Originally Posted on Psychology Today
Most people experience the feeling of being shy at one point or another, but for some it can be debilitating enough that it prevents them from participating in social situations that are important to personal or professional goals. Shy people want to be close to others but they fear being rejected or criticized, so much that they avoid even social situations they want to attend. They often end up feeling lonely and isolated, which increases their risk for developing other problems like depression or anxiety. Sometimes people will try to overcome their shyness by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, which increases their risk for substance use disorders.
Research shows that shyness is maintained through a vicious cycle where shy people approach the social situation, feel the excessive fear of negative evaluation, then avoid the situation which initially provides relief, however, this often leads to feelings of shameand self-blame. In order to cope with these feelings, the negative emotions can turn into anger and blame toward others, where others can be viewed as inconsiderate or unsupportive, which further reinforces the desire to avoid. Given that “social skills,” like any other set of skills, are something one develops over time, the avoidance of social settings can lead to being socially “out of shape.”1
Below are a few ways you can increase your social fitness:
Plan for it to go well. Shyness unlike introversion, which is associated with being quiet and reserved, is characterized by a strong tendency to overestimate negative scrutiny. There is a tremendous fear that others are going to evaluate them in a negative way and so a good deal of thought in a social setting is spent on how to not do something wrong, instead of on how to do something right. One good way to reduce your anxiety is to spend more time thinking about what you could do to make the social situation a success. If you worry about making small talk, ask yourself a few questions that would help you generate some interesting topics–What are some current events I could bring up? What has been going on in my life recently that I feel comfortable sharing? What do I have in common with the other people who will be there? Also, give yourself an exit strategy, just try not to use it. Exposing yourself to your fear is the best way to overcome it, however, it is also important to feel like you are in control. If you know you have a worst case scenario exit strategy, then you won’t feel trapped.
Be curious about others. The very first principle in Dale Carnegie’s legendary book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,”2 is to become genuinely interested in other people. He bases this point on the writings of esteemed psychologists Alfred Adler who wrote “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life.” For shy people the focus in any social setting is often on one’s self, try taking the focus off of yourself and instead focus on being curious about others. Who they are and why are they there? What are their interests and hobbies? This gives you something different to focus on and helps you generate conversations. Everyone’s got a story to tell, find out what it is then sit back and listen. People love to talk about themselves. The way to be the most interesting person in the room is to find others interesting.
Give yourself a role. Many of the socially shy people I’ve worked with are highly successful individuals, such as doctors, lawyers, professors, and business owners. They often comment on how confident they feel at work but as soon as they enter into a situation where their role isn’t defined by their job they lose their self-confidence. Having a role gives you a sense of purpose and guidelines for how you should behave. Most people in any setting want to feel liked and accepted. As another strategy to take the focus off of themselves, I ask my clients to give themselves the role of making other people feel the way they would like to feel. As part of your plan to have the situation go right, pick a job for yourself such as, it is my job to help people feel interesting or liked, or it is my job to make people feel welcome.
Soften your inner dialogue. Shy people are often highly critical of themselves and their inner dialogue is often very harsh. They say things to themselves they would never dare to say to other people. When you judge yourself harshly you are more likely to think others will judge you in the same way. Your inner critic can cause a lot of emotional damage, it robs you of your peace of mind and self-esteem. The best way to defeat the critic is to have an even stronger ally on your side. You need to grow an inner voice that acts as your own best friend. In order to do this, it is important to start noticing the good things about yourself and learn to talk back to the inner critic. When your inner critic starts to blame you for being fearful, remember that there is not a single person on this planet that likes rejection, but somehow we all manage to survive it at times. When your inner critic starts to tell you that no one will ever like you, remind yourself that liking you is what matters most. By learning to talk to yourself in a kinder gentler way, social situations won’t hold as much power to hurt you because you won’t be punishing yourself. (For an article on how to silence your inner critic, click here.)
Shyness is something that doesn’t have to defeat you. Every social situation you put yourself in is a mini social skills workout. The more you do it the better you get. If your shyness is more severe there are very effective treatments for social anxiety that include group and individual therapies, and in some cases medication, so if you feel you might benefit it may be in your interest to consult with a mental health professional in your area.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.
1. Henderson, Lynne. Helping Your Shy and Socially Anxious Client: A Social Fitness Training Protocol Using CBT. New Harbinger Publications, 2014.