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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Is Shyness Holding You Back at Work?

Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to.” —The Smiths

This song (penned by a lovely Englishman named Morrissey) appeared on many a mix tape in my high school days—and no music was sweeter to my little ol’ adolescent ears.

As I lay and listened (in overly-dramatic repose) and stared up at the stucco ceiling in my room, I could replay countless sweaty-palmed, heart-pounding moments of acute awkwardness (usually involving shaking hands with strangers or standing behind a podium speaking publicly). Mr. Steven Patrick Morrissey was, indeed, speaking my language.

Yes, despite my brash online braggadocio—it’s true. I am shy. And, since I know firsthand what it’s like to be blessed with bashfulness in an office environment—I’d like to help. Today we’ll examine how shyness comes in all shapes and shades (i.e., the difference between an introverted personality type versus a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder) and explore some expert-approved tips on breaking free of that beautiful shell.

The Basics of Bashfulness

First off, let me remind you that shyness isn’t something to be ashamed of. Defined as “a blend of fear and interest,” it's a universal human emotion that all of us experience, says Lynne Henderson, PhD, clinical psychologist and researcher with The Shyness Institute.

“Only about 3% of the population says they’ve never been shy, and I’m not sure I believe them. It’s adaptive in evolution—it’s a way to pause and check to see if something in the environment is safe,” says Henderson. “It’s only [an issue] when it gets severe enough to stop you.”

Veronica Parker, MFT, lead therapist at Sure Haven Treatment Center, describes a shyness spectrum in the general population—with garden-variety shyness on one end and the clinical diagnosis of social anxiety disorder on the other.

“Estimates differ, but seem to range between 30-50% of the population being more toward an introverted or shy personality. It takes them a while to warm up, but it’s not really inhibiting their quality of life or ability to function at work—they can go about their life and feel comfortable,” she explains.

“Social anxiety [disorder] would be a much more severe side of that timidness—things like going to the grocery store and speaking to the clerk, running into someone in the elevator, or raising a hand to speak to the professor can feel intensely overwhelming or distressing and strike terror in [some] people.” This terror can include a barrage of racing, relentless negativity—including thoughts of self-criticism, self-doubt, and the fear that others are judging you (often accompanied by physical symptoms like increased pulse, sweating, upset stomach, or hand tremor).

This type of shyness plays out in a variety of ways at work—most obviously in avoidance. “There's a strong potential that someone who is struggling with this is going to be hesitant in investing energy into building relationships with co-workers and supervisors,” says Parker. “I hear [socially anxious] people say, ‘People think I’m stuck up, have a bad attitude, or that I’m not interested. I desperately want to be a part [of things] but I’m scared they’re going to reject me.’”

Another avoidance-related response to socially based work tasks (like returning calls or emails) is our friend procrastination, says Craig April, PhD, clinical psychologist and anxiety expert (featured on A&E’s Obsessed). “We often create what we fear. You may procrastinate on an email you know you must send, [fearing] that you’ll be judged or criticized. But that's what is self-fulfilling—if you procrastinate, the email is sent late, which almost encourages judgment and criticism.”

“It also contributes to difficulty concentrating,” Parker adds. “You might see a lot of careless mistakes or overlooking important elements of projects—people just aren’t able to be in the moment while accomplishing a task when they are in their head criticizing themselves.”

And lastly, asking questions to clarify confusing issues may be a real sticking point. “[Socially anxious people] might have the belief they should [already] know something, saying, ‘I don’t want to ask because I might look silly or stupid.’ They might hold themselves back from these types of discussions, which might be quite fruitful,” says Henderson.

Step 1: Pull Your Head Out of the Sand

If any of the above sounds familiar, the reassuring news is that Parker says social anxiety is “absolutely treatable.” And likely, “it can be empowering for people to [say], ‘I have this issue, it’s my responsibility to deal with it, and I can absolutely get help to get to the other side.’”

It’s also empowering to reframe your too-shy tendencies in a more positive light, suggests Henderson. Although she does agree that shy women and men can indeed “underperform” when it comes to verbally based tasks (like standing up to pitch a new angle in a staff meeting), they may shine in terms of writing, attention to detail, and actually getting the job done.

“When I was a visiting scholar at Stanford, I remember a professor saying to me, ‘If they really want a responsible research assistant, they are going to get a shy one'—as they can be very attentive to detail, tend to be conscientious, are good listeners, and tend to be quite collaborative,” she notes.

Armed with this knowledge, Henderson suggests that shy gals try an honest assessment of where they do shine at work: “As with any temperament, what you’re doing is trying to utilize your strengths. People who talk too much (or aren’t socially anxious enough) also have to manage their temperament—maybe they have to talk less or listen more. Everyone in the workplace is in the process of doing some sort of management of whatever temperament they have.”


Step 2: Try Some Easy Self-Care Strategies

If you often find yourself white-knuckle-ing it through your workday, Parker suggests some speedy desk-ready solutions:

1. Schedule short breaks every hour where you can center yourself and clear your mind. Breathe deeply and completely focus on your chest rising and falling with each inhale and exhale.

2. Create a mantra. Google a quote that makes you feel good, write it on a Post-it and hang it near your computer. Repeat it to yourself when you feel like you’re wading into troubled water.

3. Make a “Distract Plan” to shift your focus elsewhere when you’re getting overwhelmed or anxious. Include tasks like calling a loved one who makes you laugh, listening to a favorite song, or gazing lovingly at that pic of your most-perfect Chihuahua.

“Whatever it is that gets your mind active in a totally different direction,” says Parker. “You can literally pull it out of your purse and say, ‘I’m going to try #2 on my list, then I’ll try #3’—just go down the list until you start to feel some decrease in distress.”

Parker also emphasizes that your “plan” should include a variety of tasks you can do in the context of different situations—for example, you might need something discreet in a staff meeting (like repeating your mantra, deep breathing, or doing a quick “scan” of your body to release tense muscles).

Step 3: Get Help if the Going Gets Too Tough

April says that if you’re suffering daily, it’s time to up the ante and find some help. If you find yourself becoming increasingly isolative or self-critical—reach out to a licensed therapist specializing in anxiety disorders. “It is sometimes hard to change on your own,” says Henderson.

Treatment modalities vary, but April says a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach (which focuses on teaching tools and techniques to handle the anxiety) is key. One major technique is Exposure Therapy, which entails “homework” assignments like practicing eye contact, greeting people, or engaging in conversation.

“The main goal of [repeated] exposure is to help the brain adapt. The brain simply gets tired of the fear and stops caring so much—and isn’t going to send signals as if there is some terrible danger,” says April.

And although my intention is not to instill further fear, I’d like to leave a parting message that working your way through social anxiety is essential: If untreated, you run the risk of it getting worse. “It becomes a vicious cycle,” says Parker, “the more you withdraw and isolate, the more fearful you become, and the less opportunity you have to have positive social interactions.”

Plus, as April reminds us, “Life is short, so why should you suffer? We are social beings and live in a social world. Sure, you can avoid spiders and you can decide never to fly again—but if you’re going to avoid social situations, then you’re not really living.”

Photo of shy woman courtesy of Shutterstock.