Ask people what they fear the most and many of them will answer, “speaking in public.” In surveys that ask people about their fears, about one person in five reports an extreme fear of public speaking. Shyness and other forms of social anxiety are common – and they prevent people from fully experiencing life.
Shyness refers to a tendency to withdraw from people, particularly people who are unfamiliar. Everyone has some degree of shyness. In fact a person without any shyness at all is probably one who does not make good judgments about maintaining appropriate boundaries between people. A bit of shyness is a good thing. But when a high level of shyness prevents a person from engaging in normal social interactions, from functioning well at work, or from developing intimate relationships, it presents a problem – which, fortunately, can be alleviated.
Shyness is one form of the broader term, social anxiety. This concept, also known as social phobia, refers to a special kind of anxiety that people feel when they are around other people. It is associated with concerns about being scrutinized. Shyness and social anxiety are closely related, but social anxiety includes other situations such as speaking in public, taking tests, sports performance, and dating. Closely related to the concepts of shyness and social anxiety are embarrassment and shame. Embarrassment is what a person feels when something unexpected happens and draws unwanted attention. This creates a temporary feeling of discomfort. Shame, on the other hand, is more long-lasting. Shame is a feeling that comes from being disappointed in oneself.
People often see the distressful symptoms of social anxiety as their enemy, so they try to avoid thinking about it. In order to overcome social anxiety, however, it is necessary to “embrace” the anxiety. That is, sufferers need to identify the features of their anxiety and acknowledge these characteristics as their own. When people fully understand a problem, they are better able to cope with it. Shutting out the problem, on the other hand, keeps it in the dark where it is difficult to work with. People often become aware of anxiety by identifying their physical reactions, which include a racing heartbeat, flushing, upset stomach, excessive perspiration, dizziness, poor concentration, and shaky hands. It is important to understand whether these physical reactions take place before (anticipatory anxiety), during, or after the anxiety-provoking situation.
Some people cope with anxiety by engaging in avoidance behavior. This happens when the person tries to stay away from situations that arouse anxiety. This is helpful in some circumstances, such as avoiding driving during rush hour. However, when the person starts to avoid business meetings, taking classes, and socializing with friends because of anxiety, the impact on one’s lifestyle can be constricting. A related symptom of anxiety is escape behavior, which involves leaving a situation that arouses anxiety. This can include running out of a class when the time to speak is near, leaving a party shortly after arriving, or exiting the airplane before it departs.
When feeling anxious, remind yourself to focus on others. Think about the other person, what this person is trying to say, how the other person feels, etc. If your attention moves back to your anxiety, try not to feel that you are failing. Just let it pass and refocus on the other person. Try to avoid planning your responses to the other person. Allow yourself to have some spontaneous reactions to others.
Try not to engage in mind-reading – that is, trying to figure out what other people are thinking about you. They are probably much more interested in themselves. Socially anxious people also engage in negative thinking, especially about themselves. They emphasize their weaknesses and minimize their strengths. Virtually any negative thought can be changed into a positive. For example, “I am a failure because of my anxiety” can be changed into “I am facing a life challenge to show how strong I can be as I overcome my anxiety.” The first step in overcoming negative thoughts is to be aware of them. It helps to have a trusted friend or therapist give you feedback about negative thinking patterns. Then ask yourself how realistic the negative thought might be. For example, “If my hands shake during my presentation, everybody is going to laugh at me.” Have you ever been in an audience where everybody laughed at a person whose hands were shaking? Not likely. In fact, people tend to support a person having a hard time – and they may be drawn to your vulnerable and very human nature. Now ask yourself, what evidence do you have for your negative thought? Can the situation be looked at in a different way?
The single most important strategy for overcoming social anxiety is to face your fear. Get back on the horse again. Take the car out for a drive once more. Go swimming again. Get back on an airplane. Give another speech before an audience. Go to another dinner party. Ask somebody else to go out on a date.
Managing your physical symptoms and changing your thinking do little good unless you come to terms with your fears by getting back into anxiety-provoking situations. Doing this takes courage.