Most people experience feel shy at one point or another, but for some, shyness can be so debilitating 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 fear being rejected or criticized, so they avoid even social events 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 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 in which people approach a social situation, feel the excessive fear of negative evaluation, and then avoid the situation which initially provides relief; however, this often leads to feelings of shame and self-blame. In order to cope with these feelings, our negative emotions can turn into anger and blame toward others, and so others can be viewed as inconsiderate or unsupportive, which further reinforces the desire to avoid them. Given that social skills, like any other set of skills, are something one can develop over time, the avoidance of social settings can lead to becoming socially “out of shape.”1
Here are a four ways to increase your own social fitness:
1. 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 will evaluate you in a negative way, so a good deal of thought in social settings is spent on how to not do something wrong, instead of on how to do something right.
One way to reduce anxiety is to spend more time thinking about what you could do to make the 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's going on in my life that I feel comfortable sharing? What do I have in common with the other people who will be there?
You can 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.
2. Be curious about others.
The very first principle in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is to become genuinely interested in others. Carnegie based this point on the work of psychologist Alfred Adler, who wrote, “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow men who has the greatest difficulties in life.”
In a social setting, try taking your focus off yourself. Instead, focus on being curious about others. Who are they and why are they there? What are their interests and hobbies? This gives you something different to focus on and helps you to 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.
3. Give yourself a role.
Many of the socially shy people I’ve worked with are highly successful professionals, including doctors, lawyers, professors, and business owners. They often comment on how confident they feel at work, but how they lose their self-confidence in situations where their role isn’t defined by their job. 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. 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: It is my job to help people feel interesting or liked, or, It is my job to make people feel welcome.
4. Soften your inner dialogue.
Shy people are often highly critical of themselves and their inner dialogue can be very harsh and include things they would never say to other people. When you judge yourself harshly, you are more likely to assume that others will judge you in the same way. Your inner critic can cause a lot of emotional damage, robbing you of peace of mind and self-esteem.
The best way to defeat the critic is to have an even stronger ally on your side—an inner voice that acts as your own best friend. Start noticing the good things about yourself and learn to "talk back" to your inner critic. When the critic starts to blame you for being fearful, remember that there is not a single person who enjoys rejection, yet somehow we all manage to survive it. When your inner critic starts to tell you that no one will ever like you, remind yourself that you 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 more on how to silence your inner critic, click here.)
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 effective treatments for social anxiety that include group and individual therapies, and in some cases medication. If you feel like you might benefit from these, consult a mental-health professional.
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.