Feeling shy around others is uncomfortable and inhibiting. And overcoming it isn’t always easy.
Often shyness will prevent you from putting yourself out there, saying yes to new opportunities, or meeting new people. If you’re shy, you know how bad it feels to know you missed out on something because you didn’t speak up.
But instead of feeling guilty for feeling shy, take a gentler and more productive approach. Don’t forget that feeling shy is normal in certain situations; it’s a natural instinct. But it doesn’t have to take over your life. There are lots of things you can do to overcome shyness in situations where you want to be a less shy version of yourself.
With some practice and mindful awareness, the tips below on how to overcome shyness can be used right away. And you don’t have to compromise who you are in the process.
The shyness spiral
Shyness is “being reserved or having or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people.”
Shyness often actually comes from a desire to connect with others, though not knowing how, and/or fear of rejection or criticism in the process. Avoiding situations that cause you to feel shy is a common technique for coping (like choosing not to attend a social event) generally only provides brief relief before morphing into guilt or shame for feeling shy in the first place. Often it is followed by regret for not trying harder or doing better to overcome the feeling to attend that social event.
This self-criticism leads to more shyness, which compounds on itself overtime. So knowing how to overcome shyness is critical for getting out of this spiral. Here’s how to do it.
Tip #1: finding your comfort in the uncomfortable
When you hear that your team is going out for drinks after work, do you instantly start brainstorming excuses so you don’t have to attend and feel awkward? Do you feel guilty because you know you should go and mingle, but you just can’t get past the stress this situation makes you feel?
First, recognize your anxiety or nervousness about attending, realizing that it’s there and you’re feeling it right now. Try writing it down if that helps, for example “Today I started to feel shy about attending the conference, wishing I didn’t have to go, but wanting to meet new people in my field because I’m curious about recent developments and where I fit in.”
By facing your shyness head-on, you are forced to see what it really is. And by knowing what is really making you feel shy, you can then work to combat it.
What can counteract your shyness? What tools or tricks do you have available to you?
Some ideas might be to:
- Prepare notes or talking points related to the event in advance, taking comfort in the fact that you know you will have something to say and contribute. If you never know what to say to people, being prepared can help calm your nerves by taking the pressure off impromptu conversation.
- Lay out an outfit that makes you feel confident and strong, to look on the outside how you want to feel on the inside.
- Remind yourself that you’re not alone and others often feel the same way (it’s not just you), turning it into a mantra or brief phrase you can bring your thoughts back to when you feel timid. Even socially adept people can be feeling awkward or nervous inside, though it might not look like it from the outside.
- Imagine yourself and the social interaction going well, maybe recalling past experiences where that was the case and you did just fine in the end. Visualize the event going just fine. (Note: don’t aim for perfection. You want to take the pressure off yourself. It is perfectly fine for the event to be just fine or just good!)
- Coordinate attending with someone you trust, but try not to rely on having them near the entire time, branching off when you can and letting them know in advance what you’re thinking and going through.
- Reach out to a trusted friend (someone who can’t necessarily go to the event), talking to them before the event about how you’re feeling and then after the event to debrief.
“How to overcome shyness” takeaway 1: Brainstorm ideas specific to you that you either know or think will bring you comfort and help you overcome your shyness and the feelings you experience before and during the event.
Tip #2: recognizing it won’t go perfectly every time
Every social interaction will be different and it may not go perfectly or as you imagined every time. Don’t let these situations set you back or make you feel timid.
Being hard on yourself (which is a way of focusing just on yourself) isn’t really an accurate representation of an interaction. The other person is never thinking about you as much as you think they are. They are thinking about themselves, their day, their home life… and so one conversation you had with them really is not that important.
If the conversation went badly, it could just as easily have been because they were not having a good day or didn’t have much to say about the topic. Don’t overblow your importance to this person. Try to let it go and not focus too much on what you did wrong.
You may feel more shy one time compared to another, for whatever reason. Realize that people may interpret signs of your discomfort or nervousness in other non-negative ways or not at all, not even realizing you’re nervous and instead being caught up in their own thoughts and feelings. You may be nervous, and nervous about showing your nervousness, yet others might be oblivious.
“How to overcome shyness” takeaway 2: If the social interaction didn’t go as well as you thought it could, spend a few minutes being as objective as possible. If you said or did something that you’re not happy about, don’t beat yourself up over it. Instead, think about ways you can avoid doing that in the future. And remind yourself it probably really did not matter to the other person.
Tip #3: every social interaction is a step in the right direction
Even if it’s baby steps, you’re practicing something that is challenging for you, but doable.
Each time you put yourself out there, you’re challenging yourself and getting a little stronger. It’s like exercise. Though you probably won’t feel less shy as a whole after one social interaction, it’s all part of building your repertoire of skills and practicing overcoming your shyness.
With each interaction, your confidence will get a little stronger. Though we tend to focus on negative events more, don’t let an uncomfortable or choppy interaction get you down or deter you. Build on interactions, looking for the positive, silver lining in each.
“How to overcome shyness” takeaway 3: What are you most proud of yourself for doing or feeling? Though it’s easy to focus on the negative, spend time thinking about (or even writing down) what went well in a social interaction after the fact.
Tip #4: shift your focus from yourself to others
Though it may feel like the spotlight is on you and everyone can see through you to what you’re thinking and feeling, a social interaction involves more than just one person and only you know how you feel.
This tip is not to suggest that you should become a master at covering up your shyness, but rather, to practice shifting your focus from 100% on yourself to others and those who you’re interacting with.
For example, instead of focusing on what you’re going to say now, say next, or say later, listen to who you’re talking to.
Take more of an interest in learning about them and what they’re saying, a strategy suggested by Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., Director of Emory University’s Adult Outpatient Psychotherapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science in the School of Medicine. If you focus on this approach and the other person instead of yourself, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to relax and get the other person talking.
Finding another person interesting and showing your interest makes them feel good too, helping the interaction to go positively.
Another similar strategy to try from Dr. Vilhauer is to give yourself a role at this social gathering. For example, make it your job to make other people feel interesting or welcomed. This helps you shift your focus even more easily from yourself to others. You don’t have to worry about sounding smart or funny, because you have a different job to d. As a bonus, by making other people feel how you want to feel (liked and accepted), Dr. Vilhauer’s research suggests it’s likely that you’ll feel that way too.
“How to overcome shyness” takeaway 4: Focus on other people first and support this effort by assigning yourself a job, giving you something to think about and feel responsible for other than your shyness. This diversion will actually help you appear more confident and comfortable.
Turn it into a 30 day challenge
A 30 day challenge on how to overcome shyness might look like this:
- For the next 30 days I want to…say yes to social events and interactions I would otherwise decline because of shyness.
- I want to make this happen because…feeling shy is negatively impacting my career development and I feel like I’m falling behind by not attending social, professional development events.
- My plan of action is…brainstorm 5 things that can bring me comfort before and during the social events I attend, and give myself a job for each one. Afterwards, I will debrief with myself, finding the positive things that I’m proud of myself for doing, feeling, or accomplishing.
If you’re a shy person, that’s okay! You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not.
But if you’re not happy with how things are going and see shyness as a hurdle you haven’t overcome yet, you can improve how you feel with practice. Try these tips the next time you face a shy-inducing situation and you just might find your inner extrovert coming out more and more.