In my previous post I discussed a form of intense anxiety that leads to a form of depression. In this case, the effects of anxiety are less acute and extreme, but the overall impact to someone’s life is still very serious.
There is a new type of person that has inadvertently emerged in large part due to the advent of personal computing and video game culture. That personality type has only expanded thanks to the internet, cell phones and texting, food delivery services and, to some degree, ‘social’ media (it’s almost ironic to call it ‘social’).
Prior to those inventions there were shy people –even extremely shy people– but there was no effective way for anyone to hide from others without it being obvious, and often financially impossible. The closest thing to modern social anxiety were people who read an enormous amount, but even they were forced to mix more with other people just due to the in-person nature of society at the time.
Today it is possible for an adolescent to shy away from uncomfortable social contact almost completely. They can make friends through their computer or phone where most or all of their ‘friends’ are in other cities, and where they require some form of electronic connection to make contact.
This means a shy or awkward person can now literally ‘shut off’ anyone they find annoying or threatening, or even just those that make them feel even a bit uncomfortable. This is problematic because those are formative years when people would normally be making the sorts of embarrassing in-person social mistakes that ultimately lead to the development of healthy social skills.
The issue for these future adults is that they can now prevent themselves from having almost all of the experiences that would actually teach them how to relate to the rest of society. To a young person’s mind, being able to hide like that can feel like a comforting level of power. But it also has serious downsides.
In the adult world everyone’s jobs, relationships, and lives will demand that they spend time with people that they find difficult, or with people that don’t particularly like them. Avoiding the skill development we all need for those situations can soon evolve into what gets called ‘social anxiety disorder.’
The upside is that this is a very fixable situation. Just as a lack of exposure to others creates social awkwardness and fear, more exposure demonstrates that the downsides of social interactions are no where near as meaningful to us as the upsides. Humans were built to work in groups, so it is our nature to ultimately succeed at this process. But what stops most people today is fear.
For a previous generation that fear was largely overcome by parents that were viewed much differently. Next to no kids had input on dinner or holidays, there was no real ability to escape chores, and they were put into classes they disliked ‘because it was good for them.’ Even ‘talking back’ was often met with serious punishment.
Back then, the choice for an adolescent was to be kicked out to fend for oneself, or do as ones parents wanted. That culture had significant downsides too, but one of its most important upsides was that shy kids were effectively forced to interact.
A good example of this is Bill Gates, who by all appearances exhibits strong tendencies toward a socially awkward or even an Asperger-like nature. As I’ve noted previously, the recent three part documentary on him demonstrates, his sisters note that a lot of Bill’s success came as a result of his mother ‘forcing’ him to act as the social greeter at the family’s country club.
By being ‘forced’ to have that social contact, a very shy Bill Gates –who probably would have preferred to stay in his basement working on code with maybe one close friend– instead became the sort of person who could run one of the largest companies on Earth, and who has gone on to run one of the world’s largest charities.
Bill Gates still doesn’t appear to love social situations, but the point is that he can function in them. That ability is a key part of what he has been able to accomplish in his life. As his sisters suggest in the documentary, without his mother and that exposure, Bill could easily have been one of the first generation of people to be crippled by a form of social anxiety disorder.
The challenge for modern parents is, they are bringing up children in a much more complex world.
In the end, in many cases, the influence of a parent is limited when a child is carrying a powerful computer with them everywhere they go. Even if they are instructed to ‘go socialize,’ it is easy for them to still avoid interaction through their smartphone.
This new technical ability means too many people are now reaching adulthood without having developed the skills needed to be a successful adult.
Fortunately all is not lost. In fact, the biggest barrier to making meaningful changes is the initial resistance of the young adult who needs a healthier approach. Once they have accepted that –at least in the way I approach it– most people find the socialization discussions we have to be interesting, sensible and motivating.
By developing a better understanding of the nature of society, the nature of human personality, and the nature of how our thoughts can impact both, most people find that the training process makes them feel increasingly alive. The world gets bigger and more exciting –and more inviting.
Far from hiding from the world, socially comfortable people become more interested in both participating in it, and affecting it.
If someone feels increasingly trapped by their lifestyle and they can sense the impact that can or will have on everything from their career to their love life, then they should know that they are closer to making changes than they may realize.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a shy person, they simply need to work with someone who can help them to find their place in the world in comfortable, inviting way.
Of course no changes can happen until we take the first step, which is to seek the help and then move thorough a process. It may sound corny, but the saying ‘today is the first day of the rest of your life‘ is always true. So none of us should hide from the world.
If any of this sounds like you or your child, then please get in touch with me or someone else who can help you navigate this change. Any resistance will only be as ephemeral as thought. And I know for my part I would be happy to meet anyone, no matter how awkward they think they might be.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.