Is shyness haunting your social life? You can beat it

Mindy stood off to the side, watching the others mingling and laughing. Several of her co- workers were at the party, and had attempted to include her in the conversations, but even so, Mindy didn’t feel like she fit in. She hesitated to speak, worried she would blush and stammer, presenting herself as foolish and tongue- tied. Mindy tried to smile and look at ease, but couldn’t pull it off. She was painfully aware that her insecurities ham pered every aspect of her life. She felt so lonely but the prospect of reaching out to new people terrified her. She would invariably retreat to the ladies room or slip out early, hating herself for being so shy. The irony is that Mindy has been perceived by others as one of the most attractive, intelligent and c apable people in their circle. That evening, however, served as a turning point. She was so angry with herself she was finally prepared to take dramatic steps to turn her life around. She was determined not to live her life on the sidelines. For some people, social anxiety can become a very stressful, painful and, at times, even disabling problem that haunts them their entire life. The discomfort is further hampered by the ongoing feelings of worry and the anticipatory dread of suffering embarrassments and catastrophes that may or may not even happen.

Oftentimes, those suffering from social anxiety have a belief system comprised of negative thoughts and irrational beliefs that catapult them to a frightened place of intense worry. They believe others will evaluate them in a negative way. They may even carry shameful feelings that they don’t measure up to others’ exacting standards.

Although more severe situations may rrequire at professional intervention, there are very effective steps a person can take ess to master these insecurities and to embark on a path of becoming more self-assured. In Mindy’s case, she was motivated to make changes and push through her discomfort with gradual, planned steps.

Mindy committed to identifying the specific negative thoughts that automatically come to her in stressful situations. For example, Mindy might talk herself out of attending a party because she would ruminate and say the following: “I won’t have anything to say. I’ll look like a jerk and humiliate myself by saying something stupid.”

Next, she began to challenge the validity of her anticipated missteps, and to remind herself that it is not inevitable that she’ll embarrass herself. In fact, it is quite possible that if she tries to be friendly, others might truly enjoy her company. She can remind herself of social events in the past where she felt welcomed and had made a significant contribution.

Shy people who are determined to become more outgoing can actually teach themselves to gradually face their fears in small increments. Mindy agreed that she could try to build these skills by initiating a brief interaction daily with a stranger in a store. For example, she might ask a clerk to help her find an item or make a brief comment to the person waiting on line behind her. (She used good judgment to not put herself in risky or inappropriate situations!) She increased her efforts over time, and discovered that she enjoyed getting to know new people and they were often quite receptive to her overtures. Importantly, she was able to transfer this newly learned comfort to starting friendly conversations with coworkers and new acquaintances.

I often encourage people who worry that they’ll embarrass themselves by not knowing what to say in social situations to do some preparatory homework. I advise them to jot down a few topics of interest from the news, the computer or a magazine, and put that piece of paper in their pocket. When there’s a lull in the conversation at a party, they can practice saying: “Can you believe what happened today? I heard on the radio that ...” When a person prepares ahead, they can enter a room with the security that they’ll have something of interest to talk about and become more confident to actually initiate a conversation.

Going out in public and confronting a social phobia may be very difficult at first. The key is to start by mastering small, manageable steps, gradually working up to more challenging situations, all the while building confidence and coping skills along the way. ¦

— Linda Lipshutz, LCSW, ACSW, is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. She holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and completed post- graduate training at the Ackerman Institute for Marital and Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached 561- 630- 2827, or at

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2012-10-18 digital edition

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