A personal journey of shyness and social anxiety

This post is a bit different from the usual articles posted on this website. Typically, I discuss topics a bit more formally and use anecdotes that are either made up or de-identified based on my previous clinical cases.

However, this time I wanted to share something a bit more personal in terms of how I have found some relief in reducing my social anxiety in my own mental health journey. That being said, the skills I discuss here are still grounded in evidence-based theories. However, I figured this would be a nice way to integrate the personal with the science to support your learning in a slightly unique way.  

As a disclaimer, this path may not necessarily be the right path or the most effective path for you. Regardless, I hope everyone finds something useful from this post!

Attacking my fears with exposures

The greatest driver and maintainer of anxiety problems is avoidance. We avoid situations that scare us, which gives us relief in the short-term, but this avoidance keeps our anxiety going and can limit our lives.

Although much easier said than done, understanding this tidbit gives us a clear answer on how to reduce our anxiety – by facing our fears. Exposures are a very useful and effective evidence-based strategy to rid our anxieties.

To conduct exposures of my own, I began to engage in behaviours that would make me socially anxious in a way that was challenging, but manageable. For example, I might use the ‘Hello and Smile’ strategy when I am an in an elevator with a stranger or go up to a stranger at the gym and compliment them.

Here, it is important to choose something that feels scary, but doesn’t feel so anxiety-provoking that you feel completely paralyzed. Personally, I find it helpful to remind myself that the more I think about it, the scarier it’ll get –  so just go for it without thinking too much. A second mantra that’s helpful for me is to remember that “I’ll regret it not doing this down the road much more than doing it now and feeling a little embarrassed”.

Another type of exposure that I sometimes do is called ‘shame-attacking’, in which I plan to do things that would put me in the center of attention – something that I used to dread. These might include things, such as purposefully dropping a pen or a piece of clothing in public, or bigger tasks, such as intentionally saying something wrong. I haven’t worked up the courage yet to try out more embarrassing tasks myself!

Focusing on the process not the outcome

When engaging in these exposures, it was very helpful for me to focus not on the outcome, but the process.

If I say hello to the stranger on the street, I can’t control if they are in a bad mood, have something on their mind, or are a little bit shy themselves! There are many reasons why they might not necessarily smile and say hello back.

Therefore, if I focus on the outcome (the other person smiling) I put myself in harm’s way of feeling like I failed because the other person wasn’t happy.

By focusing on the process (“I succeed if I break through my anxiety to reach out to another person”) instead of the outcome, success becomes something that is on my own terms. 100% of the success of this exposure is now on me.

Therefore, I encourage others to focus on what you are doing as a metric success – not what the outcome was. That being said, most of the people I have spontaneously interacted with have been nothing but pleasant!

Regular mindfulness practices for negative thoughts

Scary thoughts and anxious beliefs will always pop up when we dare to do something courageous. Though a wise man from Game of Thrones might say “that’s the only time a [person] can be brave”.

I have personally found regular mindfulness practice to be helpful in taking away the power of some of these scary thoughts. That I don’t have to be a slave to my thoughts and follow it’s every whim. Thoughts are just thoughts – and I can act in spite of them.

Now, when I have scary thoughts, I simply observe and note them and act in accordance to how I want things to be anyways – whether that means approaching a random stranger or starting a task despite feeling anxious.

Using cost-benefit analysis to support exposures

Putting myself out there to face my anxiety is scary. But for me, living a limited life and giving up on potential friends and job opportunities was worse. For me, saying hello was worth the potential embarrassment that came with it because I didn’t want to live a life where I always had to second guess myself. To feel stuck because my anxiety was shackling my behaviours. I wanted to live my authentic self and to do that, I had to push past my anxiety.  

It takes a lot to push ourselves into uncomfortable positions. Therefore, the benefits must outweigh the negatives.

By doing a cost-benefit analysis, I was able to systematically take a long look at whether it makes sense for me to change or to stay where I currently am. Doing this gave me perspective about why I am actively putting myself in anxiety’s way and a reason to fight despite it.

For those who are interested in changing something about themselves, it can often be helpful to spend some time writing out the pros and cons of changing in order to resolve ambivalence about making a change (or staying the same).

Building competence breeds confidence

Part of the reason I felt shy and socially anxious when I was younger was because I didn’t feel very competent in my life. I had placed a lot of my self-esteem on my academic performance but once I reached university, my marks were middle of the road. Because of this, I felt like what supported my feelings of confidence that been pulled from right under me.

It wasn’t until I started applying myself in my work and improved my grade, joined research laboratories, and took on more leadership roles that I found that my confidence improved. I felt a lot more competent in the specific skills that I developed and was able to use that to add value in others’ lives as well through mentorship and teaching.

The idea of competence doesn’t have to mean that you have to be good at everything. Rather, it means to build up your skills in a couple of domains that are important to you and that you can use to offer something to the world. It’s okay (and even encouraged) to recognize that you don’t know everything – but building competence in a couple of areas can be fantastic to improve general confidence.

Concluding statements: The journey continues…

This journey of reducing my social anxiety is still a work in progress for me. I’m still a rather shy individual, but I like to think have made strides towards the right direction. It’s still a constant battle, but the more I work on this challenge, the more it becomes second nature.

I may always be somewhat more of an introverted and conscientious individual. But I think it’s also important to honour our traits in terms of the good that they do. For example, I don’t think I would be half as effective or empathetic of a therapist if I weren’t more on the socially anxious side. It’s this side that supports me to be keenly aware of how others are feeling and interact with them in a way that makes them feel respected and honoured.

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Best wishes,