Don’t suffer in shyness. As the GQ therapist I get a lot of questions about social anxiety and I have some clever tips and coaching strategies to overcome crippling social anxiety. Read my answer to this reader’s social anxiety dilema.
Dear GQ therapist,
What’s wrong with me… I do my shopping online and avoid the supermarket, I use email rather than pick up the telephone, and I dread public transport. I have always been shy, but this is getting ridiculous. Can you help? Oliver, by email
First and foremost, know that many people suffer with shyness and just don’t talk about it. Shyness can be truly debilitating. For most people, it is a learnt behaviour (it could be that their parents lack confidence or are naturally unsociable), but in today’s modern world, with so many technological means of interacting (email, texting, etc), it is easy for people to become isolated. Greater social introversion, less practice with personal connection and face-to-face conversations, and avoidance of awkward, unfamiliar and spontaneous interactions all make the situation worse.
Often, we isolate because of thoughts in our mind. We catastrophise situations where we imagine being rejected or humiliated when talking to people, or we imagine standing in a corner all alone and seeing people whisper about us. When we think of these things, we feel terrified and prefer to avoid the outside world rather than leave the supposed “safety of home”.
I have found that most shy individuals are not comfortable in their own skin. If you are shy, you are also likely to be scared, nervous, intimidated and uncomfortable around other people. You therefore think it’s easier to just not start. Shyness can have some major negative consequences that go beyond not having friends or getting a date – it can affect your health in a variety of ways, your career choice, the amount of money you make and the general quality of your everyday life.
1. Don’t think the worst… think differently
Shyness is spending too much time in your own head, making everything much bigger than it needs to be, with the outcome of any given situation as being wrong, bad or, simply, catastrophic. This is a bad habit that needs effort, energy and practice to be changed. My tip here is that whenever you have a thought in your mind that ends in catastrophe, jot it down and ask yourself, “How can I think about this differently?” or “How would I feel if this actually went well? What would I do differently, say differently or how would I behave differently if the outcome was actually really good?”
2. Avoid perfectionism
Nobody’s perfect. Part of the self-criticism experienced is based on the excessive expectations you may have set for yourself. Your jokes don’t have to have a whole room laughing and your chat doesn’t have to always be brilliant, insightful and witty. In short, lower the standards on yourself and set standards that are easier to maintain. It’s not necessary to be the life and soul of the party in order to categorise your social performance as a social success. In some cases, simply talking to two new people at a party might be the mark of a successful night out.
3. 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 realise that most people are far more interested in how they look or what they are doing than what anyone else is doing or saying. Realising that other people care more about themselves than about you will make interacting in social situations much more tolerable.
4. Focus on your social successes
Shy people do tend to be overly self-critical of their performance in social situations. In their view, they are never outgoing enough, clever enough, funny enough or anything “enough”. To help overcome this you can begin to minimise the anxiety such expectations create by focusing on your strengths and not only on what you perceive as your weaknesses. Look at the times you were social, you did attend the party, speak to the new man or woman or made a positive telephone call. If you have done these things once you can do them again.
5. Practice makes perfect
Start with (very) small talk and take simple actions: remember that practice makes perfect. A strategy for you to start with to overcome your inhibition is to put yourself in relatively non-threatening situations. This might include taking yourself to a museum, cinema or a game of football, where you will have the opportunity to interact with a lot of people but for a brief period. When you put yourself in these situations, you can practise by saying something as simple as “hello” to as many people as you can – this is a great start. You can also try this out in your daily life by doing things like asking for simple directions, giving a compliment or helping (offer to hold a door open for someone, for example). These are simple ways to practice talking and interacting with people.
6. Find your comfort zone
Do what fits your personality. Not all social situations are for everyone. For example, some people might just not like going to a bar or nightclub – it’s not necessarily because you are shy, it just might not be your thing. I suggest you seek out the situations that are most consistent with you and your temperament and interests. It is easier to overcome or manage any social fear by finding situations in which you feel reasonably comfortable.
7. Practise and develop your conversation skills
Developing conversational skills is key. The trick to successful conversation is to actually have something to say, and there are lots of simple strategies that you can employ. You can start by reading the newspaper or magazines, listen to the radio and build your knowledge fountain so that you can start having brief conversations about today’s news or something simple. News analysis is the basic substance of a lot of social conversations. And when you get that going, you can try to keep the conversation going by asking open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. For example: “What do you think of…”
8. Finally, learn to take rejection
No one is liked by everyone. That’s a truth. Rejection is one of the risks that accompanies engaging in any social interaction. The point here is never 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. You cannot control the reactions of others or what they think or say or do, so what’s important is that if it doesn’t work out and rejection results, simply select someone else and start again.