Dear Patti,

I’m way too thin, underdeveloped, wear big glasses, have frizzy hair and — to make it worse — I am socially crippled with extreme shyness. All during my teens I rationalized that being shy wasn’t negative because it made me isolated and kept me focused on my intellectual growth and disciplined in my studies. I’ve become used to being invisible and, in turn, learned to ignore others.

I’ve recently moved from the Midwest to attend USC on a full scholarship. I figured I’d be OK because I have a very supportive aunt and uncle who live in Pasadena. I didn’t realize until I arrived that I’m expected to attend many dinners and social events. Whenever I’m in a group full of strangers and the attention is on me, I become very stiff, uncomfortable, self-conscious and extremely awkward. These people I’m expected to mingle with are clearly self-assured, graceful, lively and confident. I feel like I don’t belong and that everybody will soon come to realize that.

Shyness has been a lifetime malady and I realize my new responsibilities may be an impossible task for me. I don’t want to be a quitter but I also don’t want to become a failure. 

  — Dawn

Dear Dawn,

It sounds like your extreme shyness in social situations may be aggravated by your critical self-observation and excessive self-consciousness. I’m concerned at how negative and disapproving your self-evaluation is and how you’re paying way too much attention to all the things you think you’re doing wrong whenever you are around other people. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Relinquish perfectionism. When you’re fully engrossed in schoolwork and learning, what would happen to your concentration and performance if, in your mind, you constantly criticized, labeled and judged your every thought and action? This behavior can create anxiety and an inhibition in your normal social functioning. It appears that you habitually compare yourself to others and automatically rate yourself below par and second best. 

You’re comfortable with who you are academically. By avoiding a social life, however, you will definitely limit yourself. If necessary, find a mental health professional whose competency you trust as well as someone with whom you feel safe and comfortable. If you believe that your shyness is seriously affecting the quality of your life, don’t settle. 

Rather than focusing your awareness on your awkwardness when you attend social events, put your attention on other people, who they are and what interesting things they have to say. Concentrate on the moment, become mindful of who you’re talking to and focus your attention away from yourself. Do not compare yourself to others and automatically rate yourself as below par. When you’re engaged in a conversation, forget about how you look or come across and concentrate instead on the other person’s words, manner and social expression. Listen carefully and try to find out what this person is passionate about and who he or she really is. Reflect on what it is about this person that you like. Like any other skill, social skills can be cultivated and achieved through disciplined practice and experience. Now may be the time to put some hard work into developing a social and personal life.

By just being yourself, you’ll get in touch with your unique qualities and different ways of expressing thoughts and feelings, even if they differ from the norm. While social skills may not come easily, you obviously have other exceptional gifts to be thankful for insofar as sharing and contributing to society. Practice appreciating yourself and your personal, distinctive qualities. Once you relax and try to learn about others, you will probably discover that you listen very well and notice what others miss in conversations. This will be using your intellect to your advantage. Become interested in others. You are likely already interesting to them, whether you know it or not. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.