Crain's Magazine - June 27, 2005
How shyness quashes careers; Paralyzing anxiety marginalizes workers in dog-eat-dog city.(Business Lives)
Byline: tommy fernandez
At the thought of standing before a boardroom full of clients, his heart rate would spike, his palms would get damp and his breathing would become labored and ragged. Once he was in front of an audience, hearing clients chime in via speakerphone for some reason made the situation worse.
This fear of public speaking mortified and infuriated former financial consultant Jason Jovine. His investment strategies were often very successful, but this good news was usually lost in his bungled presentations. He knew that his out-of-control anxiety turned off many clients.
"The minute someone told me that I'd be giving a speech, the fear would hit me. That anxiety was a killer,'' says Mr. Jovine, who quit consulting two years ago to get an M.B.A. from Baruch College, as well as to attend classes at the Public Speaking and Social Anxiety Center of New York. "Those fears affected my income.''
Shyness is a universal--like that nightmare of standing in front of a classroom in the buff--and city life provides an array of triggers for the socially anxious. There are the chronically surly retail clerks, pushy panhandlers, and bosses who want paper clips positioned on reports just so. The very thought of speed dating has brought untold numbers of city slickers to their knees.
New York City, the global capital of commercial chutzpah, has little patience for executives such as Mr. Jovine. Unfortunately, more and more New Yorkers are being diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, the fear of interacting with others. Afraid of speaking to groups, nonplussed by office party mingling or terrified of cold-calling potential clients, these timid people are increasingly marginalized in a corporate culture that values in-your-face extroverts and executives who steal the other guy's lunch.
"This is a very, very un-shy town,'' says career consultant Judy Rosemarin, president of executive coaching firm Sense-Able Strategies Inc. "Shy people are under enormous pressure to compensate, to hide their fears.''
A surprising number of people must cope with such pressure. Fear of socializing, which wasn't even acknowledged as a disorder by psychiatrists until the 1980s, is now the third most common psychiatric disorder in the country. It affects one out of eight American adults.
"This disorder is more widespread than most people think,'' says phobia expert Jonathan Berent, a therapist who has treated thousands of New Yorkers who have the condition. "Most people with this problem aren't seeking treatment.''
Social anxiety affects people in a variety of ways. People might feel mild discomfort when talking to strangers, or outright terror when addressing a group. Others may be frightened of tooting their horn in front of the boss or standing up for themselves among colleagues. The fear can lead to physical symptoms, including blushing, stammering and heart palpitations.
In the New York City business arena, this anxiety is more than a liability; it can be a career-crippler. Recruiter Tony Filson says he has seen dozens of highly talented executives lose out because of shyness. One vice president seeking a promotion at a media company couldn't work up the gumption to glad-hand the chairman at an office function. A less capable but louder colleague got the job instead.
"It can be hard for the shy, because they can't be forceful and obnoxious enough to get to the front of the line,'' Mr. Filson says.
Failure to advance may be the least of their worries. One of Mr. Berent's patients, a 31-year-old investment banking hotshot, left her $200,000-per-year position because she was afraid of conferences and presentations. Another patient, who ran a $150 million venture capital fund at a Wall Street firm, nearly lost his job because he avoided client phone calls and refused to attend business lunches.
Channels for Change
With the increase in the number of New Yorkers trying to conquer social anxiety, a burgeoning community devoted to helping sufferers has arisen. Blogs, books, online networks and support groups are sprouting up throughout the city.
The treatment of choice for most is cognitive therapy, because it forces sufferers to get out of their heads and face their fears, says researcher Dr. Franklin Schneier of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Self-conscious to a fault, socially anxious people suffer from an excessive fear of embarrassment and an obsession with what other people think of them. Working through public situations that frighten them can help them improve.
Therapists can be very creative in their strategies for outwitting the pessimism and perfectionism of those suffering from social anxiety disorder. Dr. Robert Udewitz at Behavior Therapy of New York makes his patients recite speeches on the steps of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park.
Dr. Robert Leahy of the American Institute of Cognitive Therapy has patients act out their deepest social fears, so they learn that screwing up publicly isn't fatal--and therefore they become less likely to screw up.
One patient was terrified that he might faint in public, so Dr. Leahy had him test this scenario in Bloomingdale's. The patient was so impressed with the kindness of strangers that he jokes he'll pretend to faint more often just to pick up women.
Experts say that cognitive therapy, sometimes coupled with medication, can start relieving symptoms for more than two-thirds of sufferers after three to six months.
"This is a disorder that psychiatrists feel optimistic about,'' says Dr. Sanjay Mathew, a consulting psychiatrist with Behavioral Associates. "The overall prognosis with quality care is quite good.''
As for Mr. Jovine, he continues to take classes at the Public Speaking and Social Anxiety Center. He says that the center makes shy people face their fears in gradual steps. At first, a student will be asked simply to stand up in front of a group and say his name. In later classes, he'll answer questions about, say, his favorite sports team.
These small steps can add up to big changes. Mr. Jovine delivered his 10th speech at public speaking club Toastmasters two weeks ago, and with his newly minted M.B.A., he is now looking to return to the financial field.
"You can outgrow anything,'' Mr. Jovine says.
scaring up the nerve: After taking classes to calm his fear of public speaking, Jason Jovine is ready to return to financial consulting.