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5 Unhelpful Coping Strategies of Shy People and What To Do Instead

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

In this blog I'll outline the most common mistakes shy people make to alleviate feeling anxious and discuss what would be more helpful long term.

Being shy can be a real struggle - I know, I've been there. I was extremely shy growing up and as a result, there was rarely a day I didn't feel self conscious, awkward, uncomfortable, anxious etc. It was only natural that I wanted to ease my distress in some way and I did so by using 'safety seeking behaviours'. The problem was they soon became habitual and although they provided initial relief, they only served to perpetuate my shyness long term. By trying to prevent feeling discomfort instead of allowing ourselves to feel the emotions that come, we create a false sense of control. In reality, I was handing over control to my shyness, which did more long-term harm than good, even if it felt better in that moment.


When you allow yourself to engage in safety seeking behaviours in response to perceived threats, you are actually allowing yourself to feel more afraid and anxious. You focus on the symptoms of anxiety at the expense of other emotions. You become hypervigilant, constantly examining what is happening, around you and in your own mind, that might cause you to experience negative feelings. You can become permanently attuned to negativity, and in a constant state of anxiety. If you reduce contact with others due to feeling anxious, you lose not only friends but also potential support networks. By refusing to confront situations that make you feel anxious, you will not learn that most of these situations do not actually pose a threat to you, and of figuring out how to cope with them in an adaptive way.



In this blog I'll look at the most common unhelpful strategies shy people use and what to do instead. I should point out that the 'instead' part it's not always easy. It means feeling the discomfort we're trying to avoid but I know from first hand experience, it really is the only way to overcoming shyness.


Habit #1 - Ruminating

Lady sat on sofa ruminating

Ruminating is when we spend hours, sometimes days replaying scenarios past and future over and over again in our minds. It is important to note that ruminating thoughts, to a certain extent, are actually quite normal. Most of us experience temporary rumination when undergoing situational stressors but it can become problematic when

  • It’s frequent

  • It’s ongoing

  • It interferes with your ability to engage in daily tasks, concentrate, relate to others, and experience positive emotions.

In other words, rumination can be harmful and affect you when you spend a disproportionate amount of time on it, and when it heightens/increases your distress.



Habit #2 - Avoiding

Avoidance is basically saying no to a particular situation i.e. staying in our comfort zone. For example, a previous employer offered me the role of Project Manager or Office Manager. I chose the latter as Project Management involved giving presentations and liaising with multiple parties regularly at meetings. Even though Project Management had more career progression opportunity, I chose the desk based role to avoid the presentations.

Other examples of avoidance include

  • self isolation,

  • procrastination,

  • ignoring phone calls

  • avoiding certain places at certain times

  • saying not to or simply not replying to invitations



Habit #3 - Escaping

When total avoidance is impossible, escape behaviours are often used as a means of dealing with feared situations. Escape is basically fleeing, running away from a situation as soon as possible. Some of my escape examples included:

  • Offering someone leaving early a lift home

  • Making excuses such as suddenly feeling unwell

  • Saying I had somewhere else to be afterwards when I didn't



Habit # 4 - Hiding


Hiding is closely linked to avoidance. When younger, I used to hide as best as I could, even in plain sight. I would:

  • Keep my head bowed down

  • Avoid eye contact

  • Hide under my fringe

  • Hide in oversized, plain and dark clothes

  • Answer with yes/no answers only

  • Speak in a whisper

  • Position myself behind others

  • Hiding during a party by helping out in the kitchen



Habit #5 - Negative Thinking

There are in fact 12 different negative thought styles. We can easily become trapped in negative thought loops. We might engage with some more than others or some not at all. I used to get caught up with every single one of them.


  1. Compare & Despair - comparing myself unfavourably to others. Due to my being shy, I told myself others were more interesting and fun to be with i.e. better than me, which of course wasn't true.

  2. Mountains & Molehills - Exaggerating the negatives whilst minimising the positives for example whilst giving a presentation, rather than focussing on how well it went overall - 'I said it was red instead of scarlet which means everybody thinks I'm stupid now'

  3. Catastrophising - Rather than think about what was most likely to happen, I would fixate on worse case outcomes which of course never happened!

  4. Predicting - I would tell myself I already knew how things would be, which of course was never positive.

  5. Mindreading - 'they'll think xxx of me' without any factual evidence at all to back it up. I would must make assumptions and take that to be fact.

  6. Emotional reasoning - my thought thought would trigger a feeling of anxiety 'it feels bad therefore it will be'

  7. Memories - Instead of seeing a situation as a reminder, I didn't distinguish past from present - 'it was awful last time so it will be again'

  8. Mental Filter - 'I would always fixate on the negatives instead of the positives telling myself I wouldn't enjoy things even before I'd got there.

  9. Critical Self - My internal bully would continually put me down ' You're shy and therefore hard work so nobody is going to want to be friends with you'

  10. Black & White Thinking - I thought a situation would either be entirely good or bad and with my catastrophising, it always fell on the side of bad.

  11. Should & Must - I would heap so much un needed pressure on myself by telling myself I should be talking to everybody and must not be shy which was far from the truth.

  12. Judgements - I would making judgements about events, myself, others, and the wider world, rather than describing what I actually had evidence for.


What helps instead?

Distraction techniques:

Distraction is like a “pause" button that pauses the pain and brings temporary relief.

Some helpful ways to distract are doing simple activities (e.g. engaging in chores, browsing your phone, or watching a movie) and immersing in them with your full attention. If it’s initially difficult to engage in any activity due to having trouble disengaging from your thoughts, you might want to try thought stopping. You can try this by thinking or saying to yourself “STOP,” or even envisioning a big red STOP sign to help change your attention.


Mindfulness:

Can be practiced anywhere and anytime and is very helpful when managing rumination. Mindfulness, in essence, is about being curious, noticing and connecting with the present moment while noticing inner experiences (e.g. thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.) We're focussing on the 'here and now' rather than getting getting caught up with the 'there and then' or future 'what ifs'. I like to make use of all my senses to bring me into the present moment. For example: walking down the road and stopping to look at a field of cows

  • What can I see? (cows - colour? size? where in the field - all together? towards the back, edge, middle? Are they standing? Sitting? Eating? Standing? How many? What sizes? What colours? Features - horns?)

  • What can I smell? (the grass? manure? hay? Background aromas?)

  • What can I hear? (cows mooing? chewing grass? traffic noise? dogs barking? wind in the trees?)

  • What sensations can I feel? (what can I touch - how does it feel... soft? cold? hot? rough? light? heavy? ridged? flat? What can I feel in my body?

  • What can I taste? (coffee? sweet I'm eating? toothpaste?)

Focusing intently on each of these and noting every tiny detail will pull our focus away from the rumination.


Noticing and challenging:

Negative thought loops happen without our conscious awareness so we act out on them without even realising. Part of my journey to overcoming shyness was learning to spot when I was in a negative thought loop and then challenge it with interventions such as:

  • Just because I think and feel something, it doesn't mean it's true.

  • Is this entirely accurate, what's another way of looking at it?

  • Predicting the worst is not helpful right now, what's most likely to happen?

  • What's my evidence to prove someone thinks xxx of me?

  • What pressures am I needlessly putting on myself?

  • I recognise my inner critic is bullying me again, what would be a more helpful thing to say to myself?

  • Things are never totally black and white, where is this on the spectrum?

Only once you can notice your thoughts can you challenge or distance yourself from them, and see the situation in a different, more helpful way and more accurate way.


Gradual Exposure:

Is the practice of slowly introducing ourselves to situations we normally avoid in order to increase our comfort zone, to become desensitised. Unless we expose ourselves to such situations, we will never learn that they are in fact rarely as bad as we imagine. It usually takes time to retrain our brain to think something is not dangerous, especially if it’s been trained over the years to think it is. The important thing about gradual exposure is staying in the anxiety provoking situation long enough to learn it is not dangerous. This is when we achieve habituation, which means we get used to something so that it no longer seems as scary to us. We will even get bored, if we stay with it long enough which is great as it's better to be bored, than anxious!


Counselling:

If you look up ways to overcome shyness and manage anxiety on the internet, you'll be flooded with techniques and strategies which in itself can feel overwhelming and raise many questions. Working with a counsellor can help you navigate your way through this as well as looking at underlying factors and providing emotional support and a structured way to help you with your own unique situation.


So, if you struggle with shyness, I'd love to hear your comments on how you currently manage it. If you would like individualised support from someone who's walked the walk and now lives a life unshackled from shyness, drop me a line today.



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