‘Anxious’ Is the New ‘Shy’
A thirtysomething couple named Toni and Adam were visiting my psychology practice to discuss their daughter’s upcoming transition to the fifth grade. When making the appointment over the phone, Toni explained that 9-year-old Alina had always felt uneasy in social settings. Even as a baby, she’d been “fussy and tense.”
“Her social anxiety started very early,” Adam said urgently at our first in-person meeting. He and Toni went on to express concern over Alina’s reluctance to have her two close friends over on weekends. They explained that when they worked with their daughter to build confidence and talked to her about “being brave” in social situations, her nervousness seemed to only get worse.
The worried parents painted a familiar picture. Long-established research (and the conventional wisdom of most parents) tells us that newborns come preprogrammed with dispositions. We can even predict which young children will be shy based on brain wave patterns measured during infancy. Yet in the past 10 years, there’s been a shift toward using the term anxious to characterize people, both children and adults, who we might have once said were “slow to warm up” or shy.
Meanwhile, I have spent more time than I care to admit trying to help people change their unwanted inclinations toward unfamiliar situations. And, in retrospect, I count those efforts as almost entirely wasted. In fact, I have come to believe that opposing a person’s innate inclinations in these instances can actually be harmful.
I learned this lesson while working with a teenager named Tya, but it applies to young people and grown-ups alike. Tya had convinced herself that she would only be “cured” of her anxiety once her chest no longer tightened in response to awkward or difficult situations, which happened several times a day. Every time she felt her familiar — and probably hardwired — clenching feeling, she took it as a sign that her anxiety remained out of control. Unfortunately, having set herself an impossible goal, she spent a lot of time feeling both helpless and hopeless about what she saw as a failure to master her nerves.
When weeks of effort to help Tya maintain a steady state of calm were clearly going nowhere, I decided to take a different tack. One day I said, “What if we just accept that the feeling you get in your chest might not go away? And what if, instead of worrying too much about it, we simply take it as a normal warning sign that something’s up?”
Tya was willing to step back and learn more about what the tightness in her chest actually signaled. We soon discovered that this feeling sometimes happened in response to an outside threat — such as a pop quiz at school — but that it was just as likely to be alerting her to an uneasy internal experience, such as feeling annoyed or frustrated with someone else.
Once Tya and I learned to take an impassive yet curious stance toward her first reaction, it stopped giving way to a cascade of distress. Instead, her physical discomfort simply let us know that something around her, or inside her, had triggered her internal alert signal. Our next step was to learn more about what had set off her hair-trigger response in the first place. Once we knew what was bothering her, she could reflect on what her second reaction might be.
In the time that we worked together, the anxious feeling in Tya’s chest never went away. But she was better able to manage whatever set off her anxiety when she no longer felt frightened of her automatic first reaction.
So, back to Alina. Talking to her parents, it didn’t take long to glean that she’d likely been wired from day one to be hesitant in new situations. But it was also clear that she was fully capable of making, enjoying, and keeping friendships. I wanted to encourage Adam and Toni to reframe the problem: Instead of saying Alina has social anxiety, which I was not convinced was the case, we should start with the assumption that she was just born shy — and help her appreciate the value in her tentative style.
Though our culture rewards extroverts who jump into new situations with both feet, there’s a lot to be said for those who watch and wait before deciding how to move forward. Treating introverts as though they’re broken can backfire, and make them more anxious. The critical factor that helps shy people to adapt and thrive applies to the rest of us, too: we have to work with, not against, our inborn traits.