We have all felt shy at some point, even if it was many years ago. The standard definition of shyness basically involves feeling uncomfortable in the presence of others. Is shyness a problem? Sometimes it can be seen as endearing, but other times it can impede our ability to get things done. For example, if you are shy enough that you need to ask others to do things on your behalf, then shyness is getting in your way. But what can we do about it?
Can you become less shy?
Shyness is often referred to as a “trait,” meaning that it is a permanent aspect of our character. Even the dictionary says that shyness connotes “a constitutional shrinking from contact or close association with others.” But we don’t have to see it as constitutional. It can be changed, and therefore is perhaps best thought of as a temporary state rather than a stable trait.
In extreme form, shyness can turn in to social anxiety disorder, a clinical diagnosis. Children and adolescents who suffer from shyness can be at greater risk to develop this problem as they get older. Whether one is just shy or has been diagnosed with social anxiety, there are things you can do to become more comfortable interacting with others.
Shyness and social fitness
One example of this is described in the Social Fitness Model as described by Lynne Henderson, Ph.D. Dr. Henderson says that “As with physical exercise, there are many ways to exercise socially.” Shyness is partially the result of years of habit; cognitive and behavioral habits to be specific. For example, if we think “he/she will yell at me” whenever we need to talk to our boss, we may develop a self-reinforcing habit of avoiding him or her. This happens in a sequence of stages: first we have the thought about how our boss will react, then we have a bit of anxiety about it, then we decide to avoid him or her, and finally we experience relief from the anxiety. This type of pattern is common, but as Dr. Henderson suggests we can practice, or “exercise,” doing things differently.
Cognitive-behavioral treatment of social anxiety involves exactly that: practicing doing things that may feel uncomfortable at first. Over several repetitions, these social situations become increasingly comfortable. This type of exercise is called “exposure,” and is an important component of how social anxiety can be treated, often without the use of medication.