While shyness can be crippling in the young, it has a shelf life. The sheer terror of social interaction for children or young people can be strong enough to induce debilitating physical symptoms – blushing, shaking, stammering, sweating hands, even tears – but research has shown that this is associated with as yet undeveloped social skills, the unfamiliarity of the situation and the anticipation of that unfamiliarity, rather than being a manifestation of a deeper form of introspection or social anxiety. While it seems like a character trait, it is more often just a symptom of the fear of the unknown.
Ordinary shyness can be conquered by simply putting yourself into timidity-inducing scenarios and forcing yourself to join in; however terrible it feels the first time, the second time will be exponentially better.
Parents of naturally shy children are pivotal in influencing which way that shyness will go – gently handled and carefully introduced into non-threatening gatherings where they can develop their social skills at their own pace, these children will gradually shrug off their shyness.
But if parents constantly excuse their children in front of others, “I’m sorry, little Charlotte is really shy” or actively tease them for their shyness, for example by calling attention to their blushes, while doing nothing to soothe the underlying anxiety, then they should not be surprised when the shyness escalates.
When shyness accompanies you into adulthood, it can be isolating, and is easily mistaken for aloofness or an intolerance of other people’s company. It can also be a manifestation of acute self-consciousness, a painful hypersensitivity to the scrutiny of other people.
Not everyone is an extrovert, who loves nothing more than meeting new people and plunging into the social maelstrom with all guns blazing. We have to accept that there is a spectrum of personality types, and some people are simply less outgoing.
You can learn to live with a tendency towards shyness, and accept that there are also some benefits. Firstly, you will be the last person to broadcast your achievements or boast about your amazing attributes, and as a result you may well appear to be pleasingly modest (though don’t let yourself become too self-deprecating).
Your modesty will make you approachable. You will not come across as arrogant, swaggering or threatening, and other people will naturally be more comfortable around you (though make sure you don’t come across as aloof).
Shy people make excellent friends. As a shy person, you will find getting to know people can be challenging, and you will eschew the easy intimacy of the extrovert. But when you do befriend someone it will be because you have invested a great deal of emotional energy into the process, and you will value the friendship more deeply.
Shy people tend to be self-sufficient and are therefore very good at working alone, without seeking the validation of others or the congeniality of teamwork.
If you feel that shyness is holding you back, however, it can be mitigated and even overcome by turning your attention away from yourself and focusing instead on the people around you.
Don’t make the mistake of relying on drugs or alcohol to mask your shyness – they will certainly disinhibit you, but it is a very inexact science and you may find your intoxicated antics only serve to increase your self-reproach and make you more likely to withdraw further.
The first step in conquering shyness is to recognise that you are probably overestimating negative scrutiny, and to silence the nagging voice in your head that is your own sternest bully and critic. Try and approach situations with an optimistic belief that they will be a success. Deflect your attention from yourself and your perceived shortcomings by focusing on other people: ask pertinent questions, listen carefully, respond intelligently. People love to talk about themselves.
Many shy people cope well in professional situations because they have a defined role and status. This is less apparent in a social context, but you can alleviate anxiety by taking on a useful role: meeter and greeter; person who takes the coats or directs guests to the cloakroom; supplier of drinks; person in charge of music; buffet assistant. If there are no hosting opportunities, set yourself the task of being an enthusiastic participant in the event – if you praise the venue, the drinks, the food and so on to other guests they will warm to your positivity, and it will provide a good starting point for further conversation.
Consciously focus on small talk. This is a social skill that will improve the more you practise it, and it will stand you in excellent stead on all social occasions. Think about topics that you can bring up in conversation: from the banal and non-challenging (the weather, your surroundings, how you know the host etc) to the more profound (current events, career paths, life experiences). Ask questions, but also make general observations that will elicit responses, so it doesn’t look like you’re conducting a rapid-fire interrogation. Focus on your companion – engage in eye contact, don’t let your gaze wander, listen carefully. You will soon find yourself deep in animated conversation.
Remember that you are not the central component of every social interaction, but a small cog in the wheel. By protecting yourself behind a shield of good manners, you will find an antidote to your shyness.
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