Most of us feel shy from time to time. That moment of awkwardness and uncertainty that makes you feel anxious around other people. Many people admit to feeling shy when they meet someone new, go on a first date, speak to people in authority or in a job interview. In these situations it is not uncommon to worry about being criticized or judged. Your voice starts to sound shaky, your mouth goes dry, you sense the heat across your face as you blush. Your mind goes blank and you don’t know what to say next, allowing those awkward moments to last even longer. It is only later, when you are back home, that you begin to think, ‘I should have said this or that’. It’s important to remember that these feelings are normal and very common. Research suggests over 98 per cent of people report having these shy and anxious experiences.
So when does shyness become a problem that you need to work on? For some people, shyness begins to take over. You begin to avoid doing certain things that are good for you and that you once enjoyed. You start spending less time with friends, turn down that party invite, avoid using the gym, or even decide not to apply for that job you wanted. Shyness becomes an invisible barrier holding you back from living the life that you want. The isolation that results increases the risk of developing low mood and mild depression. Listed below are some of the signs and symptoms of a social anxiety problem.
1. Physiological symptoms could include sweating, muscle tension, nausea, trembling and difficulty talking.
2. Feelings of anger and frustration with yourself.
3. The tendency to worry and dread situations weeks before the event.
4. An intense and enduring fear of being negatively evaluated by others or causing yourself embarrassment.
5. Frequently scrutinizing every detail of yourself and worrying about what you say and do around others.
6. Excessive self-consciousness and the perception that everyone is looking at you.
7. Extreme discomfort in public or social situations, which leads to avoidance.
If these symptoms seem to describe your experience, then you could have a problem with social anxiety. But don’t panic. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to rebuild your confidence. In some cases, it may be appropriate for you to seek professional support to help you along with this, but below I have described a useful exercise taken from the ground-breaking Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) to help you to start by helping yourself.
Those with social anxiety tend to be highly self-critical in the way they talk to themselves in their own heads. When they make a mistake they can be very self-attacking. The result is more anxiety, more self-loathing, shame and more avoidance of things they value. In fact, constant self-criticism has the same affect as it would to live with a bully 24 hours a day 7 seven days a week. Not a pleasant idea. But learning to replace that harsh self-talk with a more compassionate one, when you have made a mistake, helps you to calmly engage with the situation so that it can be repaired and you can move on with confidence. Here is one exercise that is sometimes used in therapy to help individuals tackle that very critical self-talk that keeps shyness alive.
Step 1. Think of a specific situation that causes you to be self-critical.
Step 2. Write a list of all the self-critical thoughts you have about this situation.
Step 3. Next to each thought, write down a more compassionate perspective, one that is understanding of your feelings, kind to yourself, focusing on your strengths and positive experiences. Generate alternative thoughts about the situation that are more supportive.
This can be incredibly difficult to begin with. After all, it is likely that you have a lifetime of practice at being self-critical. To make it easier, consider what you would say to a good friend in the same situation. Remember to be honest, kind, understanding and encouraging. With plenty of practice at doing this it will eventually become a habit that helps.