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Shy all my life: Will it just go away?

Have you always been very shy? Perisistent social anxiety is a treatable condition that often begins in childhood or adolescence.

QUESTION

Hi Irene,

My whole life, I have been painfully shy. Somehow, I managed to have quite a few friends in my really young life–preschool and kindergarten days. In first grade, my family and I moved to another town, and I was forced to start over. Entering a new class halfway through the school year definitely made the shyness that I seemed to be outgrowing stick around but again, I still managed to form some pretty good friendships eventually.

As I grew older, though, my shyness got worse, not better. It prevented me from participating in any after-school activities, such as joining sports teams, and it made daily school assessments such as public speeches, a living nightmare.

Not only did my shyness affect my school life, but it began to affect my social life, too. I found it hard to connect with others in group activities and always remained quiet so as to blend in versus make myself known. By the time high school came around, everybody was in the phase of cliques and groups, and I realized I didn’t really fit into any of them. I was starting to grow apart from the few friends I had from middle and elementary school.

I know I failed to make those connections because I’m a naturally introverted person. When I would be invited out on Friday and Saturday nights, I would make up excuses, because I truly preferred to be at home than go to these group-get-togethers and parties. Whenever I’d be invited to parties, I’d get a sinking feeling in my chest because I hated the idea of being surrounded by so many people and having to be sociable.

I kept thinking the reason I didn’t want to go out was because I wasn’t really close with any of the people who hosted these parties, and I just needed to wait for the right group of friends to come along that I would enjoy spending time with. However, I am now 18 and have just graduated high school a few weeks ago, and I am ashamed and disappointed to admit that nothing has changed.

Not only have I gone through my whole high school career without ever finding a group of friends I connected with, but I feel that I am at a stand-still because the few people that I do talk to don’t do anything! They seem to be very centered around their family and/or  church lives and just don’t have a desire to do much with any of their friends from high school.

This past year has been the worst one yet. The only people I spend time with are my parents, and I find that not being with people my own age is making me irritable and depressed. Now that it’s summer vacation, one might think that I’d be spending time with friends, but I have none. I literally do nothing throughout every single day.

A little more background about myself: Both my parents are shy and introverted. They, too, turn down invites to parties and prefer to be by themselves. My mom has very little social life too, and she says that she gets nervous and panicky in social situations, like me. I am also an only child, so I have never had a constant companion growing up and have always been alone, which I also think might explain why I would sometimes prefer to turn down invitations.

Is my shyness/social anxiety to blame for having no social life during my entire teenage years? Or is it because I simply did not connect personality-wise with anybody? I am incredibly frustrated and am hoping that once I get a job and start college, my social life will improve, but I worry that my introverted self will give me the same problem!

Signed, Kaitlin

ANSWER

Hi Kaitlin,

When shyness persists and interferes with someone’s ability to make friends, and participate in school or work, it should be evaluated by a mental health professional.

Yes, you are an only child so you may be used to spending more time alone. Yes, you may tend toward introversion and not need a great deal of social contact. Yes, having shy parents may have limited your opportunities for learning social skills—-But that sinking feeling in your chest when you’re with other people is visceral, and it is interfering with being the person you want to be. It is likely that the feelings and behaviors you describe are symptoms of social anxiety.

More than 15 million Americans suffer from the disorder, which usually begins in childhood or adolescence. The National Institute of Mental Health has an excellent online publication that describes various anxiety disorders and mentions some of the hallmarks of social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia). These include:

  • Feeling anxious about being with other people;
  • Feeling very self-conscious in front of other people and very worried about how you will act;
  • Feeling very afraid of being embarrassed in front of other people;
  • Worrying that other people are judging you;
  • Worrying for days or weeks before an event where other people will be present;
  • Staying away from places where other people will be;
  • Having a hard time making friends and keeping friends; and
  • Having bodily symptoms when you are with other people, such as blushing, heavy sweating, trembling, nausea, and having a hard time talking

If this list seems to resonate with the way you feel, the move from high school to college is unlikely to resolve your shyness on its own. What’s more likely is that you will carry these same problems with you to a larger setting, which may even be more intimidating than high school.

The good news: The summer is is a perfect time to visit a mental health professional for an evaluation. Social anxiety is usually treatable with medication, some specific types of psychological therapy (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy), or a combination of both. Treatment won’t change your basic personality but you will be able to do many of the things you want to do and reach out to friends more comfortably.

And by the time school rolls around in late summer or fall, you may already begin to see some improvements in your condition. If you are planning to attend an out-of-town college, it might be good to arrange for continuing support through the university counseling office or a private practitioner in the area.

Hope this helps.

Warm regards, Irene


Prior posts on The Friendship Blog about shyness and social anxiety:

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Category: Shyness and introversion

Comments (12)

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  1. anonymous2 says:

    I am 28 years old and I have the exact problems as Irene’s list. Technically, I don’t have any friend at all. I am attending grad school and it doesn’t make any difference. I really wish to change the current situation but not sure how. At times, I feel very lonely, I just need someone to talk. I am attending school in a different country so seeking help from a mental health professional is not possible.

  2. Anonymous says:

    hi! i’m very related to your problems right now….i’m also very shy and having a few friends!! and also i’m a girl, 18 years of age, and i’m in college right now… ahaha! it’s funny but we are the same in situation…. i’m trying my best to making a good friendships but it failed cos’ i felt like i’m out of place in short we are not understand each other… i’ll need a friendship that literally can understand me not by judging me. honestly, i’m sensitive as a type of person….i’m staying at home cos’ it makes me comfortable. actually, i was getting tired more and more each day about this, about my lifestyle…..you know, no man is an island… alright, the feeling is very mutual..ahahah!…we need to fight for it.. so, cheer up……don’t understimate yourself about this….you should smile always… don’t think of all your problems cos’ it might gives you stress such an early age…ahahah!… i’m talking to myself…if you need a friend try to add me at fb [email protected]…:)

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi I think I know what you mean.you seems like you are very nice kind person.We may have a lots off in common .I am only a bit older than you are,I am 21.This my email address ;[email protected] if you would like too get in touch no problem I am a girl so don’t worry I am not whipping you up,but I could give you some tips how too reach your potencial friends and have a good time in the summer holiday.Look forward too hear form you Baska.;)

  4. Anonymous says:

    Social anxiety is a mental illness that is treatable. If that is indeed what you have, treatment is the way to go, whether that is medication (which works wonders – it has for me) or therapy (which also works wonders). Just like you would get treated for diabetes or another illness so, too, should you get treated for social anxiety. Chin up, head high, and face the world, sister! You can do it, one step at a time.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Irene’s suggestion of finding a mental health provider who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is very wise. You may or may not need medication depending on your severity. I’ve chosen not to take medication, but I may change my mind down the road. I agree with the previous posters that getting out and not staying home with your parents is important through the summer. My Social Anxiety was moderate to severe at your age, so I had huge problems working in retail and as a waitress. I didn’t understand the condition back then so I didn’t work up to those types of jobs. When you have SA, you worry excessively about other people’s opinions of you and it’s unnerving. Working in a fast paced job was torture for me because I couldn’t focus on the job; I worried too much about the people I was waiting on and felt like I was onstage. Once I found my niche, everything worked out better. I like working one on one with autistic children. Find what works for you, whether it’s a fast-paced environment, volunteering, or a quiet job. It’s very important to get out of the house and be a part of the world on a daily basis whatever you choose to do over the summer. Once you get to college, I’m guessing it will be easier for you because there won’t be as many cliques and the social pressure is much less. The academics are another story! Good luck.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Doing nothing all summer is bad for you – you will just end up thinking too much about your problem – the really good news is that as a teenager you personality is not set in stone – it may seem impossible but you can be a more confident person!

    A retail job is a good suggestion, or if you can’t find a summer job (after all its a recession) I would suggest volunteering.

    I used to suffer from agoraphobia and whilst I was recovering I did lots of volunteering to get me out and about. I used to volunteer at the local old persons centre as a receptionist – it was a really great way to increase my confidence – like the previous poster said the key is to do something that forces you to have to interact with people. Also, the old people I met whilst volunteering were fantastic characters – in their 80s and 90s some of them had lots of physical problems but always had a smile and would love to take the time to talk. It was an honour to get to know them and really helped give me confidence.

    Or you could volunteer to help at your local girlscout group – this will give you a bit of responsibilty and so build your confidence. Sending you my best wishes 🙂

  7. Anonymous says:

    It may sound odd but what could help you get over your shyness and feeling awkward around people is working retail part time – it helps you by interacting with customers, co-workers and management. It can be scary as hell but it does get you out of that comfort zone – and help you to feel more comfortable with people in every day life. When you are dealing with a long line up you leave your shyness behind for that time. People can be douches but they can also be very kind and understanding – and hope that this will be of help to you 🙂

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