Overcoming Shyness

Reader’s Question

I’m a 28-year old male with a graduate degree. I’m married and own a new home, but my career is stagnant because of my severe shyness. Ever since I can remember, I’ve found it very difficult not only to talk to strangers, but also to interact with friends and acquaintances. There are many opportunities for introverted scientists to work, but I am employed by an industry which puts me on a career track to project management. Although I should be pursuing this career track, my shyness keeps me “stuck” in a menial position with no hope of advancement.

I am not a clinical psychologist, but through self-diagnosis and much research I have identified myself as having moderate social anxiety. There are times where I can interact with a variety of people without much problem, but this is followed by a period of incredible fatigue and a feeling of isolation and self-doubt. Most social situations increase my heart rate, lead to uncontrollable sweating, and I have a panic-type feeling which I eventually overcome by completely withdrawing socially. I have many reasons to be more self-confident, but inside I feel worthless, stupid, and have an overriding feeling that people just don’t like me and don’t respect my worth.

My shyness is affecting my career, and coworkers with less experience and education are bypassing me for promotions, raises, and opportunities. I procrastinate until the last minute to complete scheduling calls, I hold back for sending reports for review out of fear of rejection, and am generally afraid of what people may expect from me versus what they actually get.

I would like to arrange an appointment with a local psychologist, but am embarrassed by my condition to the point where I have never even had a discussion with my wife about my “problem.” I have investigated cognitive therapy, and it seems helpful, but I am more interested in short term medication solutions to relieve some of the symptoms. I have a moderately addictive personality to cigarettes and alcohol to help subdue my anxiety. Consuming moderate amounts of alcohol generally helps me, but there are times when even 6-8 drinks won’t ease my anxiety. Please help.

Psychologist’s Reply

Of course, this forum cannot adequately provide an accurate assessment or diagnosis of your situation. However, there are some things that seem clear from your comments that you might want to consider.

First, to clarify a bit, shyness is not the same thing as being introverted. Introversion is a phenomenon by which persons receive most of their most gratifying experiences from mental and emotional activity that goes on within themselves. So, despite the fact that they might easily socialize, they find their greatest satisfaction in musing, dreaming, creating, etc. Second, anxiety, even social anxiety, and avoidance tendencies, are not the same as shyness, although such reactions can certainly accompany shyness.

Shyness is perhaps one of the most studied traits in all of psychology. It appears to be a rather stable trait through life, although shy people can certainly learn to cope with their shyness.

From many of the things that you say, it appears that there may be more going on with you than introversion, social avoidance, or shyness. Despite your reservations and the myriad of reasons you might find to avoid doing so, counseling of some sort is likely to be of great value to you. You state that you have some addictive tendencies, yet you think you might prefer a substance-induced quick fix to your symptoms. You also state that you’ve considered entering counseling but certain fears keep you from doing so. Fears cannot be overcome until they are faced. Besides, doing what you fear to do is a powerful way of building real self-esteem and self-respect. Although medication might prove to be a necessary component to your therapy, at least in the short-run, overcoming your fears without reliance on physical, medical, emotional, or other crutches will enhance your sense of self-efficacy even further.

Take note of how many times in your question you indicated you wanted to do something but some fear, insecurity, or ambivalence is holding you back. Try doing something like counseling, while confronting and counteracting your tendency to say “but” to yourself. You’ll be amazed at the results.

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