While popular culture seems to venerate outgoing, bubbly personality types, there is nothing bad about being shy. "I would never want someone to think that they need a personality transplant," says clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How To Be Yourself.
Dr. Hendriksen says that shyness (a personality trait where one typically feels awkward and tense during social situations, according to the American Psychological Association) is a result of both nature and nurture. "Part of it is just how you're pre-wired when you come out of the womb, but how you're brought up also plays a role," she says. "If your parents are on the shy side, you might not have grown up with as many social interactions as someone who isn't as shy, and you might learn to model their behavior of, say, not asking for help at the grocery store if you can't find something," she says.
Shyness is not the same as introversion, which is when someone is more inwardly focused and likes interacting in small groups or one-on-one rather than big groups. "You can be both introverted and confident, but if someone is shy, there's inherently a lack of confidence since you are perceiving that social situation as a threat," Dr. Hendriksen explains.
While shyness isn't inherently a negative trait, it can hold you back in certain situations, like forming friendships and romantic relationships, or taking on a leadership role in the workplace. Fortunately, Dr. Hendriksen has plenty of tips on how to overcome shyness in these tricky situations.
Most of the time, shyness is going to be a total non-issue. But what do you do when it does hold you back? Keep reading for tips.
1. Overcoming shyness in pursuing friendships
"There's a chapter in my book about how to make friends as an adult and it's the one I get the most feedback about because it can be really hard!" Dr. Hendriksen says. And that goes double if you're not exactly into the idea of striking up conversations with people you don't know.
The first step, of course, is to actually initiate a conversation. Dr. Hendriksen's pro tip: Start with something you can both build off of. "Maybe you see someone with a book on her desk. You can say something like, 'Oh, I love memoirs. Is that one any good?'" Right away, you have a commonality that binds you and helps the conversation forward. (But keep it real: If your colleague mentions that she went to a dance cardio class last night, don't fake interest when you're really more into yoga.)
Once you're talking with someone, Dr. Hendriksen says you should give the person something to work with, too. "People hear over and over again about how important it is to ask questions—and that's true—but it's also key to reveal details about yourself so there's something to build off of," she says. Even something as simple as sharing what you did over the weekend then gives the other person a chance to learn more about you. "If you're shy, you have a tendency not to reveal too much about yourself, which is why this advice is so key," Dr. Hendriksen says.
Pursuing friendships also often involve putting yourself in situations outside your comfort zone, like showing up to a running group or happy hour alone. "In these situations, it's important to remember that even the most confident people can feel out of their element," Dr. Hendriksen says. "It's okay if it's a little awkward. Give yourself a break." Set realistic expectations; if conversations still feel a little stilted at first, don't beat yourself up. And don't expect to end every night setting up future plans with five different people.
2. Overcoming shyness when it comes to dating
Dr. Hendriksen's tip on revealing little nuggets about yourself comes in handy in the dating department, too. After all, if you want to build a romantic relationship with someone, you do have to let them get to know you. "Of course you don't want to just unload a bunch of personal details about yourself all at once, but you do want to gradually let someone get to know you," she says. Remember, dating is intimidating for anyone—not just shy people—so it's not just a "you" thing.
And if you're waiting for a surge of confidence to help you ask someone out...don't. Dr. Hendriksen says that confidence probably just isn't going to magically appear. "You don't have to be ready, but remember, you get to set the tone," she says. That means you get to choose the venue you feel most comfortable approaching someone (so maybe when you're hanging out one-on-one on a Saturday afternoon is a better time for you than you're both out with mutual friends at a crowded bar).
When you do approach someone, Dr. Hendriksen says to avoid acting like you're bothering them. "Asking in a sheepish or apologetic way sends the message of, 'It's okay, I wouldn't like me either,'" she says. "Instead, simply be kind and sincere. When you see yourself behaving genuinely, you start to believe in yourself. And when the object of your affection sees your sincerity, they'll be more likely to respond in kind."
3. Overcoming shyness at work
There are times when shyness can hold you back in the office. Maybe you know that going to more networking events would be good for your career, or you stop yourself from speaking up in meetings. Dr. Hendriksen again says it's worth noting that most people don't look forward to networking events, so if you have to psych yourself up for them, don't beat yourself up over it. Her best advice is to go into the event with a manageable plan, such as making the goal to talk to two new people. "Having a task to accomplish helps people who are shy do better in social situations," she says. Then, you're focused on your mission and not overwhelmed by the room full of strangers.
As for talking more at meetings, her advice is to take gradual steps. "Maybe you start by speaking up at meetings more than you do already, then you might co-lead a meeting, which gets you ready to later lead one on our own," she says.
Taking baby steps and working your way up gradually works for overcoming shyness outside the workplace, too. "This works better than diving head-first into something you've never done before because if it doesn't work well, that can destroy your confidence, so it will end up backfiring," Dr. Hendriksen says.
Most importantly, she re-emphasizes that being shy isn't necessarily bad. "There’s nothing wrong with being shy unless it’s getting in your way, and even then, just in particular scenarios," she says. Wallflowers, unite!
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