In some cases, strangers chat effortlessly at parties, at work, and in public, yet a large proportion of people would rather catch a rattlesnake barehanded than say “hello” and make eye contact. Online chat with strangers seems to be less intimidating given anonymity. This is not really abnormal since “normal” covers such a wide spectrum that most types of behavior don’t definitively fall either inside or outside the range, as long as no harm is caused.
Shyness is, however, something that can be very uncomfortable for those who face it. It is also limiting in many settings: shyer people, regardless of whether they are introverted or extroverted, tend to be less active socially. In a situation such as a job interview, a person who is confident around others automatically has a leg up over his more bashful counterparts.
What Shyness Is Not
There exists a common misconception that shyness and introversion are the same thing; this is a mental trap even introverted or socially timid people can fall into. There is a link in the sense that shy people prefer not to spend too much time around others and the effort this requires from them can drain their energy, but many introverts feel perfectly comfortable in social settings – they simply enjoy being by themselves. Some examples of such personalities are those of Abraham Lincoln, Steven Spielberg, and Warren Buffet, none of whom can be described as shy.
There is also a major difference between shyness and social anxiety. The latter is classified as a psychological illness, much like depression, and addiction. Social anxiety disorder, which bears the unfortunate acronym SAD, can be thought of as an extreme, uncontrollable form of shyness, characterized by high levels of emotional empathy and a crippling fear of rejection. There is no clear dividing line between shyness and SAD, except that a person is said to be socially anxious in the clinical sense when an aversion to contact with others begins to take a toll on how well they are able to function in society. Someone who might be suffering from SAD should seriously consider seeing a counselor, ask about treatment options, such as medication or talk therapy.
Finally, shyness is not persistent – it’s not a feeling that’s switched on constantly. About 90% of the population will admit to feeling shy at least some of the time, such as when first approaching a member of the opposite sex, addressing a large group or talking to an authority figure. This is not only normal but healthy as long as a person’s shyness doesn’t spin out of control. According to clinical psychologist Danielle Forshee, Psy.D, “those who worry — meaning everybody — can control the intensity and duration of their worry thoughts.” Shyness is a protective mechanism, preventing us from committing social blunders until we know more about a person or group.
Beating Down Shyness
Shyness is also not permanent. Most people feel at least a little shy when being introduced to a group for the first time, but this feeling quickly starts to fade as the situation becomes more familiar. Many individuals have conditioned themselves to cover up their shyness with bluster and arrogance, trying in some sense to establish social dominance, but this is only offensive to those around them. It can also backfire easily, making such a person seem insecure and leaving others unwilling to talk to him even when his initial nervousness has abated.
A number of better exercises and techniques are available to combat shyness without trying to fake it, of which the following have all proven effective for most people.
1 – Don’t Overthink Things
“We may not want to, but we can always handle our emotions. Anxiety lives in the future, and is constructed with ‘what-if’s and possibilities, whereas confidence lives in the past, constructed by our realities.” Alicia H. Clark, PsyD said.
A habit that is often associated with both shyness and social anxiety is to start dreading an encounter long before it actually happens. Like what Kristine Tye, MA, LMFT says, “Anxiety is an adaptation of that vital and fundamental fear response. Sometimes anxiety will tell you that the worst is true” Everybody will be thinking about a job interview, first date or a difficult meeting a day or three before, but foreseeing the worst typically means that expectation will become reality.
Instead of entering the room already dreading the conversation, it is very useful to imagine it going well instead. This visualization technique may seem pointless if not mystical, but some of the most successful salespeople in the world swear by it. If you feel it might be helpful, think of yourself as an actor playing the role of some confident person you respect.
2 – Do Something Terrifying
While this exercise may seem absurdly drastic, it has helped numerous people to overcome their shyness almost completely. Once a person realizes he can make an utter fool of himself without anything really bad happening, their fear of undeserved social condemnation simply evaporates.
Influential psychologist Albert Ellis, at the age of 19, decided to tackle his shyness around talking to women by forcing himself to 100 women (separately) in a park. In his words: “Nobody vomited and ran away. Nobody called the cops.” Robert Kiyosaki, author of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” wanted to start his own business but knew he was far too shy to be a good salesman. The best way to overcome this personal lack, he decided, was to start work as a salesman. He describes this process as terrifying but eventually became one of Xerox’s top salespeople.
If something like the above seems too much right at the moment, try wearing two obviously mismatched socks one day, or making a point of asking the time of a dozen people in a busy shopping district.
3 – Watch Your Body Language
How does a confident person behave? Spine comfortably straight, shoulders relaxed and level, deep, even breathing, and a gaze that’s around eye level but not fixed.
Being conscious of how we appear to others is something everyone can practice at home, perhaps by emulating a movie actor in front of a mirror. By doing this in a social context, as well as paying attention to grooming and how we dress, we cause other people to treat us just slightly differently, which already helps conversations go much smoother. What’s less commonly understood is that our posture and breathing are not just a reflection of our internal feelings, but can actually make us feel either more anxious or more confident. Simply remembering to breathe slowly into the belly can have a noticeable effect.
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Overcoming shyness is a little like learning to ride a bike: apparently impossible at first and usually involving a few painful dismounts. However, with practice and commitment to an end goal, it soon becomes possible to wobble along a reasonably straight line, and eventually becomes natural. While most of us will never be able to compete in the Tour de France, nearly everyone can reduce their shyness to a level that is not only manageable but unnoticeable.