When It’s More Than Just ‘Being Shy’: Understanding Social Anxiety

By: Ashley Malooly, Ph.D. | December 1, 2023

Social anxiety touched my life at a young age. I remember feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed when I was five years old during a show-and-tell presentation. I remember second-guessing myself and not raising my hand in class, even when I knew I had the right answer. And I remember how it felt to be “too shy” to talk to people and make new friends. As a child, being perceived negatively by others seemed like the worst fate imaginable. I didn’t understand it then, but what I was experiencing was social anxiety.

Social anxiety is easily mistaken for “just being shy,” “introverted,” or, “just a little awkward.”

Fortunately, my mother pushed me to do things outside of my comfort zone, and my social anxiety improved the more practice I had doing hard things. Later in life I learned more about psychology and realized that my “shyness” was something more, and that my mother’s tactics were the exact treatment that I needed.

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is more than just shyness, introversion, or awkwardness. Shy people take some time to warm up, but then settle into social situations. Introverts prefer spending time alone to recharge their batteries because social interactions are draining. Everyone experiences awkwardness from time to time, but for most people, it doesn’t stop them from engaging socially. In fact, people may even embrace or be proud of their willingness to be awkward.

Social anxiety is a clinical disorder that interferes with a person’s ability to engage in and enjoy social activities. This could include a one-on-one conversation, group activities, parties, public speaking, performing, and even shared meals.

Symptoms of social anxiety include:

  • Fear of being humiliated, embarrassed, rejected, or judged by others
  • Fear of specific situations (such as performances)
  • Generalized fear of social situations
  • Disproportionate fear of a social situation
  • Avoidance of social situations because of fear; for example: phone calls may go unanswered, party invitations may be declined, and job interviews may be skipped to avoid the judgment of others
  • Feelings of worry and preoccupation during social interactions that impacts your behavior and causes distress
  • Persistent feelings of fear over a course of six months or more

Although some people are born shy or introverted, people aren’t born with social anxiety. In fact, people with extroverted personalities can develop social anxiety! Since social activities recharge an extrovert, not being social can lead to depression if untreated. Social anxiety can also develop in response to other problems. For example, someone with symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might develop social anxiety after being shamed for speaking out of turn, for fear of repeating the same behavior.

How is Social Anxiety Treated?

Social anxiety can be successfully treated with therapy using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques. This form of therapy focuses on developing tools and techniques to a) correct unhelpful, imbalanced patterns of thinking; b) develop effective social skills if needed; and c) create new, healthy patterns of behavior.

Treatment for Social Anxiety includes:

1. Correct Imbalanced Patterns of Thinking

How we think impacts how we feel, and what we do. This is called the cognitive triad. People with social anxiety are afraid of being embarrassed, being perceived negatively by others, or doing something wrong. As such, their thoughts are focused on not saying the wrong thing, which results in avoidance, or, in some cases, a physical manifestation of fear like trembling hands. When we are aware of our thoughts, we can evaluate their veracity more objectively. Using evidence, we begin to challenge the imbalanced, unhelpful thoughts, and adopt a more balanced way of thinking. For example, seeing someone anxious with shaking hands doesn’t make you think they are incompetent; rather, it makes you feel compassion. It might even lead someone to feel more comfortable sharing their own vulnerabilities and connect in a more authentic way.

2. Develop Social Skills

People with social anxiety may worry that they are too awkward, or not good with people, or lack the ability to carry on a conversation.

In fact, people with social anxiety often have well-developed social skills. They are merely out of practice or lack confidence in social interactions.

Social skills training can help with social anxiety by increasing confidence and filling in the gaps of social etiquette. This could include working on topics such as small talk, how to introduce yourself, end/leave conversations, and non-verbal behaviors.

3. Create Healthy Patterns of Behavior

Avoiding social situations can lead to immediate relief of anxiety, yet it creates a vicious cycle wherein fear and anxiety grow over time. Treatment for social anxiety includes recognizing patterns of avoidance, and gradually facing social fears. By doing so, you will gather the evidence needed to challenge unhelpful patterns of thinking and increase confidence in your ability to socialize. This part of the treatment can be challenging and will be uncomfortable at times.

With the guidance and support of a professional San Diego Psychologist, you can learn to face your fears and improve your social anxiety.


Social anxiety is not just part of a person’s personality. It is a disorder that interferes with daily life. Treatment for social anxiety in individual therapy can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. I chose to share my experience to instill additional hope that social anxiety can and will get better. Attending a psychology graduate program was like a capstone experience in social anxiety treatment for me (think endless meetings with professors, presentations, and videotaped client meetings).

My experiences have helped me break free from social anxiety and empathize with others experiencing something similar. I am passionate about helping my clients feel empowered to face their fears, just as I did. If this blog post resonates with you, please Contact Us to schedule an appointment and start your journey to a more fulfilled and joyful social life.



Photo by Jacob Sedlacek on Unsplash

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