First thing first: there is a difference between introversion and shyness. Think of it this way: being an introvert is like being given a token for every hour you spend alone. Accrue enough tokens, and you can spend them buying quality time with friends (yay!). After you’ve spent your tokens, you become tired, and need to spend some more time by yourself to accrue more tokens to spend. This doesn’t mean that introverts dislike people or have no friends. Healthy, adjusted introverts are happy to spend their tokens on spending time quality time with loved ones, or making new connections in the workplace, or performing on stage, or going to an event. Introverts are human, and like social interaction. They just don't get energized from it, and have a tendency to be more reserved, quiet, and understated in social situations.
Shyness is different from introversion, though introverts are more likely to be shy than extroverts. The American Psychological Association describes it as: “the tendency to feel awkward, worried or tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people.”
Shyness is a sort of paralysis that strikes you at the point in the exchange where you spend tokens. You worry about how you will be perceived. You worry you’ll make a fool of yourself. You worry people will dislike you. You worry and worry and worry, and so you don’t spend any of those tokens you’ve been saving up because there’s a part of you that suspects this will be a poor transaction. Mentally, you begin to misjudge the cost of being social and overestimate the value of certain interactions. In fact, you might even stop estimating social interaction as cost at all, but instead start analyzing it as a loss mitigation strategy, to see how few tokens you can expend (I’m stretching this metaphor). The idea that you lose something by engaging in social interaction is a particularly painful and upsetting way of visualizing your social landscape, and it can breed a resentful attitude towards those more socially capable than you, as a matter of self-preservation.
Shyness, unchecked, becomes a self-perpetuating mental circle. You are bad at talking to people, so you don’t talk to people, so you don’t get practise in talking to people, so you continue to be bad at talking to people.
But there is good news! Social skills are just that – a skill. Everybody learns them at different rates, and that’s completely normal and healthy. Not everyone can be naturally outgoing.
I’ve compiled a list of my top tips for learning to get over shyness and become a better socialiser. These tips are based on my own experiences and practices, and I have found them extremely helpful in coping with my own experiences of shyness and anxiety. I can’t guarantee they will work for every person, because every person experiences shyness differently. So, when feeling shy and socially anxious, you should:
- Practice. Like any skill, you get better at socialization when you work at it. This doesn’t have to be big. Maybe you can try having a conversation with a co-worker you haven’t talked to before about something you’re both working on. Maybe you can join a new club, organisation, or charity. Maybe you can make a comment to a store clerk about the weather. Maybe you can smile and make eye contact with a bus driver. Every time you make an effort, you improve.
- Remember that people’s opinions of you are not as important as you think they are. When I was in the depths of my shyness, I agonized over what people thought of me, and always imagined worst-case scenarios. But honestly? 90% of people you will speak to in your day will not remember you five minutes later, and those who do probably won’t have much of an opinion one way or another. We see hundreds of people every day – why would they remember one random person? And if they did – who cares? Why should you care what Billy Twoshoes thinks about you? You’re a fabulous unicorn.
- Be unafraid to ask for backup. It’s totally okay to lean on a friend or close acquaintance for support during group social interactions. If it is acceptable to the situation and you aren’t confident to manage on your own, try and bring a friend to events for moral support. Sometimes just having someone you know beside you can give you a big confidence boost. If nothing else, you’ll at least have someone at the event you can talk to.
- Set yourself achievable goals – and congratulate yourself for surpassing them. Let’s say you go to a function where you don’t really know many people. Figure out a goal for the event that is achievable. Maybe you promise yourself to spend thirty minutes there, or you decide you need to talk to five people you don’t know, or you need to collect fifteen individual business cards. Make sure this is a goal you feel capable of achieving, but don’t make it so easy it’s not a challenge. You might find that halfway through completing your goal you’ve started to enjoy yourself. Meet your goal, and you can congratulate yourself for achieving your purpose. If you surpass your goal, then you can congratulate yourself again for going above and beyond what you thought you were capable of.
- Challenge yourself. As a continuation from the point above, make sure you always push yourself to be better. Don’t coast, but actively strive to advance your skills. Improvements might be incremental, and you might not always achieve the objectives you set yourself, but make sure the movement is always forward.
- Acknowledge that some days will be better than others. Some days you’ll leap out of bed feeling like you could deliver the Gettysburg Address while juggling polecats. Other days, you’ll probably feel like you have all the charisma of a bowl of algae. That’s fine. That’s normal. Give yourself permission to fail, then get back up and try again.
- Prepare yourself mentally. Some social interaction jumps up on you without prior warning and gives you no time to prepare. But sometimes you get a chance to prepare for it. Some people find that dressing a certain way gives them confidence, so maybe you’ll find that a pair of killer heels and some bright lipstick gives you the boost you need. If you get anxious, find something that helps you mitigate your anxiety or take your mind off things. Breathing exercises work for some people. For others, reading a book or article might soothe their nerves. Learn to watch your own mind, and find the things that work best for you.
- Celebrate your weird. Many of the most interesting, most sociable, and most awesome people you’ll meet are those who have truly appreciated that they will never be conventional and have owned that oddness. Teach yourself to ignore your fear of socialization, and you’ll learn to bypass your fear entirely. Accept that you might do something wrong, or say something stupid, but embrace that this is okay, that you’ll learn from it and do better next time. You’re kooky. You’re eccentric. You’ll get better and better and better.
These tips are not a suitable substitute for psychological treatment if you suffer from extreme social anxiety disorder. If you suspect you may suffer from this disorder, I strongly recommend you obtain psychological assistance if it is within your means. You can find out more about social anxiety disorder here.
If you want more tips on how to deal with shyness, look here. If you want more tips on dealing with social situations, or learning about how to overcome social awkwardness, look here.