Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

50 Ways to Overcome Shyness and Anxiety at Social Gatherings

Protect yourself from fear of social evaluations and embarrassment

Social anxieties and shyness can degrade the quality of your life. Here are some cognitive and behavioral coping  tools to live a social life that fits with your interests and temperament.

Paul Simon wrote a popular song titled 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. In the opening refrain, he sings about problems that are just in your head. Then he offers advice for setting yourself free, such as "drop off the key, Lee."

If there are 50 ways to leave a lover, then there must be at least 50 ways to manage your shyness, overcome needless social fears, and feel positive and natural at social events. Among the following 50, test the ones that fit you best. (To make each tip memorable, I’ve added a Paul Simon-type preamble.)

1. Keep fighting fear, Fred. Fear of fear feeds on itself. Plan to survive this temporary discomfort, and you’ll find that you can not only survive it, but also feel more comfortable with yourself.

2. Maintain perspective, Patty. Avoid focusing your attention on your fears.  Instead, ask others questions about themselves. You may find that people are happy to talk about themselves.

3. Watch the worry, Wally. You fret about possibly acting inept. You mentally make this inevitable. You believe this will mark you for life. Correct this cascading worry at any point in its cycle.

4. Give up playing Nostradamus, Nora.  Predicting the world will crash down on you if you err is an imaginary crisis. However, anxiety following such false predictions is real.

5. Avoid anticipatory anxiety, Alex.  Like Nora, if you catastrophize, you can change this anxious thinking.

6. Level your language, Len. Hyperbole, such as "I will disgrace myself forever if I make a social misstep," is self-defeating.  Make a minor misstep. Show yourself that it’s not the end of the world.  

7. Beware of your definitions, Dana. Define a type of social event as a staging ground for looking like a fool, and you are likely to feel the way that you think.

8. Accept feeling awkward, Alda. Acceptance lessens fear.

9. Handle self-handicapping, Hal. This is where you give yourself an excuse for avoiding a social gathering by assuming you will socially fail. Instead, imagine yourself cordially communicating.

10. Defeat your needless inhibitions, Dan. Imagine that you are a decisive and effective General among other decisive and effective Generals. Let that image guide your actions.

11. Temper your timidity, Tracey. Mingle softly, rather than not at all.

12. Pen yourself in, Paula.  Instead of waiting for someone to rescue you, push yourself to participate.

13. Keep it light, Lea. You don't have to make all brilliant remarks.

14. Bring yourself into the fold, Fran. Make a small talk comment about something in the surrounding area (i.e., the weather).

15. Address your ambivalence, Alan. Conflicts, like should I or should I not say something, are a formula for letting a conversation float past you.

16. Think less doubtfully, Tom.  Abandon second-guessing about what you should say. When in doubt, speak up.

17. Don’t let your mind go blank, Jack.  You can always say, “Hello”.

18. Retreat from rejection, Rita. Fear of rejection is ordinarily a fictional fear.  If someone justifiably rejects an idea of yours, you can still accept the parts of your idea that remain valid.

19. Use bashfulness as a positive signal, Bob. Instead of looking aloof, look at others as potential friends.

20. Manage your modesty, Molly. Get into the habit of daily sharing a positive attribute that characterizes you. You may blush less.

21. Watch your wariness, Willy. Don’t take a backseat. Introduce yourself and see what happens.

22. Accept feeling shy, Sally. If you are naturally shy, you won’t eliminate a natural tendency. However, you can choose to manage your shyness.

23. You don't have to be bold, Bonnie. Communicate in a non-assertive, low-keyed, way.

24. Don’t expect immediate jubilance, Joy. When shy, you are likely to warm to a new social situation slowly.

25. Avoid blaming your amygdala, Brian.  Shyness and social anxieties correlate with a sensitive amygdala (fear region of the brain). Nevertheless, you can buffer yourself from needless stress.

26. Downplay listening to your heart, Dan. Attending to your heartbeat shifts your focus from what you can do to how tense you feel.  Participate. Your heart rate will take care of itself.

27. Mind your body language, Bill.  Habitually gaze downward and you’ll look insecure. Hold your head up. Glance around without staring. This signals confidence.

28. Nod your head “yes” Ned. This signals approval. Most will like this form of approval.

29. Try to smile, Sylvia.  Think of something pleasing and let that smile extend from the thought.

30. Don’t read too much into facial expressions, Eli. Assumptions about the causes and meanings of others' facial expressions are risky. 

31. Attend to the facts, Aldo.  Shift from self-absorbing thoughts to objectively observing what is going on. Then respond to this objective reality.

32. Evaluate your evaluations, Eva. Fear of being negatively evaluated and embarrassed, is a changeable cause of many social anxieties and fears.

33. Ditch your false expectations, Erica.  Don’t think you need to be the life of the party, if this is not your style.

34. Flip things around, Fiona.  Pretend that you’ll get $1 million to engage in 10% of the social conversations in a two-hour period.  I’ll bet you can do it.

35. Don’t think you must dominate discussions, Dawn. Show interest. Share a few thoughts.

36. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised, Pete. You may make serendipitous connections with people.

37. Don’t wait to say only perfect things, Tammy. Most conversations are filled with contestable opinions and mistaken impressions.

38. Avoid conditionals for socializing, Carol. Waiting to feel comfortable before venturing out, rarely works well. It’s a form of procrastinating.

39. Quell your self-consciousness, Catherina. You are probably more aware of your state of mind than anyone else is.

40. Separate shyness from context, Carl. If you act socially fearful in some situations but not others, what do you tell yourself that is different?

41. Challenge feeling inferior, Ian. Instead of concentrating on what you think you lack, play on the strengths of what you have.

42. Exercise your strongest social skills, Sandra.  List what they are. Use one each time you are part of a social gathering.

43. Ditch the shame, Dana. You’re not globally worthless for being you. You just think you are what you are not.

44. Derail irrational guilt, Gay.  It's silly to condemn yourself for errors that only you observe.

45. Speak up, Sarah. As you practice speaking up, it gets easier.

46. Don’t defect detect, Debbie. For every fault, find a positive attribute.

47. Don’t be coy, Cal.  Evasiveness is likely to bring negative attention.

48. Think ahead, Toni.  Plan to live through social tensions. Eventually you’ll have fewer to live through.

49. Resist withdrawing into a bottle of wine, Wayne. Alcohol-dulled senses is a staging ground for problems.

50. You can’t win them all, Wilma.  Nobody is a universal people pleaser.

For more guidance on how successfully to combat anxiety, click on:  The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety (Second Edition)

Click on Overcoming Shyness and Social Anxieties for more techniques for overcoming social anxieties.

© Dr. Bill Knaus

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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