Friday, July 31, 2009

The Pain of Shyness

I am just reading a book called Painfully Shy -- another dime find. I would call it a kind, supportive and helpful starter book if you struggle with what's nowadays called social anxiety. I've read several books on the subject -- Elaine Aron's The Highly Sensitive Person, Shyness: what it is and what to do about it, and The Shy Child, among others.

This book isn't a scholarly presentation, but rather, a practical and inspirational resource that attempts to help the reader understand the possible causes of their social anxiety and presents a range of standard treatments -- mostly cognitive behavior therapy but also exploring medication for some cases and psychotherapy work in others where the person has reason to believe his or her past is infringing on the present.

The book presents the Stages of Change used in addiction intervention and applies it to treatment of social anxiety issues. The purpose of this is to help you determine where you are in your thinking and to decide more consciously where you want to be. Examples from real cases are plentiful in the book.

Then for some solutions. The one I'm reading about now is "exposure therapy" -- the classic method for overcoming phobias by planned, incremental habituation to the thing feared. The authors make the good point that social anxiety can be resistant to the technique of exposure because social occasions tend to be quick, unpredictable and difficult to arrange in a hierarchy of danger. One way of dealing with that is "imaginal exposure" where the person goes mentally through the hierarchy of exposure and eventually confronts "core" fears of rejection and mockery.

All in all, I recommend it. I particularly liked the focus on the positive side of the shy temperament. One of the authors is a shy person herself so the book doesn't make a mistake I have found in some other books: it doesn't hold extroversion up as the ideal. It's easy for psychiatrists to focus on the benefits of the open, emotionally savvy, extroverted temperament and then portray the shyer, more reserved temperament as associated with depression and underachievement. Then the imperative is "Why can't a shy person be more like a normal person?" which sets up the wrong standard.

This is unfair, because it presentsthe best side of one temperament and the worst side of another. There are a lot of dysfunctional aspects of extroversion -- risk-taking, over-assertiveness, reflexive judgment are some that come to mind --- and there are a lot of functional aspects of the reticent temperament. --- respect for divergence, seeing past the obvious, sympathy. The point here is to realize the strengths and challenges of different types of personality.

It's also rather ineffective to make a strong case for the dysfunctional aspects of shyness. By definition, most shy people are almost over-aware of the problematic aspects of their shyness. They do not need to be convinced of that; in fact, they generally need help in seeing that their self-perception is actually distorted in a negative direction. Since one of the most characteristic features of shyness is negative self-talk, the last thing shy people looking for help need is an authority figure giving them more ammunition to use against themselves. They need to see themselves as a potentially successfully coping shy person, not try to remake themselves as someone they're not. It would be like trying to convince a person with vertigo that he can't be normal unless he becomes a bungee jumper or a hang-glider. Unnecessary and likely to increase panic rather than alleviate it.

This book portrays shyness constructively, as something to acknowledge in order to make the best of it, and focuses on offering ways to cope with it so it doesn't infringe on your life.

On a personal level, the book helped me realize I don't really fit the definition of "painfully shy", at least not anymore. I was a very shy child, to the point of acquiring selective mutism for several years in elementary school. I think it came about originally because I had an introverted, quiet temperament and quickly noticed in early childhood that this tends to be thought of as a disadvantage in itself in the USA. (The book points out that in oriental countries, a cautious thoughtful temperament is valued much more highly). We moved every year, so that didn't help with my stress level either. No sooner had I become somewhat comfortable with one set of friends then I would have to adjust to a whole new bunch of children, which I found emotionally draining and difficult. And of course, children aren't always particularly quick to make the "new kid" feel at home, and even teachers can be remarkably insensitive.

However, I made a decision in my middle school years to address my selective mutism and move past it, and I was moderately successful. Sure, I had setbacks and made mistakes, but my decision to deal with it was made by myself and accomplished by myself, which gave me a sense of inner strength that was very valuable to me. I will never be an extrovert but I am generally comfortable with my personality and can see its strong points, even during the difficult times.

With regard to this, the book made the point that some "formerly shy" people have recurrences when they are under some type of life stress or in a situation that triggers past memories. It is like some addictions, and also like some health conditions or allergies. For example, I have eczema (ongoing skin itchiness), and that too is an ongoing condition. Sometimes it's barely noticeable and I can live pretty much just like everyone else. At other times it is a lot of work and care just to keep the skin problems from escalating out of control.

The book makes the point that shyness can be like that, too. You can go through periods where it's barely a factor in your life, and other periods where it shows itself in a lot stronger form. This helped me see that the recent episodes or cycles of more problematic shyness in my life have usually come when I'm way beyond my comfort zone for some reason. It can't always be predicted. Sometimes it's when I'm already depressed or worried for some reason, or have some health issue, but even that doesn't predict how or when it will flare up.

For example, I'm generally actually at my LEAST shy when I'm at the hospital with a sick child, though there's no doubt the occasion is stressful. I suppose it's because I can't afford to be passive and reticent when my input really matters to my kid, and the adrenaline is a natural medication.

But I generally have some kind of panic attack when I'm at one of my teenager's football games, which takes all my effort to keep under control. You would think sitting in an audience watching your athletic son start as QB would be far less stressful than talking to a team of neurosurgeons and even challenging them respectfully on their understanding of what's best for your child. I can only think my difficulty with the football stadium is post traumatic stress symptoms from my own not-fully-dealt-with schooldays.

Seeing more clearly that my present shyness is episodic and triggered by circumstance, rather than a generalized trait, I think I may be able to deal with it more effectively and modify my perception of myself. So the book was helpful for that reason alone.


  1. Thank you for sharing that. I can totally understand how you would be less shy when dealing with doctors then when coping at a football game. The doctor scenario isn't "social" in the same sense as the football scenario, KWIM?

    I know when I was waiting tables it was easier for me to laugh and carry on and be witty with customers because I didn't perceive any risk of my 'reputation' being at stake as it might be in a group of peers I respected or wanted respect from.

  2. Wonderful review and post -- I went through selective mutism in school, too. It amazes me how much you and I have in common.

  3. I was very shy as a child. I have mostly grown out of it but I am still terrible at parties. I can do Bible studies or book groups where there is a specific topic at hand, but I can't do cocktail/small talk at all. I just stand there feeling stupid and desperately grasping for something to say. And I have trouble on the phone too. There are often awkward gaps because I don't respond or I lose the train of the conversation because I zone out. I've never been one of those women who get on the phone and chat away.

    Interesting post!

  4. I would generally consider myself an extrovert; however, when tested, I tend to fall in the middle between extrovert and introvert.
    Your posting hit a cord with me in that even though I love "working" a social coctail party, I also have times when I am paralyzed by social anxiety. The phone tends to be one of those examples.
    This has given me insight into my behavior as well. thanks

  5. I'm not able to read blogs daily or even weekly, but I enjoy stopping by when I have a few extra minutes and especially enjoyed the post on Sanctity.

    I wanted to mention that the Exposure Therapy is based on both operant and classical conditioning (operant being the foundation of Skinner's work.) I know you were reading Beyond Freedom and Dignity and while there are many errors in his thinking, some applications are effective. ~Andrea

  6. The Charge Up Your Confidence Tool Kit for Kids was created by three psychologists to help children boost confidence and enhance self-esteem in many different types of situation. Visit the website @ to see what the tool kit is like. The Outsmart Your Worry Tool Kits is a good companion to it, as children learn how to melt away their worry. Both can be helpful in social situations. Best of luck...Nell


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!