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Overcoming Shyness

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Reader’s Question

Is it normal to still be painfully shy at almost 40? I have very few friends and live with my two kids. At work many of my colleagues have very little to do with me, and I tend to keep to myself a lot, as I get really nervous when I’m around too many of them at once. I avoid meetings and social gatherings in general since I sometimes just don’t know how to make small talk (which I also find to be a waste of time anyway). I’m also a bit boring, as I have no social life, and I’m also aware that I generally look very nervous, awkward and stupid. I sometimes get very depressed and anxious on Sunday afternoons as I know that on Monday it’s back to work again.

I would also like to meet someone new and start a relationship, but I have no idea how to go about doing it. I feel like I’m emotionally underdeveloped; I think I act like a school girl. I also feel very inferior to my peers who have well-adjusted families and active social lives. I often wish that I could be more like them. I feel really lonely sometimes. I just don’t know what to do with myself at this point in my life, and I feel myself becoming more and more reclusive and depressed. I know that I need to get out and interact with people, but I don’t know how/where to start and how to do it without appearing fake and nervous and stupid. I simply don’t know what to do.

Psychologist’s Reply

To answer your first question, yes, shyness is a common personality trait and is normal, no matter what age. In some cultures, shyness is seen as a positive trait — but because Western culture is very outgoing, it can be difficult to feel as if others experience shyness as well. It’s also very normal to want to have one or two close friends, or to have deeper conversation with one person rather than making small talk with acquaintances. Some individuals find it helpful to know that others are like this, and that a construct called Introversion (from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, MBTI) exists. Individuals who score higher on the Introversion (rather than Extraversion) end of the scale often feel drained if they have to interact with many people or make small talk — they tend to get their energy from their own thoughts and ideas and can become easily overwhelmed at parties or other large social gatherings. Some introverted individuals are also very sensitive, and find support in books such as The Highly Sensitive Person [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] by Elaine Aron, PhD.

From what you’ve described, it sounds like you have some successful relationships — having had two children, having some friends, and being able to work in an office environment. You were able to form those relationships before, and I wonder whether anything may have changed in your life since then.

I can understand how difficult it can feel when the dread and fear set in when approaching situations that create worry and nervousness. If the worry is significantly interfering with your social, work, and other important areas, then it may be helpful to find a licensed mental health professional to rule out Social Anxiety Disorder and to help with increasing your relaxation response in social situations. They can also help explore the thoughts that are creating more worry (such as “I look nervous, awkward and stupid”) and the ideas that follow (which, for example, might be, “no one wants to be friends with me,” “others are just being nice to me because they have to be,” or “everyone’s looking at me and judging me”). A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help to better sort through these thoughts and feelings and help you find ways to reach your goals for connection with others.

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