Overcoming Social Anxiety (revised)
Ever since I was 3 or 4 years old, I’ve been quite a shy person, and often socially awkward. In fact, it’s this awkwardness which I assume lead to my being shy — not the other way around like we may assume. You can say that being shy led to me being socially awkward, but also that being socially awkward led to me being shy. Here’s why:
Shyness is what’s called an avoidance-behavior. It’s called this because shyness comes from our fear of being disapproved of; being shy is something we do to avoid disapproval from others. This fear is not unexplainable; it does not arise without a cause. There has to have been something in our life which sparked this fear. For me, this started quite early, and I can actually get quite an idea of why. As children we don’t say the smartest things. We’re quite dumb. So when I was a kid, I said something (which I can’t remember exactly) that caused people to laugh at me — at least I felt that way. We all know that this is a terrible feeling. But sometimes, we become so averse to this feeling that we are afraid to experience it. That’s the fear.
We don’t even have to go back in time to see this, although it does help. The reason why it helped me is because when I was younger, I know that I was afraid to be humiliated in some way or another, and I know that I was shy. Looking at my behavior now, I can see that it’s still pretty much the same. Whenever I’m in a social situation, I’m reluctant to speak because I don’t want to say anything stupid, or I’m reluctant to have attention drawn towards me because I don’t want to look stupid. I still have that shyness and fear to a degree — I’m in the process of overcoming it, and it’s going well.
So why is this all important — this understanding of fear and where it comes from — when it comes to overcoming shyness and social anxiety? Because to overcome those things, we need to understand them. How can we overcome something we don’t understand? If you don’t understand what you’re trying to overcome, it’s like trying to cure cancer with cold medicine. To truly understand something is to discern both the phenomena and its cause.
So, as I said, shyness is caused by fear. Shyness is the result, fear is the cause. It’s the real “bad guy” here. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the shyness and just look at the fear, because it was our shy behavior that lead us to understand that there is fear. We should treat shyness as a sign of fear. In the same way that violence is a sign of hatred, shyness is a sign of fear. So we should learn how to grow familiar with the various manifestations of shyness, whether it be in our mind or body.
However since fear is the cause, fear should be what we’re trying to uproot. You can’t get rid of shyness if the fear is still there, you can only cut it off a little at the surface. It’s like a weed that can grow back if you only cut it off at the surface. You need to get rid of the roots in order to prevent it from growing again. So when you’re shy, look: where does this come from? Am I afraid of something? Why am I afraid of it? Why shouldn’t I be afraid of it; what are the benefits to socializing?
But for most, this alone isn’t enough to overcome shyness. That’s why we also need to contemplate the allures, drawbacks, and escape of both shyness and fear. We need to contemplate these three things as a way to understand these things even more. So let’s start with the allures of shyness and fear; what “benefit” do we think it brings us?
- Shyness gives us a sense of safety. When we aren’t talking with others, we’re avoiding humiliation or disapproval, we’re safe from harm! That feels good.
- Fear allows us to avoid danger, to live in this “safety zone”. It allows us to be safe from these “scary” social situations, and it even allows us to be safe from something dangerous like bungee jumping or dangerous animals!
But what about the drawbacks?
- Shyness means no talking to people unless we feel comfortable with them. For many (or just some) of us who are shy, this means almost everybody. Based on my experience, this happens: we can’t say hello to people on the street, we can’t ask people who work if they need help, we can’t talk to those who are suffering — we are barred from helping others! We also can’t ask teachers questions, we can’t ask our employers questions, we can’t communicate with others during work — we can’t learn! We can’t talk to family members we haven’t met before, we can’t talk to schoolmates, we can’t talk to co-workers, we can’t talk to strangers — we can’t develop relationships easily. Those are things which, as social animals, are extremely useful for us. Not only useful, a necessity. A small bit of comfort should not be placed in front of what’s actually necessary. I’d say that the ability to talk to others might be more comforting than being shy! Being able to talk to others without having to worry about being looked down upon is extremely comforting. The Buddha praised little speaking, but he did not praise those who cut themselves off from society.
- For me, since I never talked to many people, I would just think a lot. Most of my life from preschool to highschool involved me just thinking about things a lot. When I was supposed to be paying attention in class, I was thinking. When I was supposed to be doing work, I was thinking. I was quite a daydreamer… I only worked when I felt like it. It’s a miracle that I got through middle school and high school.
- Fear causes us to avoid being in situations we aren’t familiar with just because we don’t feel safe. It cuts off our ability to learn and adapt. It cuts off the ability to develop skill. In short, it leads to avoidance behavior, such as shyness and isolation.
Now that we’ve talked about the allures and drawbacks of these things, let’s talk about the escape — the way to security. Before talking about the escape, I should say that we mustn’t skip the allures and drawbacks and jump to the escape. Like I said before, we must understand these things in order to escape. In fact, the best process of escape — which I will make clear — requires us to understand these things. Going on:
- The first “escape” is to create a better self image. This is often prescribed because the fear of being ridiculed often arises along with a negative self-image — I’m stupid, I’m worthless, I can’t do anything right, etc. This may seem like a good way to go, and it does combat shyness, but it can easily lead to unwholesome tendencies such as conceit, arrogance, or narcissism. Instead of being shy or humble we’ll go around feeling self-righteous, holier-than-thou, stronger, better looking, etc. These are the coarsest drawbacks of improving the self-image, and there are still subtle ones. In short, we become caught up in this “self” (which is simply a delusion-based fabrication) as a result of improving our “self-image” or “self-esteem”. Another drawback, and probably the most important one, is that it doesn’t cut off the root which is fear. It might give us a reason to not be afraid, but it doesn’t get rid of the fear entirely, so we may come across a situation where our positive self-image won’t do us any good.
- The second escape is to simply be more social. It’s very simple when you look at it at the surface-level, which is why it may seem difficult. In order to take this route, we must abandon our fear entirely. We need to get out of our comfort-zone. This is the way to developing skill. We can’t get good at martial arts by pretending to be good, although that will make us feel better. We need to actually be proficient in socializing in order to gain the benefits it brings us (better relationships with others, harmonization with society, the development of wholesome behavior, etc), just as with martial arts. This escape actually involves directly overcoming the fear, so you can also say that the second escape is to try to overcome the fear. Another interesting aspect of this choice is that it will naturally lead us to develop a good, wholesome self-image without us having to try to think of one.
Fear is often a result of only looking at the negatives. We may tend to have this thought of being ridiculed in a social situation, so we avoid them. However, when we understand (by contemplating the allures, drawbacks, and escape) that avoiding social situationsis more harmful, we can become less afraid of that which is less harmful. We need to understand that when people look down on us, it’s because of one of two things, or even both:
- The person is judgemental or cruel
- We’ve done something genuinely wrong or foolish
Shyness, asides from the reluctance to speak, also means that we are unable to accept another person’s criticism and we are unable to change our unwholesome modes of behavior. This itself is also unwholesome behavior, because it prevents us from developing as a person. If we start actually talking to others, we can recognize our faults in both speech and action, so we can actually start improving. This is based in trial and error, and we must not be afraid to change. The fear of change is a supporter of shyness.
So in order to do this easily, we need to understand what makes unwholesome behavior unwholesome. We need a conceptual framework. When you eat “wholesome” food, what makes it wholesome? Its nutritional value. Wholesome food makes you healthy, it has benefit. It’s the same with behavior. Wholesome actions have benefit, unwholesome actions don’t. The Buddha described the three roots of unwholesome behavior: lobha, dosa, and moha. Lobha is often translated as greed, passion, and desire; dosa is often translated as hatred, aversion, and anger; and moha is most often translated as delusion or ignorance.
Those are the types of unwholesome behavior (wholesome behavior is simply the opposite), and in order to understand what truly makes them unwholesome (unprofitable) you must contemplate the allures and drawbacks of these qualities. Unwholesome actions have the most drawbacks, wholesome actions have the least.
I’ll give two examples of unwholesome actions and their results which come from being shy:
- A year or two ago, I was tripping on mushrooms (that in itself is unwholesome behavior which may or may not be tied with my shyness which caused me to think a lot) with a friend at his house. His sister’s dog started bleeding because he had somehow found a shard of glass and started chewing it. What a dumb dog, right? The sister was quite upset that her dog was bleeding out of her mouth, and because of the little social skill I had developed due to being shy, I blurted out (due to heightened confidence because of the mushrooms) that “this dog is going to die!”. I said it in a way which meant “this dog is so stupid, it won’t live long.” Needless to say, my friend’s sister got even more upset and started crying because I wasn’t careful with what I had to say and she misinterpreted it (but most of the fault was with me, that’s for sure). In short, shyness leads to poor social skills which can lead to bad relationships with others. The drugs played a role, but only in making me confident in talking with others. It was a very light dosage and I was only experiencing the after effects.
- This next one is more long term. I’ve always been afraid to ask how to do things, like chores and such, because I didn’t want to be called stupid. Because of this, I never really got used to doing work. When it came to putting things away, I was afraid to ask where they belonged so I wouldn’t do it. When it came to using the stove, I didn’t learn how to use it. I never learned how to do my own laundry until I was 18 years old — I was lazy, just because I didn’t want to ask for help. Now, imagine living on your own, not knowing how to do a single thing for yourself. That is yet another result of unwholesome behavior.
So here’s a condensed version of all I’ve said so far:
- Shyness is avoidance-behavior which is caused by us being afraid to have our faults pointed out.
- We must contemplate the allures and drawbacks of shyness and this fear
- We must counter our fear by knowing that ridicule is bound to happen and may be justified
- We must develop understanding of what is wholesome and unwholesome by wisely reflecting on our actions
- When we understand that ridicule can be with a cause, we must strive to abandon unwholesome qualities and develop wholesome ones via wise reflection and understanding of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. It’s important to do this as a way to live less stressfully rather than just a way to improve our self-image, although that’s a benefit.
I hope this can give you an idea of what the escape is really all about. Overcoming shyness means being unafraid to recognize your faults and change them. It’s done simply by being mindful and aware of what’s going on here and now. When you’re with somebody and the time calls for conversation, just talk. Don’t be afraid to look stupid. If you do look stupid, then you have plenty of room for improvement. It’s hard to tell whether you’re being truly wise or foolish, which is why I explained unwholesome actions. Unwholesome actions are the mark of the foolish, and they lead to bad results. So if somebody says something bad to you, or they start ignoring you or despising you, you should simply reflect on your behavior. Was their reaction because of something you did that unwholesome? If it was unwholesome, then you should acknowledge that and change your behavior. That’s where the willingness to change comes in.
When your behavior becomes more wholesome, people will look down upon you less and less. Eventually, the only people who look down upon you will actually be the ones who need to change — but do not jump to this conclusion at any time. Always investigate your behavior to see what brings you benefit and what doesn’t; what has drawbacks, what doesn’t? Be honest about it with yourself! If you don’t do this, you’ll simply be an idiot who thinks he’s better than others — which is unwholesome behavior also.
Here’s something I found which works when it comes to socializing: practicing non-selfishness. It requires us to develop compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity and altruistic joy:
- First things first, we need to develop compassion. We do so by understanding our own suffering. By understanding our own suffering, we can start to see it in others. This will allow us to develop an ability to sort of “read” the minds of other people. But please understand that this is not based in over-analyzing other people’s behavior or anything. We’re not going to be constantly thinking about the person we’re talk to. Like I said, understanding ourselves will allow us to understand others — it will be an immediate, present awareness of the other person’s state of mind, not a systematic evaluation. In the beginning, this process will not be perfect. It only improves as we start to understand ourselves.
- Secondly, in order to develop loving kindness, we need to have a firm grounding in the present moment. This doesn’t mean we’re straining to focus on the here-and-now, but simply that our presence does not waver. You can develop this by practicing mindfulness and jhana meditation — I’ll write about the latter soon. When we’re calm and serene, in the company of others we can develop a sort of “inviting” intention towards them. This is loving kindness, a wholesome intention to bring others to your level of calm and awareness.
- By developing compassion and thus loving-kindness, our speech will not be coming from our self-interests, but our intention to make others happy.
- In order to reap the most fruit from this, we must develop it towards everybody. Even our worst enemies. Our kindness towards others, even our enemies, will establish good relationships and make it easier to talk to others. If somebody is a hateful person, it won’t be easy to make them stop being hateful if we’re angry towards them. It will most likely have the opposite effect. But if you talk to such a person with loving-kindness and a deep understanding of the person’s mental tendencies (as gained via your own self-understanding), you’ll be able to get straight into their heart with the least resistance. There will be wholesome discussion, rather than a conclusion-less argument.
- The fruit of all of this is altruistic joy, the joy of perceiving a wholesome happiness within others. In other words, when we see that we have brought others to our state of calm, we’ll be happy about them being happy. This isn’t pride. You can also call it sympathetic joy.
So I hope this helps those who are shy. It won’t be easy at first, but that’s just how it is. Or maybe it will — it depends on how far you’ve gone into your shell.