Social Fitness, Part Two: a guest post by the developer of Social Fitness Training

Editor’s note: this is the second of a two-part guest post by Lynne Henderson, PhD, developer of the Social Fitness Training model and author of Helping Your Shy and Socially Anxious Client. (Read Part One here.)

One of the practices we developed at the shyness clinic, based on interpersonal theory and the work of Len Horowitz at Stanford and the people in his lab, is not responding to clients’ behavioral invitations to have others lead or dominate. Because research shows that agentic behavior is complementary and submissive behavior tends to invite others to lead or dominate, clients’ submissive behavior can invite dominating behavior in others. Therapists were trained to nonverbally refuse such invitations and say instead, “What do you think? What would you like to try or experiment with? What do you think would work best here?” We all learned to share leadership with the clients; and often, when we were a bit more than halfway through our 26-week group, clients would spontaneously take the lead.

Shyness is also a way to pause and check the emotional safety of a situation and to take risks in paced and skillful ways. The pause-to-check idea came from Elaine Aron who studied highly sensitive people. Unfortunately, shyness became negatively stereotyped in our culture in the ‘50s when the emphasis in our culture turned to the importance of self-presentation, of looking extroverted and highly confident, which eventually led to an unfortunate focus on a narcissistic style. I believe that the focus on looking highly confident and extroverted contributed to the chronic self-criticism and shame that shy individuals often feel.

I also recognized while working with clients that emotion regulation was one of the toughest things for them to develop. Like Paul Gilbert, who was working with clients experiencing depression, I realized that the level of shame, self-criticism, and self-blame in shy individuals was so practiced that they needed something more to truly feel reassured about their basic worth and lovability, as well as to understand that shyness is an emotion that is adaptive in evolution and shared by all of us. We can just watch it come and go, and do what we value and care about at the same time.

I started by taking an MBSR facilitator training, to learn to teach clients how to simply watch thoughts and feelings come and go and to identify less with them. I also used more specific exercises from ACT to encourage defusion from their negative automatic thoughts, that is, to prompt them to become less identified with any thoughts and feelings. It is interesting to me how some clients prefer directly challenging negative thoughts and others prefer just watching them come and go and moving in their valued directions at the same time. Sometimes the same clients will prefer to challenge sometimes and to just watch at other times

While practicing mindfulness together, as well as loving-kindness meditations (such as May I/you/all be happy, May we be safe, May we be healthy, and May we be at peace), seemed to lead to a greater sense of well being some of the time, I realized that more active self-compassion was going to be needed to help relieve the shame and self-blame. I was reading Kristin Neff and Tara Brach at the time and I knew we needed to bring self-compassion into therapy. At that point I discovered Paul Gilbert’s work on compassion, visited his lab to train in compassion-focused therapy, and wrote the book, The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Building Social Confidence Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Overcome Shyness and Social Anxiety. I also discovered the work of Chris Germer and began training with him and Neff in their Mindful Self Compassion Teacher Training program. It has always struck me that shyness clinic clients could be so compassionate to their fellow group members and so hard on and much less compassionate toward themselves.

I have been fortunate, like so many of us, to stand on the shoulders of incredibly capable and dedicated people and I want to acknowledge them here. Philip Zimbardo and Meg Marnell handed me a 26-session treatment they had been developing in the ‘70s. I continued to develop the treatment, visiting Rick Heimberg’s lab to learn exposures with cognitive restructuring that he and Debra Hope had designed for their CBT treatment, taking the facilitator training in Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program with Robert Stahl, and, finally, training with Paul Gilbert in England to learn compassion-focused psychotherapy, after which I wrote Helping Your Shy and Socially Anxious Client. I am grateful for the opportunity to direct the shyness clinic that originated in Phil Zimbardo’s lab at Stanford. I directed the clinic for 25 years and during that time was a visiting scholar at Stanford for a number of years, learning and using ideas from social psychology and personality theory, such as attribution style and interpersonal theory.

I am very grateful for the privilege of having worked with shyness over many years, both in working with people in groups and in doing research that we could translate into treatment methods. Clients have taught me a great deal and I have been more impressed with their strengths than with their vulnerabilities. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience as we experimented and learned together.


Germer, Christopher K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York: Guilford Press.

Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy. London: Routledge.

Hope, D.A., Heimberg, R.G., & Turk, C. L. (2010). Managing social anxiety, Therapist Guide: A cognitive-behavioral therapy approach (2nd Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Henderson, Lynne, & Horowitz, Leonard M. (1998). The Estimations of Others Scale (EOS). Palo Alto, CA: Shyness Institute.

Horowitz, L. M., Wilson, K. R., Turan, B., Zolotsev, P., Constantino, M., &

Henderson, L. E. (2006). How interpersonal motives clarify the meaning of interpersonal behavior: A revised Circumplex Model. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 67-86.

Izard, C. E. , & Hyson, M. C. (1986). Shyness as a discrete emotion. In W. H. Jones, J. M. Cheek & S. R. Briggs (Eds.), Shyness: Perspectives on research and treatment (pp. 147-160). New York: Plenum Press.

Kabat Zinn, John. (2005). Full Catastrophe Living.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1977). Shyness: what it is, what to do about it. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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