You walk into a room. The room is filled with strangers. They are all talking to each other.
Depending on your perspective, this could be the beginning of a great night or of a panic attack. For a shy person, the prospect of breaking into the flow of chatter bouncing around a room can be totally, completely, utterly overwhelming. Or, at the very least, an enormous challenge.
Unfortunately, most well-intentioned advice for the socially nervous usually comes in some variety of the phrase, "you should just get over it." Put yourself out there and it'll be fine.
The truth is, that's exactly the sort of advice that is perpetuating the source of social anxiety.
"Shyness" is a pattern of habitual thoughts and physical responses that occur in the same ways over and over and over again. Walk into a room of strangers, the chest tightens, throat contracts, whatever. Somewhere in there are the thoughts -- something like, "I don't know what to say," or "I'm out of here."
While frustrating and occasionally debilitating, these thoughts and physical responses are protective. They came about to protect us from some sort of perceived danger. Somehow, the mental model that it's unsafe to approach strangers gets built into our operating system, and it loops over and over again.
Advice to "get over it" or "push through it," while it means well, can often create the opposite effect. If shyness is designed to protect us from some perceived threat, it's only going to fight harder when challenged. In the shy mental model, it makes no sense to push through it. That would put us at risk. So those throat tightening, chest convulsions just get bigger and badder.
Of course, there's almost never a real threat to our survival when talking with strangers. It's just a misperception. But our body has been physiologically programmed to respond as if the misperception is accurate.
Great. So it's inaccurate. But tell that to a person in the middle of a room spinning fight or flight response. Doesn't do much good, does it?
The key to moving beyond this habitual pattern is really about shifting the relationship to the situation.
First, it's necessary to acknowledge that our experience of reality is entirely internal. We project what other people are thinking, but really have no idea. How we are perceived is something out of the scope of our internal reference. So ANY assumption about what people are thinking is false.
That's a big one. There's no room for, "he's too busy," or "she won't like me," or "they won't be interested in what I have to say." Those are all fabricated projections. Really. Call it fiction.
Recognizing that we're doing this all the time is step one.
Without those projections, what's left? A deep sense of not knowing. And this itself can be a little frightening. But so much more fruitful.
In the space of not knowing what someone is thinking, we are more available to find out.
But what about the chest contractions? The throat closing? The spinning room?
This is why a deep practice of body awareness is so crucial. As we familiarize ourselves with the subtleties of physical sensation, we can hang out in the body rather than escaping into those worried mental chatters. Body habits shift much more quickly when we pay attention to them without fighting or thinking about them. Chest contractions are just warm energy sensations in the center of the torso. It's not fear until we identify it that way.
It's also particularly important to have a sense of softness as you are working through shyness. It's very easy to be self-scolding or disappointed after a tough night out or a bad office party. But, really, it's a lot more common than you might realize, and it's a very normal part of the human experience.
I liked the way Cyan Ta'eed puts it: everyone is as shy as you are. Some people just don't listen to their fears and doubts quite as much.
Any other suggestions for overcoming shyness?