Treating Social Anxiety: Building Confidence By Leaving The Comfort Zone
anonymous Asks ...
I am introverted and shy. I have this thing that I do as a defense mechanism where I when I come into a room with people I am not 100% comfortable with (99% of people) I try to be as polite as possible but then discourage through my activities or body language the likelihood that anyone will interact with me. Paradoxically, I am lonely and I am grateful when someone does talk to me. I would like to open up a bit but my habits are lifelong and deep and I am not sure how to do this. What’s the way I should start? I feel like I need a college course for introverts on how to interact without discomfort or stress.
Dr. Richard Schultz Says ...
Hi and thank you so much for addressing your question to me.
Although not all individuals who have naturally shy or introverted temperaments go on to also suffer from social anxiety, this can easily occur when avoidance behaviors are practiced on a regular basis. In your case, you are describing a habit of exhibiting subtly repellent protective behaviors in social settings (non-verbal signals that tell others to keep their distance). Doing so gives you an immediate feeling of greater safety (and reduced anxiety), although it also clearly is not making you happy in the longer term. Due to the laws of negative reinforcement, however, that which even temporarily eases your discomfort will be repeated, and you will get better and better at performing these, and less and less comfortable letting down your guard.
The pathway to change in your situiation will not be particularly complicated or difficult, but it will involve your tolerating the distress that will result from leaving your comfort zone. The good news is that this distress will dissipate rather quickly as you learn to live with an expanded repertoire of social behaviors.
You have asked how to start. Although I note that the method of change here will not be all that complex, it will probably be easier and more efficient if you employ the resources of a qualified therapist who can guide you through the process. In addition to providing basic support and encouragement, a mental health professional trained in cognitive-behavioral technique will be able to help you better understand the mechanisms underying your current state, and help you develop a cohesive plan for making change. This will involve re-evaluating some of your well-established patterns of thinking and behaving, learning how to increase your ability to master your physiological and emotional discomfort, and executing a series of graded behavioral experiments, also known as "exposures." The therapist will focus on the interpersonal and intrapersonal challenges you face across all settings in your life, and help you develop an even better understanding of the environmental or developmental factors that led to your developing these protective techniques in the first place. CBT for social anxiety is time-limited, carries no side effects, and will lead to a greater sense of overall well-being and confidence.
If you would like to try and take a few steps on your own before seeing a therapist, you can certainly do so, however, as Albert Einstein wrote, "It is impossible to solve a problem with the same thinking that created it." That is why having an objective and trained professional at your side will optimize this process. A few non-therapy activities that might steer you in the right direction are reading and working your way through a good book on social anxiety, or joining an organization designed to help individuals build their social confidence (similar to the "college course" you referenced, which would, by the way, probably be helpful for most humans). As far as reading, I recommend you consult "Managing Social Anxiety" By Heimburg and Turk. As far as groups go, "Toastmasters" is an international organization that has been helping improve their social confidence since 1924. Find out more about them at www.toastmasters.org.
I hope this reply has been of some use to you, and I invite you to let me know of your progress and direct any further questions to me.
Richard E. Schultz, Ph.D.