How to overcome social anxiety and shyness

Shyness has always followed me like a shadow. Unlike a shadow though, shyness seems to walk right in front of me everywhere I go. I wear it like a badge, one I’m not particularly proud off. I struggled for many years with shyness, trying not to project myself as such. But, all my efforts so far had been futile.

I’ve always had this fantasy of being the guy who walks into a room, any room, and

Stand back, Shadow!

Stand back, Shadow!

immediately makes three new friends.  I’ve met people like that; the so-called “people person”. They seem to do it so effortlessly. Man, was I envy of those guys.

So how did I overcome my social anxiety and shyness, you ask? Recently, I found a crack in this thick shield of shyness, and it came from an unexpected source. Before I’ll dive into it, let’s take a step back. I recently picked up the habit of smoking. Yes, I’m not proud of it, and I’ll probably shake it off down the line, but for now it’s here to stay. The reason I’m keeping smoking, for now, is because smoking helps me overcome shyness.

Have you noticed that in any social scenario, the first people to break the ice between themselves are smokers?  Interestingly, people who smoke are immediately part of this inner circle, and just by holding a cigarette, you are invited. Holding a cigarette says, to a fellow smoker, “Hi, we’re in this together – what’s up?”

So, there I am, shy little me, starting random chats with random strangers just because we both  smoke at the same spot. I never did that before. I always felt timid to approach strangers and open my mouth, but the cigarette, that nasty smelly fire stick, makes it so much easier.

We’re in this together, bond.

It’s sort of training wheels, really. They help you to maintain a path, one that is hard to fly “solo”. When I shared the above realization with a friend of mine, she confessed to a similar experience. She also got the “shyness bug”, which hurt her dating life since she couldn’t talk to the men who hit on her. However, it all changed when she got a dog. By walking with her dog, she found it much easier to chat up other dog owners. She used training wheels as well; the furry cute kind.

Now, I’m not suggesting you start smoking or adopt a pet (which might be wonderful for you, though). If you struggle with shyness, find your training wheels. Basically, it’s anything that says “Hi, we’re in this together”.

We’re in this together

The first step to overcoming shyness is self-awareness, or mindfulness if you prefer (which is a hip term these days). I learned this concept from Steven Hayes’ excellent (and super practical) book – The Confidence Gap, and I highly recommend you check it out.

In his book, Hayes talks about “unhooking” from feelings. When the shyness bug raises its head, and you can feel all the accommodating symptoms, unhook yourself. Meaning, bring awareness to the moment and allow the emotions and/or sensations, which the shyness bug throws at you, be there. Like when your neighbor’s dog starts barking in the middle of the day, you can’t really do anything about it. Sure, it’s annoying but that’s what dogs do; let them be. Monitor your thoughts in that moment, and see them for what they are – formless, weightless, nothing really, less than an air bubble. By unhooking yourself, you are creating a small gap between yourself and your shyness. With time and practice, that gap will become bigger and bigger, and eventually the symptoms won’t bother as much as they used to. You see, the goal is not to kick shyness out, but to accept it, and by that, you are robbing it of its power, little by little.

“Here is a new spiritual practice for you: don’t take your thoughts too seriously.”
― Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks

Set your wheels in motion

Now, let’s think of other training wheels you can use. First, find your niche. What is it that you like to do? Think of your hobbies or any recreational activities you enjoy, and take it outdoors. If you can’t think of anything, now it’s the time to experiment (!). Have you ever noticed people who do this in your local park:

That seems interesting. Just get closer and watch, maybe throw in an ‘I’m impressed’ look on your face. They will talk to you, I’m sure of it. Next, you can say “Can I try?”. Bingo, training wheels in motion. You can try the same with Frisbee or Soccer, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself part of a group.


Let’s kick some metaphorical butts!

Here’s a couple of recommendation:

1.    Meetups – Perfect for finding like-minded people. Find a local meetup around your interests. Heck, find a meetup for shy people. Whatever it is, this is basically utilizing the “we’re in this together” approach.

2.    Improv – Improv is so much fun. You just go there and act silly in a safe environment.  You don’t have to be an actor or a comedian to enjoy it. Actually, it’s better if you aren’t (they have to unlearn some habits). And here’s a tip, everyone there is just as shy as you. Everyone there is afraid of public speaking just as you. Everyone there believes they suck, just as you. The best thing about Improv is that it’s OK to fail; It’s actually encouraged, because it creates interesting opportunities. So, go out and try it.

3.    Lunch time – In my old job place they used to play Soccer once a week during lunch time.  If they don’t do that at your job, well, show some initiative (it will impress your boss, too). Send out a group email to everybody and ask, see what happens. If you prefer to relax during your lunch break, arrange the game for later. Don’t like soccer? How about Cards Against Humanity? Or any other game you prefer.

Wow, I need a smoke 😉 I hope this post proved to you that shyness can be overcome. Be creative with it. It’s hard for everyone to start up a conversation with a total stranger. So, why make it hard for yourself? Take a step back and see what can help you approach or converse with people. It could really be anything, as long as other people are involved somehow. God speed shy people of the world. I’m rooting for you! Please share your experiences or insights in the comments below, can’t wait to hear what you got to say.

Don’t be shy 🙂

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