I’m departing from my Clearing Cognitive Cobwebs series in this issue to answer questions and share ideas with a reader, who I will call Omotoso (a Nigerian male name meaning a child equals wealth). He is a third year university student, writing from Nigeria. Omotoso’s problem is shyness. Although he has read my article on Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) and has heard of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), he doesn’t know how to apply the information to his life.
He is concerned because he stammers and freezes up when trying to talk to women, feels intimidated and unable to speak to older adults, has a fear of public speaking, and doesn’t know how to engage in small talk. Ironically, people come to him because they think of him as a leader, but he turns down or drops responsibilities because of his shyness.
Unlike the flu, which has an external cause (virus), shyness is strictly internal. That is, we don’t feel shy because of what happens to us, but because of what we think about what happens to us. For example, after Tom asks a woman to dance, she giggles nervously, but he mistakenly believes she is laughing at him and rejecting him. So, he quickly and timidly leaves. Thus, it wasn’t the event, but Tom’s interpretation of it that made him feel like a failure.
Part 1, Mindset
Our mindset, perspective, or how we see the world is a structure that is made of many bricks called thoughts and beliefs. Because of their importance, before suggesting ways of overcoming shyness, I wish to lay the groundwork by first delving into mindset more deeply.
1. Omotoso, do you ever judge others? Think about this carefully. Perhaps you never speak badly of others, but do you ever think badly of them? Do you ever think that someone is arrogant, too noisy, a bit dim-witted, creates a bad impression, is incompetent, or any other such thought? In other words, do you ever judge people in your mind? You see, Omotoso, shyness is the fear of being judged by others. And when we judge others, we tend to think they are judging us. But if we accept everyone, if we open our hearts to all, and welcome them unconditionally, we will tend to believe others will be equally accepting of us. In other words, we will be less likely to experience shyness.
2. The funny thing about shyness is that it is based on the false belief that how we look and perform is important to others. But people are too busy worrying about their own problems to be thinking about yours. So, they are not judging you. But you are judging yourself, and you’re a harsh critic. Be kind to yourself. If you allow yourself to make mistakes and be imperfect, you will have less to be shy about.
3. Shy people compare themselves to others. But doing so is irrational because we never have all the facts. For example, Tom may be embarrassed because a classmate received a higher mark on the exam, but perhaps the classmate cheated. Or, Tom may feel humiliated because a classmate seems to have a lot of confidence. But Tom cannot read minds and hearts, so how does he know whether the other student is really confident or merely pretending to be so? The point is, don’t compare yourself to others. Rather, compare yourself to your own standard, and as long as you do your best to follow that standard, you’ll have little to be ashamed or shy of.
4. Life is synonymous with change. Everything changes. In another year, for example, you will not be a student, but a graduate. You will have more experience, knowledge, and confidence. But when you are experiencing a bout of shyness, you forget about the promise of the future. Don’t forget. Remind yourself that you will change for the better. Remembering this will reduce stress and your level of anxiety.
5. Your weakness may be your strength. Shyness makes you vulnerable and vulnerability makes you attractive. Vulnerability attracts people because we all have weaknesses and we can relate to, sympathize with, and root for those who are imperfect. Women can also be attracted to the innocence and inexperience of shy men. Also, the pains of shyness, insecurity, and self-doubt have driven many men and women to compensate for their ‘weakness’ by excelling in another area. Many movie stars, celebrities, and powerful figures fall into this category.
6. When we change the way we see life, life changes for us. For example, Tom and Larry are sharing the same experience, but Tom sees life as a struggle and Larry sees it as an adventure. They both have challenges to face, but which one do you think finds life tedious and which one finds it exciting?
Use your imagination and creativity to tackle your fears, Omotoso. For instance, suppose instead of being a student, you were the son of a shopkeeper and your father said, “Omotoso, see what that lady wants, go help her.” Under those circumstances, whether you felt like it or not, you would be forced to speak to women and adults. Life is a stage and we are actors playing a role. Play the part of a shopkeeper’s son, Omotoso. Go and see what that lady wants.
As I write this, it is mid-September. It is the time when Monarch butterflies begin their 2,000 mile migration from Canada to Mexico. Imagine how powerful their wings are! How did they become so strong? Well, before a Monarch becomes a butterfly, it is a chrysalis (the pupa enclosed in a cocoon). And after becoming a butterfly, it must first emerge from its cocoon, but cannot do so without a fierce struggle.
While still in its cocoon, the young Monarch butterfly has a fat body and folded, limp wings. It is hardly an image of strength and beauty. As it struggles to free itself from the cocoon, it pushes, strains, and convulses, and liquid from its body is forced into the veins of its wings. Bit by bit the wings extend and grow stronger. Bit by bit an increasing amount of pressure is placed against the walls of the cocoon. At last, a slim Monarch with robust wings breaks free.
Omotoso, we are Monarchs. Our cocoon is our comfort zone. Do you expect to break free without a struggle? Do you expect to fly before extending and strengthening your wings? Can you see how the fears we face are not our enemies but our friends?
7. Learn to focus on what you have, Omotoso, rather than what you lack. Although you lack the social skills to speak comfortably to women face-to-face, you already have the skills to speak to them over the phone, or to write to them. Isn’t that a sign that you are already halfway to your goal? Isn’t that a sign of even greater things to follow? Remember, it is not that you don’t have the skills you want, but that you don’t have the skills you want YET. It’s only a matter of time.
8. Now that you know how painful and frustrating shyness is, make it your mission in life to help others with the same problem. It is impossible to teach without learning; it is impossible to help others without helping ourselves. Form a group. Practice talking to each other. Share your experiences, worries, and solutions. You'll become so busy doing so, you won’t find the time to worry about yourself. Move away from worrying about what others think of you to concern for the need of others for acceptance, attention, and affection. Help end the shyness of others and you’ll end your own.
9. Questions are magical. Questions are powerful. Questions are transformational. We can change our lives by the questions we ask. But whether we ask others or ourselves, we have to ask the right questions. Ask empowering, or solution oriented questions. In other words, ask questions that produce helpful answers and avoid questions that do not. Don’t ask Why is this happening?, but ask, What can I do about it?
Here’s an example of a poor question: Why am I uncomfortable in the presence of women? The answers this question produces may be: because I am shy; I don’t know how to engage in small talk; I become nervous; my mind goes blank; my palms and forehead grow sweaty; I stammer when I try to speak to them, or something similar. Notice how the answers reinforce the problem, keeping one in a rut.
Here are examples of empowering questions:
10. Watch what you say. Every time you speak to yourself or others, you are programming your subconscious. Program yourself for success by always looking at things in a positive light. Instead of saying I am shy, say, How lucky I am to be challenged, for as I struggle, I will gain the strength of a warrior. I embrace problems, difficulties, and obstacles because overcoming them will fulfill my destiny to become a victorious leader.
11. The secret to problem solving is to stop thinking about it and start doing something about it. Action always leads to success because even when we are unsuccessful we learn what to avoid.
12. One of the gravest errors people make is to change an ordinary human desire into a demand. Here’s what I mean. We all have the desire to be liked, but to expect all people to like us at all times is irrational because we have to allow humans to act as humans. People are different and have their individual likes and dislikes. So, Omotoso, if you expect to charm every woman you meet, you are doomed to fail. Even Casanova couldn’t do that. So don’t be too demanding; don’t be too hard on yourself. Relax and let what will be, be. And here’s another tip. Why do you have to charm women? Why not allow them to charm you? If you stop thinking about yourself and become more observant, you will notice some woman trying to lure your attention. Why not give in, say hello, and listen to what she has to say?
Part 2, How to Say Goodbye to Being Shy
A) Do It Yourself
How do we overcome shyness? Well, there are lots of helpful books, courses, and seminars. And there are also various therapies to choose from, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Graded Exposure Therapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and hypnotherapy. But one of the most effective methods is the least spoken or written about. I’m referring to doing it yourself without the aid of teachers, books or treatment. All that is required is plenty of commitment or resolve.
I’ll use Dr. Albert Ellis (1913~2007) as an example of what I mean. But first a brief introduction to Dr. Ellis. He was an American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and is considered to be the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapies. And according to a 1982 survey of U.S. and Canadian psychologists, he was considered as the second most influential psychotherapist in history. Prior to his death, Psychology Today magazine described him as the “greatest living psychologist.”
Despite his many accomplishments, Dr. Ellis suffered from severe shyness when he was a young man and was especially shy around women. Angry and frustrated by his problem, he finally decided to do something. He decided to force himself to talk to women, no matter what, even if it killed him. It is at moments like this, when we make a commitment to ourselves that great power is released, and we can finally do what was impossible for us in the past. Besides a commitment, one other thing is necessary, and that is a plan. Dr. Ellis made and followed his plan, which is described below.
Every day he visited the botanical gardens in the Bronx, New York City (one of my favorite hangouts as a teenager). Many people would sit down on benches and enjoy the sun, sights, sounds, and smells of the garden. Whenever young Albert Ellis saw an attractive woman, he would approach, smile, and greet her. He would do this no matter how he felt, no matter how rapidly his heart was pounding, no matter how sweaty he became, no matter how much his arms trembled. He would just do it. Not only would he approach, smile, and greet, but he would start a conversation. AND he would end his conversation by asking for a date! He did this several times a day. In a couple of months he must have asked 300 women for a date. How successful was he? Only one woman agreed to see him — and she didn’t show up for the date! How successful was he? Very successful! Because although he got no dates, by the end of this experiment, he was completely cured of shyness!
Here is another tip, Omotoso. Note that Albert Ellis did not practice speaking to women in his own neighborhood, but took a short trip to an excellent location, where he would be exposed to strangers. It may be easier for you, too, to practice speaking to women off campus, rather than trying to do so with fellow students who already know or recognize you. Remember, this highly effective method of ‘just do it’ requires hard work, persistence, and practice, but the rewards of success are far greater than the amount of effort it takes to succeed.
B) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT gets you to think about what you are thinking about, and teaches you how to modify your thinking so it leads to success instead of failure. Although most CBT clients attend private or group sessions that are led by trained professionals, the therapy can be self-administered with the aid of a good book, such as one of the following:
Overcoming Shyness and Social Phobia: A Step-by-Step Guide by Ronald M. Rapee
C) Graded Exposure Therapy
Omotoso, although you didn’t benefit from your first reading of my article that describes the Graded Exposure technique, after reading this far, I think you are in a better position to apply its principles, so you may want to reread it.
D) Internet Resources
Here are some websites you may find helpful:
Because of our body-mind connection, our thoughts, emotions, and physiology are interconnected. That is, each of the three aspects of us affects the other two. For example, if I suddenly hear a loud explosion, I may be afraid (emotion), worry about possible danger (thoughts), and may hyperventilate (physiological). On the other hand, if I were to daydream about the wonderful vacation I just had (thoughts), I would feel peaceful (emotion), and my muscles would relax (physiology). And now for a final example, which is a useful tool for lessening the stranglehold of shyness. If I were to assume the posture of a confident person (physiology), I would begin to feel more confident (emotion), and that feeling would cause me to think I feel good! (thoughts)
So, learn to take the posture of a confident person: Stand erect, looking ahead and side to side (not downward), shoulders back, chest out, a relaxed face and a slight smile. Practice this posture over and over in your room. Then practice in public. When you’re in town strolling pass shops, look at your reflection in store windows to check your posture. Visit places where no one knows you and practice acting confidently. Stop every now and then to ask questions such as What time is it? Or Which way is the post office? Notice how people treat you differently when you act confidently. Keep behaving in this manner and you will find your confidence will keep growing, until you reach the point where you are no longer pretending to be confident.
F) Small Talk Tips
1. Instead of small talk, wouldn’t it be better to engage in ‘big’ talk? By that I mean important talk, exciting talk, meaningful talk. What subjects are exciting, important, and meaningful? I don’t know; that’s what you have to find out. Play the role of a detective and find out what is exciting, important, and meaningful in the lives of the members of the group.
The first secret of small talk is not to talk! You see, when you approach a group with an intention to speak you may pick a subject that they are not interested in at that time. But if you remain quiet you will learn what excites them, and be in a better position to contribute to the discussion.
2. Instead of making statements, ask questions about what was just said. And don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no, but ask questions that draw out more information. For example, don’t ask, “Did you say Mr. Jones is a severe professor?” Rather, ask, “In what ways did you find Professor Jones severe?”
3. Remember what each person you regularly see is interested in. Stick to their favorite subjects and they’ll be happy to talk.
4. Treat each discussion you join as an opportunity to learn. Not only will you learn more about the members of the group, but they may have some useful ideas to share. Whenever you hear something interesting, immediately say so.
5. Treat each discussion as an opportunity to serve. Each member of the group is seeking recognition, acceptance, and respect. Look for opportunities to praise, agree with, and compliment members. When you focus on them rather than yourself, you will feel less self-conscious or shy.
Well, Omotoso, there is much more that can be said, but that’s what libraries, bookstores, the Internet, and friends are for. Just remember that overcoming shyness is no different than overcoming other obstacles. It involves risks and rewards, setbacks and victories, challenges and triumph. But most of all it is your invitation to join the ranks of the courageous by doing what you fear and releasing your inner greatness. You can succeed, Omotoso. Today, resolve to do so.