blame and shame.

I often use cognitive therapy techniques in helping clients with shyness and social anxiety. I help you learn how to guide your thoughts in a more rational direction when you feel anxious or scared of social situations. This kind of therapy helps you to slowly become more comfortable in situations that once caused you anxiety. I also teach clients relaxation and stress management techniques – like breathing methods and muscle relaxation – specifically designed to reduce social anxiety and shyness.

Different types of medications are used to treat social anxiety disorder: anti-depressants like Paxil or benzodiazepines like Librium, Valium and Ativan. A good psychiatrist is the person to talk with about these.

In the long run, we are all pretty much stuck with our personalities, aren’t we? Bold people don’t usually become quiet; shy people rarely morph into attention seekers. But we can all learn to work with what we’ve got: to minimize unrealistic fears and maximize our enjoyment of life.

If you’re shy, find a balance in the social world that works for you. Many shy people are wise and thoughtful. They may not dance on the bar, but they usually have deeper, more meaningful qualities that make them worth knowing. Work with your shyness so you don’t end up isolated. Make peace with it: intense social lives are not for everyone. Some of us prefer a quieter life.

On the other hand, severe social anxiety can be emotionally crippling. Get help with it. Don’t suffer unnecessarily. People do like you and want to be with you. Don’t let distorted thinking keep you home alone. Find ways to break out of the box.

Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBT clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Michael is currently accepting new clients. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.