How mindfulness can help overcome debilitating shyness
About seven years ago, Steve Flowers had a chance meeting on a flight back from Southern California, where he’d been leading a mindfulness retreat. He could sense that the woman in the next seat was looking in his direction, but whenever he turned to her, she looked away.
“Finally, after this game went on for a while, she asked me: ‘Did you go to Fairfield High School in 10th grade?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ Then she asked, ‘Is your name ‘Flowers?’ You’re Steve Flowers, aren’t you?’”
Flowers was dumbfounded. How could she possibly remember him, decades later? His father was in the military, so Flowers’ family frequently moved to different states and countries. He attended six different high schools, and spent only one semester at Fairfield High. What’s more, Flowers was cripplingly shy, so he assumed he’d slipped through that semester entirely unnoticed.
“I was invisible,” he said. “I was alone. Totally alone.”
As it turned out, someone had noticed—the woman on the airplane, his former classmate. She confessed to having a crush on him at the time. “But you never even looked at me,” she said, “and I never had the courage to walk up to you.”
Flowers’ eyes welled with tears. He knew all too well how fear, anxiety and shyness interweave. Throughout high school and into adulthood, he was mired in negative self-perception; he was too skinny, timid and peculiar. His hair was too curly. With a name like ‘Flowers,’ he was a magnet for bullies. Luckily, he was a good runner.
“I spent a lot of time running,” he said, laughing, “but I could never run away from the shame of my internal dialogue.”
Addressing that sort of problematic introversion—the kind that ensures long-term loneliness and disconnectedness—is the subject of Flowers’ 2009 book, The Mindful Path Through Shyness: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Help Free You From Social Anxiety, Fear, and Avoidance. And it’s an issue common for his patients at Mindful Living Programs, a stress-reduction clinic under the umbrella of Enloe Medical Center, where he practices as a licensed psychotherapist.
During a recent interview at his clinic just off The Esplanade, Flowers explained how shy people limit themselves with negativity, how to recognize harmful lines of thought, and why practicing mindfulness can help.
Not that shyness is easy to overcome. “I was in my early 30s before I really started finding my way out of the labyrinth,” he said.
Flowers was first introduced to the concept of mindfulness, a state of active attention to the present moment, during his freshman year of college at Fullerton State. But he didn’t practice it until he experienced extreme stress: After he dropped out of his second semester “to goof off,” he was promptly drafted into military service during the Vietnam War. He was 19 years old, and he was terrified.
“What was ahead of me was too much, but I had to take care of myself,” he recalled. And so he confronted himself behind the barracks during basic training in Texas. “I sat in the grass and really examined the contents of my own mind. I saw that I was my own enemy; that I was creating this fear with my own catastrophic imagination.”
He began to recognize the repetition of his negative thoughts, and that he could choose whether or not to entertain them. They always led to the same place—self-doubt, fear and harsh judgment of himself, which he projected onto others. “Our mind creates our life, in many ways,” he said. “If that’s off, in terms of the things you’re saying to yourself, it’s very difficult to find your way out of the spell of shyness.”
If shyness is avoidance, then mindfulness is the opposite. “Mindfulness is looking right into the problem, turning toward it,” Flowers said. “It’s investigating with curiosity and kindness and self-compassion. While you practice, you’re growing in acceptance, and you stop believing the old fear-monger.”
One can cultivate mindfulness with practice, he said. Formal practice involves 30 to 40 minutes of focusing on breathing exercises or sounds in the room. Informal practice is being fully aware of the sights, sounds, smells and thoughts of everyday life, rather than dwelling on the past or what’s anticipated in the future. Indeed, fearing what’s to come can lead people to isolate themselves.
“[Mindfulness] changes what you think will happen if you go to the party, or if you approach the man or woman you’re attracted to,” he said. “When you’re being present, darned if you don’t see them as a person rather than as a threat, and then you have a chance to actually connect with that person. … Those people you want to love and be loved by, those are the scariest of all.”
Through decades of practicing and teaching mindfulness, Flowers no longer considers himself a shy person. He’s found love and connection many times over through the relationships with his wife, children and grandchildren. But that side of him has always been there. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of one’s emotions, he said—to recognize them and move forward positively.
“I could start indulging in certain lines of thought, but I know where they lead,” Flowers said. “I can recognize the pain, the fear, and the old pathway of doubt and self-judging. I know how lonely it is.”