By Erika Casriel, published on March 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
My friend, Joe Raffetto, in Borrego Springs, California, is always the first guest invited to a party. His generous laugh makes everyone around him feel like the wittiest, most fascinating person in the room. And he's so quick to make new friends, from ne'er-do-wells and rednecks to engineers and ad execs, that his network has produced three marriages and provides him with an endless supply of uproarious stories.
At a recent dinner, everyone cried with laughter as he acted out a story about how his roommate worked a shift as a short-order cook while tripping on peyote ("It was terrible! I had to serve cheeseburgers to giant praying mantises all day!"). Joe's such a virtuoso at commanding a group's attention that I always assumed he was a natural storyteller and never had to work at it.
So I was shocked that night to learn that there was a time when Joe was petrified of talking to strangers, filling his social interactions with "pointless yammering and awkward silences." He thought he'd never get over it.
In thinking my friend had always been a charming devil, I made a common mistake, says Bernardo Carducci, director of Indiana University Southeast's Shyness Research Institute. "We assume that confident people were born that way. That puts us at a disadvantage because then we say, 'I could never do that.' " We compare ourselves to the most popular person in the room—or on TV—rather than to people who are similar to us. When we see a celebrity like George Clooney on talk shows—suave and funny, flirting easily with the audience—we feel inadequate. But we forget that he's done this hundreds of times and has an army of handlers to groom and prep him. When we watch The Tonight Show and conclude that icons of charisma are born, not made, we are not only wrong—we sabotage our chances of achieving our social potential.
The reality is that most socially confident people deliberately learn specific skills, like displaying friendly body language, understanding the predictable format of conversations with new people, and focusing on the topic rather than on how one is being perceived. In Joe Raffetto's case, he learned to become outgoing by volunteering to give speeches about dolphins to schoolchildren.
Once we begin making realistic social comparisons, we realize that excellent social performance is not automatic—even for the most skilled. "Building confidence is like learning to swing a golf club. It boils down to knowing what the critical skills are and practicing them," says Carducci. "Even Tiger Woods still practices for hours every day."
Our bodies may be finely tuned machines, but the signals they send us are calibrated for the Stone Age. "In our hunter-gatherer past, we did not have societies in which one could simply jump from one group to another," says Jon Maner, a social psychology professor at Florida State University. "Rejection or ostracism could very well have spelled death." And so we evolved to be highly sensitive to signs of both social acceptance and disapproval. Situations that were outright dangerous then—like approaching a stranger—are often harmless now, but our bodies don't know that and rev into overdrive. As a result, the nervous system that's designed to prepare us for social encounters often overheats, short-circuiting our resolve and thwarting our best intentions.
The solution, though, is counterintuitive. The human mind is an exquisite maze: Sometimes if you want to go to the right, you have to start out walking left. Trying to tune out anxious thoughts may make us more self-conscious; fetishizing the confidence of a George Clooney or an Oprah Winfrey, ironically, makes us less likely to attain it. But by taking small risks, accumulating a pattern of successes, and taking credit when we do something right, anyone can become dramatically more confident in the most daunting social situations.
Social anxiety—the distress we feel over being evaluated by others—hits people at different times. Alan, a mechanic, has trouble breaking the ice at parties. "I just never had that ability to walk into a group and start talking," he says. "It always seems halted, and you get the feeling that people are drifting away."
Most shy people would be surprised to learn that 40 percent of all young people today describe themselves that way—and the rate continues to creep up by about 1 percent every year. Researchers attribute the rise in self-identified shyness to reduced face-to-face communication and an impatience with the typically slow pace of building social relationships.
Shyness can also be inherited: In a study by Jerome Kagan at Harvard University, about 20 percent of infants reacted to stimuli like new toys by squirming and whimpering. Many of these infants developed into children who were more fearful than others—if their parents didn't expose them gradually to new and disquieting situations, through which the fear response was extinguished. In other words, even for babies that may have been genetically predisposed to shyness, gentle learning overrides genetics.
New research shows that some who are shy have a variant gene involved in the flow of serotonin, making them especially reactive to stress—which may explain why, before a big event, some people respond to their increasing alertness with anxiety, while others stay cool. All this suggests that shyness may be a temperament that's unlikely to change. But even if shyness has a genetic component, and shy people never see their social anxiety slip to zero, there are proven strategies to help anyone interact successfully.
Social anxiety can range in severity from mild (dodging invitations) to severe (agoraphobia, which can imprison people in their homes). Just about everyone, however, gets nervous in high-stakes situations such as a job interview. "If you're alive, your nervous system is going to be going full throttle, or close to it, when you get up to present yourself," notes Ron Hoff in I Can See You Naked.
It turns out that even staying cool under performance pressure is a learnable skill. Six studies compared two groups of people during a hair-raising event such as an impromptu speech: One group said that their bodies were freaking out and another group said they felt calm. In five of the six studies, there was no physiological difference between the two groups. Everyone showed similarly increased levels of autonomic activation, such as sweating and speeding heart rate. "People who are very socially anxious tend to pay attention to their bodies and magnify that response, perceiving it subjectively to be much greater than it actually is," says James J. Gross, director of Stanford University's Psychophysiology Laboratory.
The extraordinary fact is that you can create a crisis of confidence by overreacting to your own normal heightened alertness. But if you can work yourself up simply by misinterpreting your body's signals, you can chill yourself out by reading them correctly. The irony of misreading your nervous system's cues is that far from harming you, your natural excitement can enhance your performance.
Increased activation is not a sign that you're failing, but that you want to do well and your body is ready to help. Professional violinist Airi Yoshioka, for instance, has clammy hands and makes multiple bathroom trips before every concert. She's come to respect her nervousness as a source of expressive power in her music.
Like artists and actors, athletes know that increasing their physiological arousal—getting "psyched up"—actually gives them an edge. "That's why we have cheerleaders and fans—we try to create this atmosphere to work these players up, so they'll perform at a much better level," says Carducci.
When our bodies rally before an event, our hearts beat more forcefully and our muscles tremble. But this intensity does not continue indefinitely, because the parasympathetic nervous system soon kicks in to restore normal functioning. If our physical responses feel excruciating, we can encourage the body's self-calming process with techniques such as shaking joints loose and conscious breathing. If the thudding of your heart still makes you want to bail out, focus on how your participation helps those around you.
Feeling allegiance to a larger cause can make your discomfort more tolerable—a principle demonstrated by Carolyn McCarthy. McCarthy was a quiet and reserved nurse until her husband was killed and her son wounded in a mass shooting on New York's Long Island Railroad in 1993. Her desire to galvanize the public to change gun laws led her all the way to a seat in the House of Representatives. When she makes a speech, her knees still shake, but, she says, "I know I have to do it, because I want to reach out to as many people as I can."
When socially confident people start to feel anxious or awkward, they focus on putting their conversational partners at ease.
According to Mark Leary, director of social psychology at Duke University, our way of thinking about self-esteem has been backward for decades. Instead of regarding low self-esteem as an anathema—and trying desperately to pump up self-esteem to stratospheric levels so that everyone feels super about themselves all the time—we should instead recognize that self-esteem provides a gauge of how we're doing in our social interactions. "Self-esteem rises and falls, acting as an internal barometer of how well you're faring, telling you to fix this problem here, and helping you understand that you don't have to worry about it there," says Leary.
That barometer can go haywire in people whose self-esteem was damaged early in life, say, by hypercritical parents, by bullying, or by abuse. Such people need to work at shedding their constant belief that they're failing, preferably with the help of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which has been shown to be effective in treating social anxiety disorders. Yet for most people, fluctuations in self-esteem provide information that's useful in navigating social relationships. For example, if you're talking and someone yawns, your self-esteem drops, signaling you to switch the topic. When you tell a joke and people laugh, your self-esteem rockets up. If we didn't feel bad when we bore or offend—or gratified when we delight—we'd never be motivated to change course.
Frank, a retired restaurant-chain owner whose son has been in charge for decades, takes pride in the success of the family enterprise. But when he notices people rolling their eyes at his boasting, he wins them back with a joke at his own expense. "My son told me he was planning on making me a sex consultant for the business," he says. "When I asked him what he meant, he said, 'When I want your f***ing opinion, I'll ask you!' "
Mastering social skills requires tuning in to your self-esteem. But instead of being self-conscious and fixating on your anxiety, work on creating positive interactions that make the people around you feel engaged and happy. Focusing less on yourself and more on others will yield big payoffs in expanded social opportunities.
"If you're shy, you tend to keep your speech to only the most important things and only say something when you have to," says Alan. To begin forming closer bonds with others, change one circumstance at a time, suggests Carducci. If you start volunteering, you've switched from home to a new setting. "Once you're there, all they expect of you is your time. You meet the same people again and again, so they get used to you and you get used to them." Eventually, you might ask someone to do something in a different context, like go out for coffee.
Erika Hilliard, author of Living Fully with Shyness and Social Anxiety, describes how a client took an incremental approach to forging stronger relationships at work. The woman tended to keep her face blank, so her first goal was to look up and make eye contact. A few days later, she added a greeting. "Even after she just had an open face, she could not believe the difference," says Hilliard. "People she had thought were stuck up were talking to her, and she was exhilarated."
Use your particular anxieties as a road map to the areas where you most desire change. Conan O'Brien has said he knew that performing live comedy was what he had to do because there was nothing in the world that terrified him more. But when he first debuted as host of NBC's Late Night in 1993, ratings were abysmal and reviews were even worse. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales wrote that O'Brien was "a living collage of annoying nervous habits" and implored him to "get the heck off TV." But he stuck it out, and years later, the critics ate their words. Shales himself wrote that O'Brien became "one of the greatest examples of a self-makeover in television history."
It's such a remarkable testament to the power of practice that the story gets repeated again and again—though O'Brien himself would just as soon forget those days. "No matter what I accomplish, they'll be bringing up those early tough times," O'Brien told NPR. "If a giant meteor was headed towards Earth, and I quickly constructed a rocket ship and flew out there and deflected the meteor, saving the Earth from certain destruction, the headline would be O'Brien saves earth, after rocky start."
Some are brave enough to try "implosion"—tackling a challenge so intimidating that once you've made it through, your original goal no longer fazes you. Legendary psychologist Albert Ellis pioneered the "shame-attacking exercise" in 1933 at age 19, when he decided to approach every woman who sat down alone on a bench at the New York Botanical Garden. "Thirty walked away immediately," he told the New York Times. "I talked with the other 100, for the first time in my life, no matter how anxious I was. Nobody vomited and ran away. Nobody called the cops."
And Ellis learned he wouldn't die from rejection. Of the first 130 women he went up to, he got only one date, he said, but "with the second 100, I got good and made a few dates"—and, eventually, got to be "one of the best picker-uppers of women in the United States."
Comedic superstar Will Ferrell, who once considered himself painfully shy, forced himself to do crazy things in public. "In college, I would push an overhead projector across campus with my pants just low enough to show my butt," Ferrell told People. "Then my friend would incite the crowd to be like, 'Look at that idiot!' That's how I got over being shy."
The difference between O'Brien and Ferrell and people who remain inhibited may simply be that, instead of assuming that they were stuck with their anxieties, these luminaries chose to believe that they weren't. Then they figured out how to challenge and transform themselves. The lesson? Even exquisite discomfort has a silver lining.