Start with Self-Awareness: Which Shy Type Are You?

Because each person experiences his or her shyness in a unique way, the place to start when trying to overcome shyness is to gain some understanding of your own shyness. Begin by looking at what situations seem to make you feel shy, and why. For example, do you become shy when meeting new people, interacting at a social gathering, or speaking to someone to whom you find yourself attracted? Try to understand if your shyness manifests itself cognitively (e.g., excessive self-consciousness or self-deprecating statements), affectively (e.g., overriding feelings of anxiety), or behaviorally (e.g., failure to speak to others at social gatherings).

You might also try to understand how these three different aspects of shyness might interact with each other in your experience of shyness. For example, consider the following situation where the affective and cognitive components of shyness interact to produce avoidant behavior: You are at a party and assume others are evaluating you. As a result, you begin to experience feelings of intense anxiety, which makes it difficult for you to think of anything to say to others. Such lack of involvement in the ongoing conversation makes you perceive yourself as socially incompetent and not very interesting. As a consequence, you leave the party. Since leaving the party reduces the feelings of anxiety, such avoidance is negatively reinforced and becomes more likely to occur in the future. Thus, you can begin to overcome your shyness by examining the nature of your shyness.

Overcome the Affective Component of Shyness: Eliminate Excessive Emotions

If your shyness manifests itself primarily through affective reactions, such as excessive levels of anxiety, a racing heart, and butterflies in the stomach, then such symptoms need to be brought under control. There are a variety of simple relaxation techniques you can use to reduce your level of psychophysiological arousal. Simple breathing exercises involve inhaling and exhaling deeply and slowly and focusing your attention on the nature of your breathing. Taking the attention away from the physiological symptoms of your shyness and focusing your attention on the nature of your breathing willhelp you relax. Another relaxation technique involves tightening and loosening your muscles, such as squeezing your hands into a tight fist and then letting go, to reduce some of the tension you are experiencing.

As a word of caution, do not resort to alcohol or other drugs as a means of reducing your level of arousal. The principal reason is that after the short-term effects of the alcohol or drugs have worn off, the level of anxiety is going to return. You'll be right back where you started, but now you'll also have a hangover.

Overcome the Behavioral Deficits of Shyness: Practice What to Say and Do

A common problem with shy people is that they fail to respond appropriately in social situations. If your problem of shyness is manifested as behavioral deficits, there are a variety of strategies you can develop to help you learn to respond more appropriately and effectively. Here are four recommendations:

  1. Start with very, very small talk and simple actions: Getting your feet wet.

    Shy people often report that they have trouble talking with people they have just met, particularly those people to whom they might feel attracted. A strategy for helping shy people to overcome this inhibition is to start with relatively non-threatening situations and very small talk. Non-threatening situations might include malls, museums, political rallies, or sporting events where you will have the opportunity to interact with a lot of people for a relatively brief period of time. In such interactions, you can start by smiling and saying something simple like "hello" to as many people as you care to make eye contact with and who will smile at you. Asking for simple directions, giving an unexpected compliment, or offering assistance (e.g., offer to hold a door) are three very simple ways to practice talking with people. Thus, the point here is to get used to talking with others.

  2. Develop conversation skills: How to keep talking.

    Shy people who have mastered the art of small talk can take the next step by developing their conversational skills (cf. Carducci, 1999). The trick to successful conversation is to have something to say. There are a number of very simple strategies that shy people can employ to make sure they have something to say. You can start by reading the newspaper or magazines and/or listening to information-based radio programs to such information sources is that they also give you the type of in-depth, "behind-the-headlines" analysis that is the basic substance of much social conversation. Shy people can also do their part to help keep the conversation going by asking open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer (e.g., What do you think of . . . ?).

  3. Rehearse what you are going to say: Practice makes perfect.

    Shy people who want to increase their confidence in the art of making conversation can prepare a "script" ahead of time, based on events that are most likely to be the topic of conversation at the social gathering, and rehearse it in the privacy of their own home in front of the mirror. For example, a shy individual going to a political rally might practice expressing his or her views on the political issues that are most likely to be brought up by others attending the rally.

  4. Perform social graces: Give (kindness) and you shall receive (kindness).

    Performing social graces is a safe way to facilitate social interactions. The performance of social graces might include giving a compliment or offering to get someone some refreshments as you are getting some for yourself. Shy people can maximize their likelihood for successful social interactions by looking for others who might appear shy, such as an individual who is standing or sitting alone and would welcome the opportunity to interact with someone.

Planning and rehearsing for social interactions with others might sound a bit trite and artificial. But because shy people manifest their shyness in the form of behavior deficits when interacting with others, what they need is to acquire new social and conversational skills. And the best way to acquire and develop such skills is still to define what the skills are and to practice them beforehand in a comfortable environment.

Overcome the Cognitive Deficits of Shyness: Getting Your Mind Right

For those shy people whose shyness is expressed primarily through negative thoughts about themselves, the key to overcoming their shyness is to change the way they think about themselves. Such change is more difficult than it sounds, because it is not easy to change the thoughts an individual may have had about himself or herself since early childhood. Here are six strategies for reducing the cognitive component of shyness:

  1. Reduce your sense of self-consciousness: The whole world is not looking at you.

    Since self-consciousness is a principal cognitive component for many shy people, it is very helpful for such shy people to realize that most people are far more interested in how they look or what they are doing than what anyone else is doing or saying. As an example, realize that if you are dancing on the dance floor, others who are dancing are more interested in how they are doing than how you are doing. And those people who are in their seats around the dance floor are probably wishing they had the courage to be out on the dance floor, and are not just thinking about how well you are dancing. Thus, for shy people, realizing that other people care more about themselves than about you will make interacting in social situations much more tolerable.

  2. Focus on your social successes: Stop whipping yourself.

    Shy people tend to be overly self-critical of their performance in social situations. In their view, they are never outgoing enough or witty enough to be satisfied with themselves. To help overcome their shyness, shy people can begin to minimize the anxiety such expectations create by focusing on their strengths, and not only on what they perceive as their weaknesses. For example, rather than being upset with herself for not using the jokes she practiced at home, this shy person should focus on the fact that at the party, she did give a few compliments, carried on a conversation with several new people, and was approached by others while at the party. Thus, focusing on the reactions of others to what she did or said, rather than on the negative statements about herself, will shift her focus of attention to others and make her feel less self-conscious.

  3. Avoid overgeneralizations: It may not be your fault.

    A mistake many shy people make is to overgeneralize their social misfortunes in one context to another and often to unrelated, social contexts. Such a tendency magnifies the negativity of the experience and degree to which the shy individual feels personally responsible. For example, after one individual excuses himself while talking to Judy, a shy individual, Judy now assumes that no one else at the party will want to talk to her and decides to leave. Leaving the party early only guarantees that no one else will be able to talk to Judy. Another error in this situation is in Judy's assumption that the other person excused himself because he found her boring. But the other individual could have excused himself because he had someone else to meet. Thus, the point is to avoid overgeneralizing social misfortunes and your responsibility for them.

  4. Avoid perfectionism: Nobody's perfect.

    Part of the exaggerated sense of self-criticism experienced by shy people is based on the excessive expectations they set for themselves. Their jokes have to be absolutely funny and their remarks insightful and witty. In short, shy people tend to set standards that are rather impossible to maintain. A simple strategy for overcoming the cognitive component of shyness is for shy people to set more realistic standards for themselves. It's not necessary to be the life of the party in order to categorize your performance as a social success. In some cases, simply talking to four new people at a party might be the mark of a successful performance. Thus, shy people reduce the misery they create for themselves by being less perfectionistic and more realistic.

  5. Learn to take rejection: No one is liked by everyone.

    Rejection is one of the risks that accompanies engaging in social interactions. A key to overcoming shyness is not to take rejection personally. There may be a variety of reasons that someone is rejected by someone else, none of which may have anything at all to do with the person being rejected. For example, one person may not like what the shy person is wearing, and another person may be bored with the entire social situation, not just with her conversation with the shy individual. The point is that sometimes you can control the reactions of others (e.g., by wearing stylish clothes) and at other times you cannot. What's important is that shy people make a realistic attempt to socialize with others. If it doesn't work out and rejection results, simply select someone else and start all over again.

  6. Find your comfort zone: Do what fits you.

    Not all social situations are for everyone. For example, some shy people might be uneasy in a bar or nightclub where physical attractiveness and stylish dress are critical predictors of social success. In other situations, extensive knowledge of politics, art, or murder mysteries might be the key to success. Shy people should seek out those situations that are most consistent with their temperament and interests. It is easier for shy people to overcome or manage their sense of social anxiety and self-consciousness by finding situations in which they feel reasonably comfortable. Volunteering for different organizations is a good strategy for shy people to use in an attempt to find various places where they might feel comfortable. In most cases, being a volunteer requires a low level of skills, offers the possibility of meeting many different types of people, and is easy to terminate if the experience does not turn out to be what was expected. Thus, overcoming shyness can be helped by seeking out an assortment of volunteer experiences as a means of meeting new people, practicing social skills in different situations, and helping to find those social situations that are the most comfortable.