“When I get nervous,” says a young woman named Rebecca, “I shut down. I go blank.” She sits in a circle of 20 in a dance studio in Manhattan. Everyone takes turns introducing himself, explaining what brought him out on a Saturday evening to a dating coach’s class for the socially anxious.
Rebecca is a college student who is “obsessed” with the video game Zelda. She has long wavy hair and a sweet face (although she tells me later that when she gets nervous, her eyebrows pull together and make her look angry). Despite being one of the youngest and one of the few women in the group, Rebecca quickly establishes herself among the most candid. By contrast, several other students fidget, stare at the floor, and admit nothing.
“Girls feel really comfortable around me,” one man tells me.
Another says, “I used to be shy.”
Not all of tonight’s participants have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, but whether they’ll admit it aloud or not, they all know that they have something like it. Most of them learned about the workshop through the New York Shyness and Social Anxiety Meetup; with more than 2,500 members, it’s the largest social anxiety meet up in the world, according to the group’s leader, Erik Silverman.
Social Anxiety Disorder first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1994, and the label remains controversial: Why pathologize a trait as lovely as shyness? Still, the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug company GlaxoSmithKline to market Paxil as the antidote (“Imagine being allergic to people,” the ad said), and soon, both Paxil prescriptions and social anxiety disorder diagnoses were on the rise.
So what does render shyness a pathology? If someone’s shyness “has caused impairment in his life,” then it’s a disorder, says Barrie Rosen, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan. Picture the person who can’t ask for directions without succumbing to a panic attack, who sweats profusely upon entering a grocery store, never mind a party. Picture, in extreme cases, years of isolation leading to depression, substance abuse, even suicide. Picture someone so afraid of social interaction he can’t hold a job or make friends. Picture a person with no love life. Medication and cognitive behavioral therapy may help these people, so seeing a doctor is important.
But 32-year-old dating coach Chris Luna disagrees: “There’s another way to deal with this.”
Luna’s dating instruction company, Craft of Charisma, has been coaching within the “social anxiety community” for years. Now he holds seminars every Saturday night that teach his clients topics including how to approach strangers, how to seduce women and how to get out of their own way.
Tonight’s class is a general social skills workshop. Luna splits the group into pairs and teaches them a mirroring exercise: Partner 2 should imitate the body language of Partner 1. Ultimately, he explains, mirroring builds rapport.
So, one pair stands staring at each other, each touching his own ears. A woman holds her own stomach, and the man she’s partnered with copies.
“Isn’t this kind of awkward?” I ask Luna.
“I just want to get them out of their own heads — focused on the other person,” he says. “That’s their problem. They’re stuck in their heads.”
He is onto something. A few minutes into the exercise, throughout the room, ones and twos stand smiling at one other, their bodies less tense, their conversations less stilted. The ice is broken. Still, a ripple of terror moves through the room when Luna announces the next exercise: tag-team storytelling. Some shake their heads and back away from the circle. Luna stands in the middle. “Pick a topic,” he says. “Let’s say … Facebook.” Walking around inside the circle and making eye contact with each student, he tells a story about receiving a Facebook invitation to a party. “As soon as I say something that makes you think of something else,” he says, “yell, ‘Freeze!'” The idea is that the person in the middle will rejoin the circle and the person who yelled “Freeze!” will take his place as the storyteller. “Don’t forget to make eye contact with everyone,” Luna adds.
The point of the exercise is to teach assertiveness: A socially anxious person might find himself shrinking from a group conversation, thinking of things he might like to say but missing his window, growing silent and increasingly uncomfortable as the banter volleys above his head. The storytelling exercise simulates a conversational atmosphere that gives everyone permission to jump in while still leaving it up to each person to take the initiative.
A guy who just moved to New York from France enters the middle of the circle and talks about traveling in India. It’s a meandering narrative riddled with generalities, and although he doesn’t sound nervous, when he turns away from me, I see his fingers trembling violently behind his back. After a few more stories like that one, Luna offers some tips: Focus on something specific. Use details. If you’re talking about a car, give us its make and color.
The final exercise of the night is a touch game. You can’t get close with people if you’re afraid to touch them, Luna says. Two people stand in the middle of the circle and must keep both hands on each other at all times. When one speaks, he or she must find a new way to touch the partner. The game is painful to watch. Imagine robots playing Twister. But whereas two hours ago people weren’t engaging at all, now everyone howls as the pair finds creative ways to make contact.
Several people even hang around to chat after class ends.
15,000,000: Approximate number of Americans who have social anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.