How to speak up confidently to your natural shyness

Here are four tips that can help bashful people improve their social comfort.

I am a recovering shy person. Starting in childhood, persisting through adolescence and sweeping into young adulthood, I struggled to overcome my shy disposition.

When I was 8, my family moved to a new town. Feeling afraid to introduce myself to the neighborhood kids, my mother took me around to meet the children. I was ashamed of my shyness.

I always admired people who confidently walked over to a stranger at a social function, introduced themselves and struck up a conversation. I marveled at the ease of their introductions. Their comfort in conversation impressed me. I compared myself to these socially adept-appearing adults and I felt inadequate.

What is shyness? Shyness has emotional, cognitive and behavioral components. Shy children and adults feel a range of uncomfortable feelings (nervousness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, muscle tension and shakiness) in a variety of social situations. Typically, these discomforting feelings correspond to an assortment of firmly held beliefs such as, “I don’t know what to say,” “I might appear stupid to others,” “others will see that I am nervous and look down at me,” or “I am not a socially capable person.” These feelings and thoughts can result in children and adults avoiding social opportunities, which can further exacerbate their discomfort.

Interestingly, shyness may also have a genetic component. Psychologists have begun to wonder whether a bashful disposition is part of a person’s inborn temperament. Infants appear to come into the world with a wide range of expressiveness and extroversion. Many shy children have shy parents.

A common cause of social anxiety is the mistaken idea that everyone else is at ease in social situations. Most people feel a range of awkwardness and nervousness when they meet new people or attend a large social gathering. Outwardly a person may look comfortable, but no one can see the butterflies dancing in their stomach.

Many people intensify their social fears by comparing themselves to an “ideal image” of a socially competent person. They imagine a totally poised person who is comfortable and socially masterful in all situations. They compare themselves to this mythical being and feel inadequate.

Lack of social skills is another leading cause of shyness. Many adults never learned the basics of social discourse. They never felt socially capable because they never learned basic social skills. Fortunately, learning how to introduce yourself, carry on a conversation and effectively communicate does not require a degree in rocket science! Anyone can learn and improve their social skills.

Finally, low self-esteem can cause social anxiety. Feeling unworthy increases social discomfort. Avoiding social situations further intensifies feelings of low self-worth and worry.

Here are some tips that can help improve your social comfort:

• There’s nothing inherently bad about being shy. Some people are more socially comfortable than others. So what! The degree of social nervousness a person feels has nothing to do with their value as a human being!

• Talk to others about your social discomfort. Sharing this experience with others decreases social tension. Keeping these feelings inside increases them. Talk to friends that you feel are socially capable and find out the tricks of the social trade.

• Practice social skills. Learning a new skill requires practice, practice and more practice! Start conversations with others while waiting in lines, at meetings or at parties. Reach out to others. Introduce yourself, greet new people and extend yourself. Think of these actions as “experiments” in social intercourse. Don’t let your nervousness stop you.

• Life is not a performance. You are not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations. Others are not your personal drama critics whom you have to please.

Ironically, by viewing my natural shyness as an acceptable part of myself, rather than as a hindrance to be rid of, I felt more comfortable with others. Instead of feeling downward-spiraling bashfulness, I experienced upward-ascending confidence. So can you!

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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