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“Don’t be anti-social.”
“Just come say hi.”
"It will be good for you.” Or worse, “Why are you so shy?”
If you were a shy kid, these phrases might sound familiar. They’re the words of well-intentioned adults trying to pull you out of your comfort zone. Of course, as anyone who is even remotely shy can attest, having someone draw attention to your reserve makes it so much worse.
It probably made you uncomfortable and forced you into unpleasant situations. Rather than feel rescued, you might have felt resentful.
There’s the assumption that quiet people are held back by fear. That they just need someone to draw them out. The assumption is that the shy secretly long to join the party — sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.
Shy children often grow into shy adults. And in a world that seems to favor extroverts and loud voices, this might seem like a bad thing. But it’s not! It just requires a little extra work for your unique qualities to shine through.
Being quieter or reserved isn’t an affliction, even when it feels out of step with what you see at work or in the media.
Knowing how to overcome your shyness, or whether to, isn’t always intuitive.
Don’t let the world miss out on what you have to offer. Here are some tips to learn how to overcome shyness to connect with others at work, at parties, and everywhere in between. And while you might not care to become a social butterfly, it never hurts to let a few more people in on all the ways you’re amazing and ordinary and human.
What is shyness?
Shyness is best understood as an emotion that affects people’s behaviors.
In your normal day-to-day, your shyness might just come out as being quiet and preferring a small social circle. In moments of social stress, your shyness might cause you to become too internally focused.
At these moments, your inner voice and self-criticism can get in the way of connecting with other people.
A person can be shy for many reasons.
Sometimes the setting or the particular group of people brings on shyness. Often this is because a person doesn’t feel a sense of belonging or acceptance from the group. In this case, a person who is aware of not belonging and being other — by gender, social class, race, or language, for example — becomes over-focused on the ways they don’t fit in. They may feel:
Everyone has situations where they feel less than bold, but if you’re feeling timid and insecure, it might be less about the situation or group and more about how you feel about yourself.
It’s worth spending some time exploring whether your shyness is coming from feelings of low self-worth or just from being a fish out of water.
Ask yourself: Do you feel like you have a right to speak and that your ideas are valid? Do you feel like you can speak up and be heard when you want to? Does the idea of meeting others feel just uncomfortable or scary and overwhelming?
When attending a social event or speaking up for themselves, shy people may exhibit physical responses, too. Unfortunately, if a person becomes too aware of their physical responses, it can become a reinforcing spiral of self-consciousness.
Recognize that these responses are often automatic and, unbeknownst to you, common to many people. Common physical responses include:
- Feeling speechless
- Sweaty hands
- Feeling shaky
- Inability to take a breath
- Avoiding eye contact
People often feel shyer when they encounter unexpected situations. For example, a house party full of strangers is a big deal if you only know a few people there. Small talk may feel excruciating.
For many people, it is the specific action of entering a crowded room or walking up to a group of people in conversation that feels overwhelming.
As a shy person, you might feel overly sensitive to not knowing what to say or how others will react to you. You might be acutely self-conscious about a specific aspect of your appearance or personality. Or, you might be self-conscious about everything.
The result is that you stick to familiar people or avoid socializing at all costs. The good news is that there are ways to overcome shyness as an adult, no matter how overwhelming it feels.
Causes of shyness
There are many reasons a person may be shy in social settings. It usually boils down to a mix of nature versus nurture.
Nature refers to the natural elements that affect people’s behavior. About 20% of people have genetic factors that predispose them to shyness. But that doesn’t mean their fate is decided — nurture also factors in.
Nurture refers to the environmental factors that affect a person’s development. Shyness may have developed as a coping mechanism for stressful situations in youth. Sometimes an overbearing parent or siblings who did all the talking can reinforce a tendency toward shyness.
But no matter the reason, the effects are the same: shy people feel exposed and vulnerable when interacting with others — especially if it's their first time meeting a group of people.
The benefits of shyness
Some shy people might envy outgoing people. How do they make it look so easy? You might even see your shyness as a defect or flaw, especially if your profession is dominated by extroverts. But being shy isn't all bad, so take a deep breath and show yourself some compassion.
Here are some great qualities that are more common in shy people:
- Great listeners. Shy people often do more listening than talking. This means you can ask great questions and help friends talk through problems while offering genuine, thoughtful responses. The world is full of people who need someone to listen — don’t discount how special this skill is.
- In tune with other people’s emotions. Shy people spend more time observing others. They often feel vulnerable, making them more empathetic. Combined with their listening skills, this allows them to understand other people’s points of view.
- Think before they act. A little caution goes a long way. This kind of reasonable thinking can keep them out of hairy situations.
- Modesty and humility. For all of their talents, they rarely beat their chest. Humbleness is a virtue that many people value.
- Approachable. Loud people can be intimidating. People who are quiet are often easier to talk to — which opens them up to new friends.
- Calming presence. Sometimes, a quiet, steady hand is exactly what people need. When the world feels chaotic, shy people have a way of staying grounded.
- Resilience. Shy people have spent a lot of time overcoming perceptions and obstacles in a world built for extroverts. That takes drive and resilience — useful skills in life.
- A deeper experience of emotions. Shy people may internalize emotions more easily. On the surface, this might not always seem like a good thing. But it gives them a different experience and perspective on the world.
These qualities might not make you the life of the party, but they are the qualities of a good friend. Or a great co-worker. People tend to like you for who you are when you accept yourself, so own it.
The cons of shyness
Just remember that shyness can hold you back in some ways. Be aware of when it seems to be becoming an obstacle, and don’t let it get the best of you. Here are some things to watch out for:
- Social isolation. If left unmanaged, shyness can isolate you from others and lead to chronic loneliness, which can have serious health effects.
- Being left out. People may stop inviting you out if you say no too many times. You might miss out on some fun activities with coworkers, loved ones, or new connections.
- Missed opportunities. If you’re too afraid to risk discomfort or making mistakes, you will miss your chance for new experiences and relationships, professional and personal.
BetterUp can help you understand what’s driving your shyness and come up with strategies to navigate social situations. With greater self-compassion and self-confidence, you can stand a little taller and silence your inner critic.
Shyness versus social phobia
The critical thing to remember is that shyness isn’t a mental health disorder or a permanent personality trait. But extreme shyness could be a symptom of social phobia (a type of social anxiety disorder).
Consider seeking help from a therapist if shyness is interfering with your ability to do normal daily activities or you display these additional symptoms:
Fear of embarrassment or humiliation
Fear of situations where others may judge you
Fear of talking to strangers
Worry that others know you’re anxious
Worry that you’re blushing, sweating or trembling — thus giving away your anxiety
Constantly identifying flaws in your social interactions long after they’re over
How to overcome shyness
If you know that you’re great but you still wish you were a bit more social, there are always ways to overcome shyness when meeting new people, at work, or as an adult.
- Start small with small interactions, like chatting with the barista
- Get really curious about others — take the focus off of yourself
- Remind yourself that no one will remember things that stick out to you
- View uncomfortable situations and mistakes you’ve made as learning opportunities
- Take a course about public speaking or watch TED talks to learn speaking patterns
Focus on improving low self-esteem or confidence
- Work with a coach on personal growth and wellness skills
Lean into what makes you great
So, it’s settled: shyness isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s part of what makes you human and flawed and fantastic. Let’s go over how you can organize your life to take advantage of these qualities.
1. Keep a journal
Reflect on what makes you happy and what makes you sad. It’s okay to have preferences. Once you know what makes you tick, you can seek out experiences that align with who you are.
2. Focus on fewer but deeper connections
It’s important to see people, to reduce the risk of social isolation. But that doesn’t mean you have to attend big parties. Instead, focus on your close friends and organize small hangouts. A few close friends are worth their weight in gold.
3. Look for solitary work
Many career options aren’t client-facing for less social people, from copywriting to carpentry. You can also look for remote jobs to avoid commuting or sitting in an office.
Believe it or not, shy people can thrive as entrepreneurs. Depending on your industry, you can form deep relationships with a small number of clients. And, if you hire employees, you can make your team as large or as small as you want.
5. Find an overly social job
This might sound counter-intuitive, but public-facing jobs like social work or customer service can take advantage of your empathic abilities and force you to practice your social skills and make small talk. Helping people can boost your self-esteem and self-confidence.
6. Volunteer for a role at larger events
This also might sound counter-intuitive, but having a specific job to do and a reason to be at the event can ease shyness. When you’re shy, you feel conspicuous and don’t know what to do with your hands or how to initiate conversation.
Volunteering to man the registration table, pass out materials, or even work the whiteboard can all be easy ways to be in the heart of the action without those awkward introductions.
The bottom line
It's okay to feel shy. Overcoming shyness isn’t always easy. But remember, introverts have many qualities that make them fantastic friends, colleagues, and family members.
There will always be situations where you have to come out of your comfort zone, like public speaking or asking for help. But remember, you don’t have to change who you are.
A BetterUp coach could be what you need to tackle milder forms of shyness. They can help you develop social skills and improve your social confidence to feel comfortable in any situation and be your best self.