- No matter how smart you are, feeling shy around others can make you feel stupid in social situations.
- You might feel nervous about talking, worried about embarrassing yourself, or ashamed of your difficulties
- None of this means that you can’t meet the love of your life or have a fulfilling social life or job.
“I’m shy,” Adi* told me the first time we met. “I have some good women friends, but I’d really like to be in a committed romantic relationship. But you can’t start a romantic relationship if you’re too shy to talk to people. And that’s the problem.”
I asked Adi if she could tell me more about what she meant when she said she was too shy to talk to people. “I freeze up,” she said. “Especially around guys. I know that one of the tricks to getting to know someone is to ask them about themselves. My mom has been drilling that into my head since I was a little girl. But I always have lots of questions until I’m actually with someone—and that can be a man or a woman—I don’t know; then I can’t remember any of them. And it doesn’t help when people tell me to just be myself. I’m shy. If they ask me a question about myself I’m sunk. I can’t think of anything, and I end up sounding stupid.”
No matter how smart you are, feeling shy around others can make you feel stupid in social situations.
Awkward, uncomfortable, tongue-tied—these are all words that I have heard clients use to describe themselves in those painful moments when they don’t have an answer or an appropriate comment. But just what is shyness about? And is it something you can overcome?
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, author Susan Cain says that introversion, along with sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness, are “cousins.” If you’re shy, you might feel nervous about talking, worried about embarrassing yourself, or ashamed of your difficulties—sometimes all at the same time and especially when you are interested in someone as a potential romantic partner.
But none of this means that you can’t, as a shy person, meet the love of your life or have a fulfilling social life or job.
The following techniques can help you manage any social situation more comfortably. You may already be using some of them without realizing it, so the suggestions will help you do what you're already doing, but more often and more easily. You might never become super-social or extroverted, but you can become less anxious about socializing. As a result, you will be more yourself around other people, even people you don’t know. And being yourself is one of the keys to making friends and finding a meaningful relationship.
- Be interested in other people. Ask them how they are, and really listen to their answers. My husband, who is not in the least shy, finds out more about people in a few minutes than most of us find out in hours or days. He knows about our librarian’s oldest daughter’s current boyfriend and the cashier at checkout in the grocery store’s plans to volunteer in Africa. The same is true at a party or any other social gathering. He asks questions because he is interested. And people chat with him because he wants to hear what they have to say.
- Start small. You don’t need to have a deep, meaningful conversation. If you’re very shy, it’s enough to ask how someone is doing. If you know someone, you might ask a specific question, like “how’s your daughter doing?” or “what are you doing for the holidays?” At a social gathering, it’s always fine to ask how the person knows the host or hostess. The key, of course, is to listen to their answer.
- Plan ahead. It’s often hard to come up with smart or thoughtful conversation on the fly, but if you know you’re going to a party, find out a little bit about who else is being invited, if you can, so that you can ask them something specific about their work or some other activity. But if that isn’t possible, plan other questions to start a conversation. Ask what they do for a living or what their hobbies are; or if they have seen a good movie or read a good book recently. Since many people will ask you the same questions in return, prepare and practice some brief, thoughtful answers to your own questions.
- Keep it small. Relationships form slowly, one small step at a time. Each new interaction is one more small step toward a relationship. You don’t have to become an orator or engage in lengthy and momentous conversations with everyone you meet. Allow yourself to have brief interactions, and congratulate yourself on each one, no matter how it goes.
- Congratulate yourself. This is worth repeating. If you are shy, each small interaction may be difficult. You frequently won’t live up to your own expectations. But just trying is important. Give yourself a pat on the back even if you aren’t thrilled with the results. Even extroverts don’t make friends with everyone they meet. You’ve done something hard. Be proud of yourself.
- Practice, practice, practice. Once you have some ideas about topics to talk about, ask friends and family if they’ll practice with you. Ask questions, listen to their answers, and have them ask you questions back. The more practice you have, the less anxious you’ll be in a real situation, and the more often you’ll have positive results.
- Acknowledge your shyness without putting yourself down. It’s part of you, and if you own it, without criticizing yourself, some people will appreciate it and might even help you out a little!
- Gently, kindly, nudge yourself out of your comfort zone. Once you’ve met someone you like, who you might want to get to know better, don’t think of it as a date. And don’t think about it as the rest of your life. Think of it as an opportunity to get to know someone new and to practice your techniques for dealing with your shyness.
There is no perfect path to finding your perfect mate. But the more small moments of connection you have with different people, the more comfortable you will become with them. And although it might proceed more slowly than you'd like, the process of getting to know someone and having them get to know you is what will eventually allow the right relationship to grow.
* All names and identifying material changed to protect privacy.