“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 on the west side of 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 of their own accord 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 later.
Another tells me, “I used to be shy.”
Not all of tonight’s participants have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD), 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. SAD first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) 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 says), and soon, both Paxil prescriptions and SAD diagnoses were on the rise. Today, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that SAD afflicts approximately 15 million American adults.
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, and suicide. Picture someone so afraid of social interaction he can’t hold a job or make friends. Picture a person with no love life. That’s where 32-year-old dating coach Chris Luna comes in.
“I don’t think anyone should take drugs,” Luna tells me. “There’s another way to deal with this.”
Luna looks less like a dating coach than like a movie star playing the role of a dating coach. Tonight he wears a newsboy cap and a fitted black V-neck T-shirt that shows off his jacked arms. If I were a Harlequin romance novelist, I would describe his dark features as brooding. Through his dating instruction company, Craft of Charisma, he’s been coaching within the “social anxiety community” for several 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. He never intended to get so involved with the socially anxious, but when he started coaching in New York City (he had moved from California to attend Columbia University, realized his scholarship wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and needed extra cash), those were the clients who found him. “They were the ones no one else wanted to work with,” he says.
Tonight’s class is billed as a general social skills workshop, but when Luna asks the group, “How many of you want to use these skills to improve your dating life?” nearly everyone raises a hand. 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. Although some ones infer that they should gesture naturally as they talk and let the twos follow, others are less suave: 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. I imagine that man at a party, talking to a stranger, blowing his nose if the stranger blows his nose, scratching his crotch to build rapport with a crotch-scratcher.
“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 (“I’m having a total panic attack right now!” one man says when it’s his turn), Luna offers some tips: Focus on something specific. Use details. If you’re talking about a car, give us its make and color.
And suddenly, people start opening up. Rebecca tells us that, against her family’s wishes, she wants to get a Triforce tattooed on her wrist. (Later, I look up Triforce and learn that it’s a Zelda symbol that represents wisdom, power, and courage.) Someone confesses his shame about the scars on his body. Others admit how unhappy they are at their jobs. Only one person, who told us during introductions that his stutter causes him acute anxiety, refuses to participate. He leaves during the break.
Since I reached out to Luna about writing this story, he’s told me several times that “everyone is socially anxious.” I guess what he means is that everyone is socially anxious to varying degrees. Of course, I have memories of painful shyness from my youth, including my first-ever date, when a boy and I convened at a movie theater, bought tickets, watched Dick Tracy, and retreated to our mothers’ respective minivans—all without exchanging a single word. But as an adult, most of the time, I’m the opposite of socially anxious—what the personality tests call extroverted. I might even be extroverted to a fault, relying on socializing to energize me. During the storytelling game, I couldn’t wait to jump in. Microphones thrill me. Parties, even bad ones, give me a rush. I’ve always loved first dates—with the exception of the Dick Tracy date, of course, to which I wore a Gap pocket T tucked into paisley shorts and high white socks with boat shoes. (I know that my early ‘90s fashion statement bears no relevance to my point, but as an extrovert, I had to get it off my chest.)
It’s inaccurate to say that everyone is socially anxious. And it’s inaccurate to say, as some have since Paxil became popular, that SAD is nothing but a marketing construct. Those who seek out social anxiety groups (not to mention those too anxious to do so), whether or not they have a disorder, suffer in a singular way. Their shyness is not garden variety. It’s crippling. And classes like this one, or at least communities like this one, offer some relief. The students in this room seem grateful, even happy to learn new coping skills and to be part of a supportive group. In the email Rebecca writes me the next day, she says, “I remember way back in sixth grade, our teachers would gather 30-40 of us at a time and show us how to be social. Other than that distant memory, I never had a class like [Chris Luna’s], and I severely wish I had.”
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. He chooses two people to stand in the middle of the circle and tells them to keep both hands on each other at all times. Whenever one of them speaks, the speaker must find a new way to touch his partner. The game is painful to watch. Imagine robots playing Twister. But whereas two hours ago people weren’t laughing at all, or they were covering their mouths and lowering their heads, now everyone howls as the people in the middle of the circle find creative ways to make contact. Whereas in the beginning of class the circle was silent and everyone avoided eye contact, several people hang around to chat when the evening ends.
“You were really funny during the touch game,” I tell a man who walked into class with a price tag dangling from the armpit of his acid-washed denim jacket. (He noticed seconds after I did and tugged it off.)
“Oh,” he says. “I wish life could always be like that. If I could play a game during every conversation, I’d never feel uncomfortable again.”
Correction, Feb. 14, 2013: This article misspelled New York clinical psychologist Barrie Rosen's first name.