Social Anxiety


Shyness, Stage Fright and Social Phobia

 “In the future everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.”

 Andy Warhol

Few experiences were more nightmarish for Warhol than fame. In 1966, when he was probably the most well known artist in the world, he was offered a lucrative deal to do a university lecture tour. Too shy to go himself, he arranged for an actor, Andy Midgette, to go instead. Midgette sprayed his hair silver, rubbed white makeup on his face and found it pretty easy to pass for Warhol by saying as little as possible.

Some people are content to live with their shyness. It is after all an entirely normal part of human experience. There is no objective measure for deciding when shyness becomes a problem - except the most sure-fire one of thinking that you have a problem; and enough of one that you want to do something about it because it adversely affects your quality of life.

Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel Laureate for literature, declined her invitation to the award ceremony saying, "I'm not going to Stockholm because I'm not in a mental shape to withstand such ceremonies. I unfortunately suffer from a social phobia."  She has a problem - but clearly it has not affected her success as a writer – at least not in any straightforward manner. With journalists and well-wishers calling her constantly after the prize was announced, Jelinek said her plans for the coming days were "to disappear." In her case, shyly disappearing might be quite instrumental to her success in the solitary endeavor of writing.  

When shyness is just a plain nuisance without any obvious advantage, the problem can manifest in all sorts of ways – fear of public speaking; fear of dating; fear of eating, drinking or writing in public; discomfort in dealing with authority figures; being ‘camera shy;’ fear of exams, difficulties using public washrooms (bashful bladder syndrome); excessive blushing and sweating; the shakes and tremors; a shaky voice or fear of losing your voice.

No matter how the complaint is manifesting itself, the problem is always about a person missing out on part of his or her life and suffering acute discomfort in situations that others find perhaps a bit unnerving but eminently tolerable.  

Shyness and social anxiety can also lurk behind other problems like alcoholism, eating disorders, or obsessions. For a few, sometimes termed “high-performing social phobics,” anxiety can drive them to go into hyperactive overdrive. Bringing on a sort of adrenalin-fuelled hysteria that propels a draining performance (for both performer and listeners) all in an effort to hide the extent to which they are falling apart inside.

Either way, shyness is a curse that can cause life to be harder work than it need be and makes it difficult to feel comfortable in one’s own skin. It can also seem so intractably ingrained that it must be accepted as “just part of who I am.” This can then lead one to resignation and depression about not getting more from life. Then again, sometimes, the problem can spike and become suddenly, peculiarly and dramatically worse. Sir Laurence Olivier experienced a peculiar bout of stage fright in the 1970s - peculiar in that it was solely “stage fright” – he was quite OK in front of cameras.

Olivier’s misfortune illustrates well the confounding irrational dimension of shyness and resultant anxiety. The sufferer is perplexingly aware that there is no good reason to be so anxious in the circumstances, and so suffers a double-hit - the anxiety plus the frustration of knowing it is irrational.

In the 1990’s, social phobia/anxiety was dubbed the "disorder of the decade." This was deemed by many as overdue acknowledgment of the broad net the problem casts.  Despite the increased media attention, for every person who sought help, it was estimated that six others continued to suffer in silence. This is the Catch 22 of shyness – even asking for help may be too uncomfortable to bear.

Since then, there has been a new flood of media speculation to cloud the issue. This has raised the question of whether problems, like shyness, have been over-dramatised or, more specifically, ‘medicalised’ as part of a plot by drug companies to better market their cures. This has spread further confusion and led, perhaps, to even more people missing out on help from which they might otherwise benefit.

Social anxiety puts a person in a strikingly similar position to members of a persecuted minority - by depriving the sufferer of a ‘voice’ and making them less able to get the most out of life. Paradoxically, underneath the shyness there is quite often a quite outspoken individual struggling to give voice to what he or she has to say. 

The good news is that the suffering can be alleviated with a combination of psychotherapy and drugs - and psychotherapy alone is sometimes sufficient.

Here is Andy Warhol again, speaking after another Press Conference, “they asked me questions all directed at me and I wasn’t prepared, so I just said "yes" or "no". But afterwards I regretted doing my same old shy act, when I should have used the situation for practice — I’d love to be able to talk more and give little speeches. I want to work on that.”

Psychotherapy provides a means of gaining such “practice,” and an opportunity to, “work on that” in a relatively safe environment. You have to wonder why Warhol did not pursue such an option. He certainly was not without the means to afford the very best therapist for himself. But then, he was also a noted skinflint - documenting in his Diaries what he spent down to every last cent. Perhaps he thought it was not worth the money - but that is tantamount to saying, “I am not worth the money.”

And that is what it boils down to in the end for every shy individual. It does not matter what anyone else says, shyness, social anxiety/phobia is only a problem worth doing something about, if you think your life could be bettered by making a concerted effort to do something about it.