When I was a child, they called me shy. It was a sweet little word for something viewed as either cute or shameful by well-meaning yet ignorant adults. Teachers often goaded me into reading aloud in class. Family members repeated idiotic phrases such as "What's the matter cat got your tongue," or "Smile, your face is cracking" in idiotic sing song voices designed to provoke me into Public Displays of Emotion (PDE) -- a serious shy girl no no.
Shyness is not cute. Extremely shy kids often torture themselves or rage inside when somebody calls them out. Adults relating to shy kids generally fall into two camps. Either the child occupies a protected, yet ignored status; or he/she is berated for clamming up. At worst shyness is believed to be a malady; at best, an endearing personality trait that adults hope children will grow out of.
I never completely "grew out of" shyness, although over the years I have certainly adapted. These days it has a fancier name -- social anxiety. I was in my late 20s when I first heard the term. Hearing it comforted me. The fact that social anxiety had been categorized, normalized it somehow, made it a relatable problem. I learned how to better work with it.
Four methods to work with social anxiety.
1 .Play the fool.
A decade ago I regularly walked down the street in my typically self-conscious manner and passed a homeless man on the corner of Van Ness and Gough (in San Francisco.) He had red blotchy skin and a thick beard and often talked to himself.
One day, I noticed him watching me. I stared, then turned and sprint walked towards my apartment. Behind me, he was laughing boisterously. "You think everyone's watching you. Nobody's watching. Nobody cares," he screeched down the street.
Instead of breaking me down, the encounter made me laugh. It put me in check. If my anxiety was so debilitating that a cheeky homeless man could sense it on the corner AND be amused by it, I had to chill out. Years later, I remembered the man, and recognized the wisdom in his words. People are generally caught up in their own little worlds and don't really pay much attention to what others are doing. In some ways it's easier to relax when you recognize "nobody cares."
My good friend Cheryl Mathews, coach st Speakmeister recently advised me about ways to maintain this perspective.
"Overestimating the cost or consequences is a hallmark of all phobias. Those of us with social anxiety tend to overestimate the cost of making a social mistake," Cheryl said.
Cheryl recommended simple zany ways I might acclimate my mind to public response prior to a public speaking engagement. For one month, 3x per week I did something outlandish.
These things included humming in the supermarket, wearing un-matching shoes, buttoning my shirt wrong, wearing a goofy hat with crazy flowers on it and talking freely to a stranger. I was creative with the assignment. Someone had given me permission to play the fool. It was so much fun. A few people sneered or snickered, but most barely noticed. Nothing bad happened due to these social faux pas.
2. Keep Calm and Carry On.
Meditating prior to an engagement can really help you shift perspective. A few drops of passionflower tincture in a glass of water before meetings has worked wonders for me.
3. Safe Lab.
Social anxiety inspired me to do things that feel uncomfortable to face my fears. However, I probably allowed it to keep me from a party or two. Deliberating about whether or not to attend an event due to your social anxiety is a profoundly crippling feeling. People with higher levels of social anxiety may feel that all the time.
Those who need more guidance working through social anxiety may try getting a sensitive coach to help you (and fellow phobics) to practice. The coach helps you develop awareness of your thoughts, and change thinking habits while practicing. He/she also helps you see that your fear rises and lessens during each session. These workshops can help you understand how anxiety works and to manage it.
4. Embrace it.
There is nothing wrong with being the quiet person in the room. Your SA may have contributed to struggles with feelings of inadequacy or judgement. You may often feel stranded on an island of self-induced isolation. While there, however, you may have inadvertently carved out your own sense of power, strength and place.
Shy people often have rich internal lives, and are able to entertain themselves. They tend to be more comfortable with solitude and silence.
Your talents may also be attributable to extreme shyness. I turned to writing with a ferocious passion as a way to communicate things I couldn't otherwise get out. Writing helped me process the world on deep levels, to love that world and to work hard to share what I knew with others. Shy people often have artistic or professional store-banks.
Social anxiety is great for detectives and reporters. As Joan Didion noted: "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests."
People who have social anxiety are often good observers and good listeners. In a society where conversation often is conducted on a battleground where people clamor and claw at each other for the next phrase --perspectives from people who truly listen and observe deeply from the "outside" can be invaluable. We know how to discern the gems from the blather.
Bottom line: While social anxiety can truly, at moments, suck, it may have also invoked strengths in you. Embrace those strengths. Be thankful for them. Trust them. Allow yourself to be empowered by them. Continue to use them to carve out your niche in the world.
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