Outside the comfort zone

Outside the comfort zone

Turn self-consciousness into self-awareness in the battle against shyness

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 11/27/2013

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Dear Patti,
I consider myself to be very fortunate. I am employed in a highly respected position at an esteemed institution of higher learning and I’m collaborating with a magnificent team doing amazing and rewarding work. All of my life, however, I’ve been crippled with extreme shyness. Only recently I’ve come to realize maybe this affliction hasn’t been completely negative, as it kept me focused on my life’s work and helped me to not unnecessarily deviate.   

I live alone but am close to family members that live nearby. I’m also comfortable with my co-workers. My superior is a wonderful supervisor and partner, not to mention an amazing human being and friend. He has requested I come to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. It will be a large group consisting of his family, friends and colleagues. Although it’s an honor to be invited — and out of respect for my mentor I will definitely attend — it’s definitely outside my comfort zone. 

Whenever I’m in a room full of strangers I am self-conscious, awkward and feel like something is holding me back. This will be a group of self-assured and confident people and it’s very important to me that everything goes well.
I appreciate that coaching someone like me, who has had this lifetime malady, may be an impossible task. Nonetheless, I’d be grateful for any advice you have to offer.  

— Bradford

Dear Bradford,
It sounds like your intense shyness may be aggravated by excessive self-consciousness and the critical observations you’ve made about yourself in social situations. Rather than focusing on your awkwardness, put your attention on other people and what they have to say. Like any other skill, social skills can be cultivated through practice and experience. Maybe it’s also time to put more work into your personal life.   

When at your friend’s home, concentrate on the moment, become mindful of whom you’re talking to and focus away from yourself. When you’re having a conversation, forget about how you look or act and concentrate on the other person’s words, tones and facial expressions. Listen. Find out what this person is interested in and who he or she really is. 
While interacting, reflect on what it is about this person that you like. Try turning self-consciousness into self-awareness. I have a hunch that when a man of your accomplishments is calm and contemplating the task at hand, you’re a quick study. Once you become more relaxed and apply what you learn, you may listen better than most and notice things that others miss in conversations. Be interested, not just interesting. 

I’m concerned about how negative and disapproving your self-evaluation is. You pay way too much attention to all the things you’re doing wrong when around other people. When you’re fully engrossed in work, what would happen to your concentration and performance if in your head you constantly criticized, labeled and judged your every thought and action? This behavior not only creates anxiety but also makes you question your every move and causes inhibition in a downward spiral in functioning. 

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Relinquish perfectionism. Do you tend to compare yourself to the most socially confident people in the room? Try not to set up overly demanding expectations by comparing yourself unreasonably to others and expecting yourself to fit this so-called ideal image. 

By just being yourself, you’ll get in touch with your unique qualities and different ways of expressing thoughts and feelings, even if they differ from the norm. While social skills may not come easily, you obviously have other exceptional gifts to be thankful for insofar as sharing and contributing to society. Practice appreciating yourself and liking the unique expression that is you. You don’t have to conform. Be more accepting of your distinctive qualities. 
You’re comfortable with whom you are in the academic world, but by avoiding a social life outside of work you may be limiting yourself. If you believe that in spite of the fulfilling career you’ve created your shyness is seriously affecting the quality of your life, don’t settle. Interview mental health professionals and find one whose competency you trust as well as someone with whom you feel safe and comfortable.  

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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