If you’re shy, you know the discomfort such bashfulness can bring. When you must step out of the shadows and speak up, you may experience a racing heart, dry mouth, and butterflies in the stomach. What others seem to take for granted can become a miserable experience for you.
All sorts of social situations can trigger a bout of self-conscious shyness. Some people find themselves not speaking up for themselves at work. Others find it makes them anxious to introduce themselves to others at a bar or the gym. Or they avoid social situations all together, becoming isolated at home. And more people fear public speaking engagements than fear snakes or spiders.
All of us find ourselves a little shy at times, especially if we’re introverted by nature. But when the problem starts to really interfere with the enjoyment of day-to-day life, therapists talk about the problem as social anxiety. Well-meaning friends may tell us to get over it, buck up and “just do it” when faced with a situation that causes us embarrassment. Sometimes that works, but often it’s too simple an answer. If we’re not prepared, we may put ourselves in a situation where we’re overwhelmed with anxiety, only to find that all our self-doubts rise up like dragons and overwhelm us.
For shy people, the problem is often a high level of self-consciousness – particularly around negative thoughts. We act like everyone is looking at us. Or the chatter in our heads becomes a flood of negativity. “No one would be interested in what I have to say.” “If I introduce myself to him, I’ll probably forget his name right away.” “What’s the point of starting up a conversation with him when I’ll just look stupid?” These critical voices are like a Greek chorus of discouragement in our heads. The anxiety they provoke may be so great that we’ll even lie to friends to avoid accepting social invitations where we feel we’ll fail ourselves.
Another trap is over-scrutinizing our own words, thoughts and behaviors. If we fear embarrassment we may end up waiting until the perfect moment when we’ll know just what to do or say…then we watch opportunity after opportunity simply slip away as we sit in the background, analyzing. The right moment never comes. We’re paralyzed.
Some single people find themselves especially shy in social situations that are the opening gambits in the intimacy game. They long for a relationship but fear they are clueless about how to find a guy and start the process.
In the 21st century we’re finding that there’s a pill for just about everything, and shyness is no exception. It’s true that some social anxiety can be helped by the selective use of medication, especially if the anxiety has become debilitating. But many of those medications cause other troubles, including the host of problems that are dismissed as “possible sexual side effects” in the ads for them on television. For most people the answer to shyness isn’t an antidepressant. The answer is gaining greater self-knowledge and mastering new skills to become more comfortable in social situations.
For some single people, the rush to date might best be put on hold for a little while so they can master some of the social skills that make friendships and other intimate relationships more rewarding.
Remember, you’re more than your problem with shyness. When you learn to let your real self out you will find you can enjoy life in new ways.
Self-doubt and self-criticism are at the root of much shyness. We have mistaken beliefs (“Everyone’s looking at me!”) that hold is back.These beliefs keep us from having the sort of meaningful, intimate relationships we want. A good first step is to notice the self-talk going on all the time between your ears. Recognize negative voices that give you critical, defeatist messages. Once you start to recognize them you’re no longer on autopilot. A thought is not the same thing as a reality….
You can begin to assert some control. A good place to start is simply by labeling the thought, perhaps saying to yourself, “That’s just a thought.” Avoid arguing with the voice in your head. And certainly don’t compound the problem by yelling at yourself! “I’m an idiot for having such negative thoughts!” is really just another negative thought.
Try paying special attention to thoughts that include words like always, never, should, etc. These are rarely true and often just cause us more anxiety. And look for other ridiculous thoughts. Everyone is not always looking at you, for instance.
Changing patterns requires patience and practice. Don’t criticize yourself. See if you can work up some self-encouragement instead.
Improving your social skills may start with looking at how you physically present yourself. We’re not talking “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” makeovers here; we’re talking about your posture, how you physically hold yourself. Many shy people try to take up as little physical space as possible, almost as if trying to make themselves disappear. Look at how you stand in front of a full-length mirror. Look at your posture. Like Mom said, stand up straight. Lift your chin a bit. Smile a little. Can you look relaxed and alert at the same time? Do you look approachable?
Try speaking to an imaginary person – maybe someone you’d meet at the gym or at a party. Role-play introducing yourself. How’s the tone of your voice? Do you naturally speak very softly? Trying increasing your volume a bit, which will help you sound more confident. As you look in the mirror, are you looking yourself in the eye? An open, friendly gaze and a firm handshake create a positive impression. If looking someone in the eye is uncomfortable for you, practice in front of a mirror or with a friend.
If saying hello is a problem for many shy people, sometimes it can be just as hard to say “No.” People who have a problem with assertiveness often acquiesce to requests and demands; they may avoid situations where people are likely to make such requests, and that just adds to the sense of social isolation. (Ask yourself if you’ve ever given in to a telemarketer when you didn’t want to do so. If the answer is yes, you could probably learn to be more assertive!) You can learn to say “no” and mean it. Be polite but firm; look the person in the eye if it’s a face-to-face encounter. Repeat you’re no again with even greater firmness if necessary. You may feel uncomfortable for a moment – many people do, because we’ve been taught to be “nice” – but you’ll feel more self-confidence after speaking forthrightly.
Their fear of rejection makes their world smaller. Rejection isn’t fatal, no matter how uncomfortable it might seem at the time. The problem is often what therapists call “catastrophic thinking” – a belief that it would be unbearably awful if rejection occurred. But is being turned down for a job or a date really lethal? Of course not. The consequences are far worse if you choose to take yourself out of the social game because you’re terrified of being turned down.
If you’re afraid of rejection – and most people are – why not practice getting really good at it? Realize that each rejection means that you’re succeeding in extending yourself and doing something challenging. Each time you experience it you’re actually getting closer to your goal of expanding your circle of friends, of getting that job that you want, of meeting your goals and succeeding in life. Tolerating a little rejection is a small price to pay for getting more of what you want in your life.
If you’re not doing well at meeting people in your current routine, try changing things. Too many people rely on the usual standbys – bars and the gym – for meeting people and striking up conversation. Try joining a club or organization, where you’ll find more things in common that can be conversation starters. Or get a cute dog and head to the park on a sunny afternoon!
When there’s an opening (you walk up to someone, or there’s a lull in the conversation near where you are, etc.) take a deep breath, introduce yourself, make eye contact, smile and shake hands. Repeating the person’s name back to them can help you remember it, especially if you’re slowing down and paying attention.
Shy people often start worrying about whether they will “do it right” when they are speaking with someone, rather than simply paying attention and being in the moment. One powerful way to move past your shyness is to keep focusing on stuff other than yourself. Concentrate when someone answers you. Remember what they say so you can ask a question about it later. Let yourself find the other person interesting, which will make you more interesting to them. (If you have trouble thinking on your feet, think of some possible questions to ask ahead of time.)
When you’re speaking, notice the pronouns you use. Self-conscious people often use the word “I” a lot, and that can stop or block conversation. Smiling and conveying interest in the other person (“So what did you think of…?”) keeps the conversation going and makes you seem less self-centered.
Offer an opinion if you want to deepen the conversation, or ask the other person for their opinion. Remember to really listen to the other person. Focusing helps to lessen the anxiety and the distraction of self-consciousness. It helps keep the conversation going and makes a good impression.
Do you enjoy the person’s company and feel that interest coming back at you? Great. Consider suggesting meeting some other time for coffee or lunch. Offer your phone number; if you get the other guy’s, use it. If he doesn’t offer his phone number, don’t despair. You’re doing what you need to do to meet the kind of people you want to meet. Evidently this just wasn’t the one. In training yourself to be more outgoing, you’re going to get what you want.
All this gets much easier with practice. Being successful in doing what you set out to do will make you more comfortable. You’ll find that socializing becomes easier and your shyness will no longer run your life.
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