Overcoming shyness: Advice from a recovering introvert

 

As a teenager and into my early 20′s, I was the shyest person I knew. I was the guy sitting in the corner waiting for others to come talk to me. I had to be around someone for a long time before I would open up and act natural. Only two things saved me from having no social circle whatsoever: my huge passion for basketball, and my uber-social cousin (thanks, Cuz).

I was especially shy with girls

I remember once when I was about 15, my Dad and I were visiting relatives. I was getting along reasonably well with my cousin (a different one) and his guy friends as we hung around the neighborhood, but then we were joined by a group of teenage girls. I clammed up and faded out. I remember sneaking back into my Aunt’s house and sitting down to watch the Grand Prix with my Dad. I’d never really been interested in the Grand Prix before, but I feigned fascination so when my friends came looking for me I’d be able to explain my disappearance: “Sorry fellas, but I can’t miss this!”

Yup, I was willing to endure two hours of fancy cars going round and round a big track just so I wouldn’t have to talk to those terrifying teens with the female body parts.

Shyness = fear

My shyness lingers until this day. I don’t believe we humans can ever fully overcome it. Even the most courageous and self-confident people can become embarrassed, even if they don’t display that embarrassment outwardly.

This makes sense since shyness is essentially a form of fear, mostly the fear of what others will think of us. Some people say they don’t care what others think of them, but I think, at best, they don’t care what most people think of them. We all care what certain people think of us, whether it be a spouse, parents, close friends, peers, whoever.

When you’re really shy, like I was, you care what everybody thinks of you. And that’s bad. Because, for the most part, what other people think of you is none of your business. If a stranger in a nightclub sees you out dancing and thinks you look stupid, well that’s his business. If a steak-eating, deer-hunting, Hummer-driving nihilist reads my blog and thinks I’m wrong about everything, again, that’s his business. Nothing to do with me.

Not everybody has to like you

This realization was one of the big leaps I took in overcoming shyness. Not everybody has to like you. In fact, it’s better that some people don’t like you, because if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. So the best course of action is to figure out what you really want, and then work at pleasing yourself (and I mean that in a non-alone-in-the-bathtub-feeling-frisky kind of way).

Figure out what your values are and what you really want out of life, then work hard to live those values and make your dream life a reality. In doing so, you’ll find that you’ll please many people who share your values, and you’ll probably piss off a lot of people who don’t. And that’s okay. If you really want to make a difference in the world, you’ll need to create a movement, and it’s as important to keep the wrong people out of your movement as it is to make the right people a part of it. (Seth Godin writes a lot about this in his book Tribes, which I highly recommend.)

Plan of attack

Okay, so let’s get to some practical things you can do to overcome shyness.

1. Join a social group (or several)
Practice meeting new people and you’ll get better at it. Obvious, right? One social group I’ll give special mention to is Toastmasters. If you want to grow, you have to get out of your comfort zone regularly. Toastmasters is great for that, not only because you get to meet lots of new people when you join a club, but you also get to practice speaking in front of a crowd at each meeting, something most people are uncomfortable with. I’ll write more about Toastmasters soon, but if you’re in New Orleans and want to check it out, my club is currently meeting at the JCC (Jefferson and St. Charles) every Monday at 6pm. If you’re not in New Orleans, you can find a club near you via the Toastmasters website.

2. Whenever you’re feeling shy, view the situation as an opportunity for growth
Realize that the fear will never go away. You just get better at handling it. Try to recognize when you’re feeling shy, and say to yourself, “I’m feeling shy now. If I can push through and do the thing my fear is trying to keep me from doing, next time it won’t be so hard.” I’ve noticed over time that my most rewarding experiences tend to occur when I turn towards fear rather than running away from it. Short term pains, long term gains.

3. Put yourself in sink or swim situations
The biggest leap I made in overcoming my shyness was to head off on my own and spend 10 months working in the US. I lived in a New Jersey trailer park with another 300 internationals during the summer of 2004, working at Six Flags Great Adventure. It became obvious soon after I got there that I had two choices: I could either be the shy kid all summer and not have any fun, or I could get out of my comfort zone, start taking the initiative to talk to people, and have the time of my life. I chose the latter, and proceeded to explode out of my shell that summer. That experience remains the biggest leap I’ve ever had in overcoming shyness, and it only happened because I forced myself out of my comfort zone.

4. Environment is stronger than willpower
If you want to overcome shyness, it makes sense to surround yourself with lots of confident and outgoing people. It’s just like any sport you might play: the fastest way to improve is to regularly compete with an opponent who is better than you. If you only practice with or play against people who are weaker than you, you’re not likely to improve very much. Of course, you should try to find someone who is not only better than you, but who is also willing to support you in your efforts to improve. I’ve played basketball with lots of guys who are better than me, but some of them have been complete assholes who loved telling me how much I sucked. Not the best learning environment. When it comes to overcoming shyness, the best people you can surround yourself with will be confident and outgoing folks who desperately want you to succeed. They’ll act as your cheerleaders as well as your coaching staff.

5. Learn to love yourself
It’s hard to let the real you shine if you don’t much like who you are. As such, you might want to go about accepting your imperfections (some of them will never go away, so you better make peace with them) and working on your character before concerning yourself too much with overcoming shyness. You’ll find that as you become more accepting of yourself, you’ll no longer seek permission from others to act natural.

6. Develop new skills
Competence helps build confidence. Find out what you’re passionate about and become really good at whatever that is, then build up skills to supplement that passion. So if you really like fashion design, put in the time and effort to become a kick-ass fashion designer. Learn how to sketch designs, learn how to mock up those designs on screen, learn how to make your own clothes, learn how to build a portfolio website, learn how to market yourself online, learn how to catwalk, learn how to put on a fashion show, dabble in other creative habits that help you come up with new designs, learn about self-employment… and on and on and on. With each new skill, you grow more confident in your abilities. You start to believe in yourself. Shyness takes a back seat.

Your turn

What am I missing? What tips can you share about overcoming shyness?

If you have a specific problem with shyness that you’d rather not discuss in the comments, contact me privately via this page. I’d love to hear from you.

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15 Comments

  1. Hi Niall, I’ve learned to embrace my introversion. If you study the MBTI (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), you’ll learn that every one has an introverted and extroverted side, with one side being predominant. It’s also best not to confuse shyness with introversion; the latter is a legitimate way of being and the former is also legitimate – but only up to a point. What that point is depends partly on the individual’s sense of well-being (or lack thereof) and partly on an objective assessment on how well this individual is getting along in the world.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Christopher. I’ve always used shy and introverted interchangeably, never thought much about the difference.

    I hear you about having an introverted and extroverted side. There are definitely times that I feel very social, and other times where I just want to be left alone. Over the years though, I’ve definitely shifted more towards being an extrovert.

  3. Hi Niall, I definitely believe that people can be introverted and extroverted sometimes. As you, when I was young, I tended to be very shy. Getting involved with people that are confident and outgoing helps alot.

    Great post!

  4. Interesting essay.

    Introversion and shyness are two very distinct things. Introverted people tend to prefer solitude, but are able to function with no problem with others.

    Shyness, in contrast, involves anxiety around others, coupled with not knowing what to say or knowing how to participate in the interaction.

    One can be introverted and not shy or shy but not introverted.

    Shyness certainly makes it harder to succeed in the working world, or any other area of life, since so much of what we do in all fields depends on human interaction.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Tim. I definitely get what you’re saying about shyness vs. introversion. Very well explained.

    If I was to do this post over, I’d spend a little more time on the title ;-)

  6. Introversion is amazing, if you can harness the extroversion from time to time as well.

    Without introversion, all of our species would be doers. If everyone was a doer, then not a lot of creative inventions would be done, no visions made, etc. ; our species wouldn’t have some who hesitate at a sign of danger.

    The problem is when that danger is perceived in a way that doesn’t benefit the introvert. (social dangers). But these are good tips.

    My personal tip: If you put yourself out there just once, you’ll realize people don’t bite. When that realization happens, the fear goes from a mythical creature that cannot be beaten to something that is beatable.

    • Thanks, Matt. I wasn’t familiar with the difference between introversion and shyness when I wrote this post, and I’ve since come to understand that introversion itself isn’t actually a problem, as you suggest above.

      Cheers.

  7. Good reading stuff with the morning coffee. Thanks.

    Una lectura muy interesante mintras tomo el café de la mañana. Gracias.

    @Matt: About doers, I think in doing with thinking about what you do, aware of what you doing. About creative, for me solitude is the best, only I and the thing that I do.

    About fear and shy, you both make me thinking about it now.

  8. Some people might not find this an acceptable method, but once I started drinking (at the ripe age of 23), I realized that I don’t have to be shy. Knowing I can be fabulous drunk made me realize I can be fabulous anytime. Truly worked.

    • I guess I can say the same myself. I knew I had it in me to be outgoing and social because I could do it when I was drunk. All I had to do then was allow myself to be that way when I was sober.

      Thanks for the comment, Caroline.

  9. Niall you are great, i like ur way of living.
    I am not traveler yet. still in about 8 or almast nine years i am moving to another place every 3, 4 or maximum 9 months. in a few weeks me and my husband plan to start travelling by bicycle through spain. i’m just waiting to leave Madrid, i never liked big cities, but here i am :)
    anyway i was reading about overcoming shyness. I wasn’t that shy, actually i was kind of fighter, at least about boys. i always was kind of ‘i like you, now it’s your move’, i never needed to know a person very well. and through time i ended finding myself in the same position with almost every new person i met…because no matter if i knew the person for an hour, people always wanted to tell me all their problems,so i try to listen :)
    about what think the others, it’s still a problem, but i am trying to solve this by not thinking about them too much, i say to myself “if i don’t like u it is just fine if u don’t like me” or “u can not please all of them”.
    and by the way about ur no shampoo no soap experiment, i am on it for almost two weeks, doing just fine. anyway i never was too friendly with any kind of soap (and i am still kind of really healthy person :)

    • Thanks for the comment, Olea! Glad the no shampoo is working for you, too :-)

      I like your approach to relationships. I’ve been trying to speak my mind more recently, telling people what I think and what I want. I still have lots of room for improvement when it comes to listening though!

  10. i understand, cause my biggest problem is that i am able to listen anyone except my husband. at first i was listening to him really much, but then i used to see he is not that right about everything, like it looked at first. but i still try to help him when i see that he’s in trouble, cause kind he’s an open book for me, sometimes seems i can read his thoughts :)
    and still we’re changing everyday, and he still surprises me sometimes :)

  11. Hello Niall, great eassy.
    Thanks for sharing.
    I am facing the same problem now. I am currently 24 and find it very difficult to overcome my shyness and inability to socialize well.I want to come out of my shell.Any suggestions would be heartily welcome