If you have a lifetime of shyness under your belt, you’ve probably heard of well-intentioned guidance:
- “All you have to do is smile, and say hello!”
- “Just go talk to them. They won’t bite.”
- “Stop overthinking everything.”
This advice, of course, often comes from people who have little (if any) experience with shyness themselves. Chronic shyness goes beyond the brief feelings of uneasiness and nervousness most people experience in certain situations, like the first day of a new job.
Truly shy people tend to feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in most social situations.
Maybe the thought of meeting new people leaves you shaky, sweaty, and nauseous. You doubt other people have any interest in you, and, during conversations, you worry what the other person thinks about you.
In short, shyness isn’t something you can cast off simply by pasting on a smile.
Shyness usually doesn’t disappear on its own, but the 12 strategies below can help you take steps toward feeling more comfortable around others and with yourself.
Experts generally agree that shyness develops in response to a combination of factors, like:
- childhood environment
- life experiences
Parenting tactics, for example, may drive shyness.
If your parents:
- Over-emphasized potential dangers: You might grow up approaching unknown people and situations with extreme caution and reserve.
- Set strict rules around what you could and couldn’t do: You might feel uncomfortable stepping beyond those limits, even in adulthood.
- Were shy or anxious themselves: You probably observed and eventually began to model this response.
Instability in your environment can also contribute, like:
- moving often
- experiencing bullying
- living in an unsafe neighborhood
- going through major family dynamic changes due to divorce or death
Any of these factors can have an impact on how you handle social interactions.
Shyness can also develop in adolescence and adulthood. If you faced rejection from your peers or teachers and supervisors singled you out for criticism, it’s only natural you might begin to fear the possibility of similarly humiliating experiences in the future.
Working to uncover where shyness comes from can help you find the right tools to reshape your fear.
People often think of shyness, social anxiety, and introversion as the same thing.
Some shy people do meet the criteria for social anxiety disorder (or introversion, or both). That said, social anxiety is a mental health condition, while shyness is not.
Social anxiety involves a persistent fear of rejection, disapproval, and criticism from others. This fear might become overwhelming enough that you begin avoiding social settings entirely.
If you’re shy, you might feel uncomfortable around new people at first, but find it easier to interact the more you get to know them. Shyness
It’s also possible that people assume you’re shy when you simply prefer your own company.
If you’re introverted, you might not have any trouble socializing — when you’re in the mood to be social, that is.
You don’t avoid other people because you feel self-conscious or worry what they think about you. You choose to spend time alone, because you need a good dose of solitude to feel your best.
Take a moment to consider shyness from an evolutionary perspective.
If you were outgoing, you might have ventured out to explore new areas, find resources, and interact with other communities. If you were shy, you might have stayed close to home to
Both roles are necessary. But, while exploration might help you make new discoveries, it also puts you in the path of potential dangers. Sticking to one place keeps you safe.
That said, it can be helpful to highlight your strengths instead of seeing shyness as a flaw. Recognizing the areas where your skills really shine can provide a boost to your self-confidence that may, in turn, help diminish feelings of self-doubt and insecurity.
Maybe you’re great with animals, a talented artist, or a driven researcher. Perhaps you’re a compassionate listener, and family and friends always seek your advice.
The world needs balance, and what better way to achieve that balance than with different personality types?
Sure, it might take you more time to open up. But you have plenty of valuable traits, like empathy, sensitivity, and caution, to offer when you do.
If you know someone who seems to make new friends every time they walk into a room, you might envy their outgoing nature and envision yourself navigating social settings with the same ease.
That’s not impossible, but it’s usually more helpful to take smaller steps first.
Start by exploring the ways in which shyness affects your life:
- “I want a relationship, but I’m too shy to meet people in person.”
- “Class participation makes up 5 percent of my grade. But I’m too nervous to share, because I don’t know anyone.”
- “I have a lot of ideas for this new project at work, but what if no one likes them?”
Then, use that list to create simple goals, like starting a conversation with a classmate or using a dating app to find potential partners.
The spotlight effect, in simple terms, refers to the (generally false) assumption that other people notice everything you do and say, almost as if a spotlight were shining on you.
This cognitive bias can easily contribute to feelings of shyness or social anxiety.
When you worry people will notice and judge your mistakes or quirks, you’re more likely to hang back on the edges of a crowd where you can safeguard yourself from possible rejection.
In reality, though, most people tend to be less observant than you imagine — in part because they’re thinking about their own spotlight. You might feel as if all eyes are on you, but that usually isn’t the case.
Not convinced? Ask yourself how much you notice about the people around you and what they’re doing at any given time.
If you’re shy, casual conversations can be nerve-wracking.
Even when you have plenty to say on a particular topic, worries about how others in the conversation perceive you might push those insights or witty remarks right out of your head.
You might end up nodding a lot or asking questions, so you don’t have to volunteer information.
Asking questions can keep the conversation going, but it doesn’t help people get to know you. In other words, you aren’t really connecting.
Explore ways to get to know someone without all the questions.
Instead of wondering what they think about you or trying to figure out what you should say, use active listening skills to focus on the flow of the conversation.
Tuning in to what they’re saying can help you stop cycling through fears of sounding awkward or saying something embarrassing. You’ll probably have an easier time recognizing when to share your thoughts more naturally — and you won’t find yourself startled when they ask you a question.
Some shy people get through social interactions behind a mask of confidence.
But “fake it ’til you make it” doesn’t work for everyone. Putting up a front of boldness you don’t actually feel can even leave you more anxious that everyone will see through you.
It’s fine to admit you’re nervous or let people know you want to ease into a group at your own pace. People might even let you know how much they appreciate the effort you’re making. And their positive reactions can bolster your confidence authentically.
Always skip the white lies, even if you think pretending will keep conversations moving.
It might seem completely harmless to tell your new roommates, “Yoga? That’s my favorite way to unwind.” But imagine how this can backfire. They might invite you to their Sunday yoga practice when, in reality, you’ve never even done a Downward-Facing Dog.
Instead, tell the truth: “I’ve never tried yoga, but I’d like to!”
Support from someone you trust can help you feel more comfortable in situations that spark the most dread.
Of course, you can’t bring someone with you everywhere you go, but the idea here is that eventually you’ll feel ready to face those situations alone.
Ask a friend, family member, or roommate to come along the next time you do something social, whether that’s a quiz night, party, or just a shopping trip.
Their presence might offer enough reassurance that you have an easier time navigating interactions without stumbling over your words or forgetting what you wanted to say.
Some people also find it helpful to have some “practice” interactions with loved ones, so they can get used to responding to positive comments, negative feedback, and everything in between. And, don’t forget, interacting with loved ones is another helpful way to sharpen communication skills.
Tip: Ask a loved one to role-play situations where you feel most uncomfortable, such as being singled out for attention.
So maybe you have a hard time opening up to new people right away, or you feel a little uneasy before you have to speak to someone new.
While this might mean you don’t make friends or find dates as easily as more outgoing people do, it’s worth noting that a little caution never hurts.
Holding back when you meet new people gives you the chance to learn more about them before you dive headfirst into a friendship or relationship.
It also creates more space for trust to develop, and trust is always a good thing. A slow start often leads to stronger relationships down the line, after all.
However your shyness came to be, at the end of the day, it’s simply part of your personality.
You can work to become less shy, but, if your shyness doesn’t cause any problems, you probably don’t need to push yourself to overcome it.
For example, maybe you don’t feel any particular urge to meet new people, but you have no trouble greeting someone when introduced. Perhaps you feel nervous before talking to your boss, but you handle conversations successfully when needed — even if your heart beats a little faster.
So you don’t enjoy socializing much. Not everyone does!
If you’re both shy and introverted, you might feel perfectly satisfied with your current level of social interaction, since it leaves you plenty of time to recharge and unwind on your own.
Skipping out on social events entirely often feels a lot safer than trying your best to make friends and failing.
Avoiding people might protect you from rejection, but the downside is that you might face loneliness instead.
If you want to expand your social circle, you’ll eventually have to find some way to connect with others.
Exploring your interests — hiking, crafting, dancing, cooking, etc. — through classes, community events, or even apps, like Meetup, can help you find potential friends and partners who share your interests.
Shyness itself isn’t a mental health condition, but it can lead to unwanted emotional distress over time.
If nothing seems to help you relax in social situations, a good next step might be reaching out to a professional.
A therapist can offer guidance with:
- managing physical symptoms you experience
- exploring causes of shyness in more detail
- recognizing social anxiety and other concerns
- challenging and reframing thoughts that prompt avoidance
- exploring strategies to navigate social situations
Speaking of physical symptoms, you can also try some breathing or body movement exercises that are known to manage anxiety. Start with these breathing exercises that can soothe anxiety of all kinds.
While shyness isn’t always something to be concerned about, it can prevent you from building connections with others and leave you lonely when you desire closeness.
If your shyness makes it difficult to build the close relationships you’d like to have, consider connecting with a therapist who can help you get more insight into the underlying factors, set achievable goals, and work toward self-acceptance.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.