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When You're Shy, All the World's a Stage


I was probably shy, by temperament, from the day I was born. But my "ah-ha" experience -- the day when I gained insight into how shy I really was -- didn't happen until I applied to a doctoral program in clinical psychology.

I was invited to a group interview by the university, and I remember sitting anxiously in a circle of chairs with eight other applicants. Three faculty members sat on the perimeter, and one of them kicked off the interview by asking the group a question. "Just jump in," said the professor. One by one, my peers responded, showing off not only their knowledge but also their enthusiasm for pursuing the degree. I was afraid to even put my toe in the water.

About 15 or 20 minutes into the painful process, I said to myself, "Dummy, if you don't speak up, you'll be out of the running." I took a deep breath and explained why I was drawn to psychology. Not only did I make the cut but I learned that I could speak up when I had to.

Over the years, I've come to realize I'm just one of many people who are "hardwired" to be shy, and that there are ways to tame this monster so it doesn't interfere with your work and productivity.

Shyness at work

All shy science trainees are painfully aware of how many times they are called on to "perform" in the course of their work: they may have to present a PhD defense before a dissertation committee; participate in an interview for a fellowship; lead a seminar or give a Powerpoint presentation to a group; ask a supervisor for a promotion; or simply summon the nerve to ask a co-worker for a favor.

"In my Master's program, I discovered that I had to teach lab sections three times a week," says a postdoc in New Hampshire. "I almost dropped out of the program just because of this. I didn't eat or sleep for two days before my first lab sections, I was so nervous."

"Public speaking is part of having a successful scientific career," says another postdoc in New York. She laments remaining behind in the lab while others are making appearances at conferences and seminars, and admits she feels awkward even when communicating with her supervisor and co-workers.

A research fellow in Boston is also concerned that her shyness is affecting her career. "I become very aware of what people think about me and whether I can live up to their expectations," she says. "I start to blush and feel uncomfortable, especially when I meet someone more experienced, with a higher rank than me."

"The worst situation is being in a room where I either don't know anyone or I don't know anyone well," says a postdoctoral research associate in Minnesota. "I am sure everyone knows the term 'wallflower.' I catch myself attempting to blend in with the background."

Overcoming shyness

Recognizing these feelings is a first step towards resolving them. Take stock of how you feel and act, and remember that people are born with different personalities. By nature, some people are more shy, reserved and self-conscious than others.

If you tend towards shyness, try to overcome your fears. A postdoc in northern California confesses to sleepless nights before she became confident enough to present her work in public. "I started in 'safe environments -- group meetings, departmental talks -- and then moved on to more challenging ones, like scientific meetings. Each successive experience made her more relaxed for the next.

Sometimes it helps to let another person know how you feel. If you feel comfortable enough, you can explain your plight to a close friend or colleague. The postdoc from New York confided to her supervisor with good results. "He encouraged me to be more aggressive and helped me with one of my poster presentations," she says.

Shyness can easily be mistaken for aloofness, coldness, or disinterest. So make the extra effort to smile and to make eye contact to help put the other person at ease.

Preparation and practice help as well. For example, if you are going to a faculty party, think up a question or two you can use to initiate conversation. If you're asked to give a presentation, make sure you rehearse. "I found out that it's the first few minutes of my talk that causes me the most discomfort," says the postdoc in New York. She learned that when she spends more time going over the first few slides, she gets over her initial nervousness and the rest of the session goes smoothly.

Some people swear that participating in Toastmasters (an international organization with 10,000 clubs in 90 countries that allow members to practice public speaking and leadership skills) brings them out of their shells. But there are more unconventional ways too. "For me, it was learning to belly dance, and teaching it at the university," says a postdoc in Pennsylvania. "If you can get comfortable jiggling artfully in a beaded bikini in front of your peers, discussing your more serious work seems far less threatening!" she says.

"I try to insert subtle humor into a talk," she says. "Not too much, but enough to amuse myself and remind myself that my work is interesting and fun. And if I stumble out of the starting gate, there's nothing wrong with stopping, taking a deep breath, grinning and starting over," she adds.

"Now people think I am outgoing, friendly, and personable, and not shy at all," says the postdoc in New Hampshire. "They don't believe me when I tell them how I used to feel. I even can make myself go up to a hot-shot speaker after a seminar to introduce myself and ask a question. I can't point to any one thing that helped me change all of this, but there are lots of little things that together have made a huge, cumulative difference."

Is it temperament (shyness) or a disorder (social phobia)?

For some people, despite their best efforts, shyness remains overwhelming. If yours persists -- or if it is accompanied by physical symptoms such as blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, nausea, and difficulty talking -- you may have "social phobia," a type of anxiety disorder. New evidence from animal studies supported by the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that a specific gene may affect learned fearfulness.

"Social phobia can be so debilitating that it interferes with an individual's ability to function or to hold a job," says Mario Miniati, M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, Italy. "The disorder tends to run in families and is twice as common in women as in men. Because people with social phobia often try to 'self-medicate' themselves to reduce anxiety, the disorder is often complicated by alcohol dependence," says Dr. Miniati.

If you think you may have social anxiety, don't be afraid to seek professional help. These are no-fault disorders that respond to medication and other therapies but without proper diagnosis and treatment, these bothersome symptoms can last a lifetime.

Sources on the Web:

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

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