I’m very happy to be interviewing Steve Flowers, MFT, author of the excellent new book Mindful Path Through Shyness: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Help Free You from Social Anxiety, Fear, and Avoidance. Steve is also a psychotherapist, co-director of the Mindful Living Programs, leading mindfulness retreats for health professionals, and director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic at Enloe Medical Center in Chico, California and online at Emindful.com.
Today we’re talking about a very important topic that so many people seem to suffer with.
Question: What is the difference between shyness and social anxiety and how prevalent is it?
Steve: Shyness is a human temperament often described in terms of personality traits that many regard as positive, like modesty and being quiet and demure. But some aspects of shyness aren’t positive and create what I’ll refer to as problematic shyness. These aspects include feelings of being unsafe in interpersonal relationships and feelings of social anxiety, which lead to protective behaviors.
People with problematic shyness have thoughts and emotions that are self-critical and self-absorbed. Trying to conceal those fears and perceived inadequacies can lead you to enclose yourself in a private self-consciousness, and although this enclosure is meant to protect, it actually imprisons. Shyness is experienced in individual relationships or may also come up in groups of people. The most recent polls show that self-reported shyness has been steadily increasing and at least 50% of the people in the United States consider themselves shy.
People that are shy experience social anxiety but may not meet the criteria for the diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia). Social Anxiety Disorder is an intense fear or even terror of humiliation or embarrassment in relation to groups of people. It’s very difficult to overcome and can be disabling. For this reason, social phobia is substantially different from shyness and is classified as a mental health disorder. It can greatly impair a person’s life and cause much suffering.
Question: In your book you talk about shyness patterns and how this can lead to “problematic” shyness. Can you tell us a bit about this and why, for so many, “problematic” shyness or social anxiety is so painful?
Steve: We all live in mental and emotional worlds that we essentially create and perpetuate with the habits of mind or stories that we tell ourselves. We tend to identify completely with the stories we repeat to ourselves and others and create afflictive mental and emotional states that bring much suffering into our lives. In this way we can say, as Paul Simon reminds us in his song “Patterns”, that “From the moment of our birth to the day that we grow old, our lives are made of patterns that can scarcely be controlled.” Stuck in these patterns that define our false selves, we can’t see our true nature nor realize that we are infinitely more than the habits of mind that we’ve been stuck in for so long. Mindfulness enables us to be the observing consciousness that is aware of these patterns but is not caught in them. Compassion enables us to soothe our own troubled hearts and reach out to alleviate the suffering in the lives of others.
Question: What research is out there that backs up mindfulness as a path toward healing distress from shyness?
Steve: There’s 30 years of accumulated research that has repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness in reducing anxiety and depression. Research specific to the value of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as applied to persons diagnosed with social anxiety disorder is currently being conducted by Dr. Philippe Goldin at Stanford University. Using neuroimaging studies and a bank of psychological tests to measure the effectiveness of MBSR in the treatment of social anxiety, he already has data that demonstrates significant improvements for those people that have participated in an 8-week mindfulness program. Final results for this study will be available in 2012.
Question: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering from shyness, what advice might you be able to impart to him or her?
Steve: Shyness often comes with the package at birth and doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you. It’s just one of many personality traits. But, how you look at yourself and think about yourself can turn this simple human temperament into a source of suffering. When you think about it, you can judge and criticize yourself for your appearance, your personality, your behavior, or indeed, anything at all – even for things you haven’t done yet. From that point of view nothing is sacred.
From another point of view, nothing isn’t sacred. From this perspective you can see that it’s not how you are or are not that creates suffering – it’s only your point of view that creates suffering. From the perspective of compassionate awareness you can recognize who you really are and stop creating suffering in your life. Mindfulness and compassion practices can enable you to see things differently. For one thing, when you really come home to yourself you may discover that you are not separate from everyone and everything else. It’s always right here, in this very moment – your own true nature (which just happens to be everyone else’s true nature).
Thank you so much for you insights and wisdom Steve. As always, please share your own stories, thoughts, and questions below. Your interactions provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.