Barry Boyce on overcoming shyness and social anxiety with mindfulness-based stress reduction.
Steve Flowers was bullied as a child. He was a military brat, moving from town to town and school to school, and had trouble making friends. “Avoiding other kids made me feel safer,” he says, but it did not help him escape feelings of shame. In his professional work as a psychotherapist at the Enloe Medical Center in Chico, California, Flowers now helps patients suffering from the pain of chronic shyness and social anxiety, which are constructed from a web of self-critical thoughts and feelings. People who are chronically shy literally talk themselves into a mental corner.
Flowers has been teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for thirteen years. About six years ago, he developed an online class using conferencing software so participants could take part from all over the world. During one of these classes, he encountered a doctoral candidate working on a thesis on mindfulness and shyness. Before too long, Flowers became interested in helping shy people reduce anxiety and have more fulfilling relationships by practicing mindfulness, and he has now written The Mindful Path Through Shyness: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Help Free You from Social Anxiety, Fear & Avoidance (New Harbinger Publications).
“Social anxiety is probably the most common mental health disorder in the United States,” Flowers told me. “It’s characterized by self-blame, private self-consciousness, shame, and resentment. It’s inherently self-critical and rejecting.” Not only do we judge ourselves harshly in relation to others, but we project our judgments into other people’s minds and eyes. We are certain we will be rejected if we try to engage them.
“Mindfulness is a very powerful antidote to that habit pattern,” Flowers says, “because by nature, mindful awareness is compassionate and accepting. When you start to look at yourself from the point of view of awareness rather than criticism, it allows you to see habits of mind you’ve come to identify with. It can help free you from the straight jacket of a false self.”
Everyday shyness is simply “a human temperament,” Flowers says, but when shyness debilitates, when the self-judging causes deep suffering, it limits one’s enjoyment of life and the ability to have healthy relationships. In addition to undermining the self-judging, mindfulness also helps counteract “future tripping,” Flowers says. Every negative possibility from an imagined disastrous social evening to the complete collapse of your life causes anxiety that keeps you behind closed doors. “The practice of moment-to-moment awareness helps people learn to inhabit the present with more contentment instead of constructing imaginary future worlds.”
A primary treatment for social anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which Flowers, like others, has married with mindfulness. Pure CBT, he says, familiarizes patients with how their ways of thinking bring suffering and offers techniques to change those. The subtle difference with mindfulness is that “while mindfulness recognizes the power of thoughts to shape our lives, it attends to those thoughts with acceptance. It doesn’t try to get rid of anything. You realize that the part of you witnessing these thoughts and emotions is not the thoughts and emotions. It’s your true nature. That’s what heals.”