Breaking shy: When meek meets success

A lifestyle that reduces anxious feelings may be the best thing to shore up body and mind.

There are techniques to help shy guys finish first – and they don’t involve a stiff drink.

If the idea of schmoozing a client or delivering a presentation to a crowded room sends you into a spin, your life is about to change.

Yes, calling all introverts. You are not destined to be the wallflower, standing on the sidelines, watching others get promoted, get a pay rise or be invited to play golf with the boss.

Dr Walter Friedman, who established The Shyness Clinic in San Francisco in 1992 and another in London in 1998, has helped thousands of business people who felt their heart pounding, their palms sweating, and their voice shaking when they were put in the spotlight.

“The trouble is, the more anxious you feel, the more anxious you feel, and then you predict disaster,” he says of the challenges of meeting new people, or delivering a speech.

“But we can teach people very simple anti-anxiety techniques.”

Simon Robertson*, a finance manager for a retail chain, is regularly called on to present new initiatives to board meetings.

I stumble through hoping no one can see my hands shaking,” he says. “The idea that everyone is looking at me makes me very anxious.”

At after-hours events he’s required to attend, he finds himself gravitating towards the darkest corner.

“I simply don’t do well in groups of people. I say the wrong thing. I mumble. I drink too much.”

"Alcohol is not the answer."
According to Friedman, those who suffer from shyness are often very “me” focused. Yet when making contacts, or sitting in a meeting where you feel all eyes are upon you, one of the antidotes is to be much more focused on other people.

“You need to develop an intense curiosity about others, even if you have to force yourself like crazy,” he advises.

Friedman also teaches an open-eyed meditation where you divide your attention between several different awarenesses.

For example, become aware of your fingers gripping the pen but also of your breathing,” he says.

“Distraction from the fear you feel is part of this, but refocusing your anxious mind and body in this fashion literally has a calming effect.”

Learning how to develop a good speaking voice – “use the voice as if it was a musical instrument” – can also build confidence.

Of course, some people may suggest a stiff drink before big events, or during them, can provide Dutch courage. But psychotherapist Catherine Madigan, from Melbourne-based Anxiety Treatment Australia, says alcohol is not the answer.

Madigan, who works with lawyers, accountants and even advertising executives, says prescribed medication rather than a gin and tonic can be more helpful in relieving severe anxiety. But for ongoing feelings of social anxiety, a lifestyle that reduces anxious feelings – minimal alcohol, no smoking or coffee and regular exercise – is the best thing to shore up the body and mind, says Madigan.

Psychotherapist Shirley Hughes, who has a practice in northern New South Wales, agrees that healthy habits as well as cognitive behaviour training can help people gain control over their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. She suggests “putting on another hat” when you are required to step into the glare can help introverts shine.

"Visualise yourself as someone extremely capable of delivering a speech or making a good impression,” she suggests.

“Model yourself on someone at your office who does this effectively.”

Naomi Spies, director of Ruby Public Relations in Queensland, was forced onto the speakers’ circuit when she decided she wanted to help small businesses better manage their media exposure.

“I had to speak at breakfast meetings about a public relations workshop I was offering,” says Spies, whose clients include tourism and financial companies.

“It was terrifying. When I handed back the microphone, I was hoping no one noticed it was dripping with sweat.”

Spies says she has coped with her intense fear of public speaking not only by taking a deep breath and relaxing her body before she steps onto stage, but by “turning on a light switch and becoming someone else”.

Learning to live with a certain amount of fear may also be the key to handling it, says Hughes, particularly if you are naturally an introvert. Even though shyness may still carry a stigma in some circles, it is not a defect but simply part of your personality, she says.

Put on an actor's hat and fake being confident.

Put on an actor's hat and fake being confident.

Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer-turned-writer, is co-founder of Quiet Revolution, an initiative to elevate introverts in society, and author of The New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Baker and Taylor).

Rather than pretending to be an extrovert, introverts are better served by becoming “quietly visible”, says Cain.

From that standpoint, you can do whatever is necessary to shine in the spotlight, or at least survive it relatively unscathed. 

*Name has been changed

Introvert’s cheat sheet

  • Remember it’s not all about you. Become intensely curious about other people at the event.
  • Refocus. Concentrate on how you’re holding a pencil, or your breathing, to distract yourself from the anxiety you feel.
  • Put on your actor’s hat and fake being confident by copying how another great presenter does it.

December/January 2022
December/January 2022

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