Don’t Let Your Fear of Social Interaction Dictate Your Life
I wasn’t always shy. That’s the hard part. Looking back on it now, it’s almost impossible for me to believe I was a gregarious little fellow when I was young. I have memories from when I was three or four of my friends and I playing in the kiddie pool my mom had set up in the front yard—putting ladybugs on toy boats and watching them float away and teenaged girls (my sisters’ friends) carrying me around everywhere, dressing me up like a doll. I remember when I was a little older making fast friends with the kids staying in the next campsite over, riding our bikes through the woods, crawling down bunny trails, and swimming in the pond until we were so chilled and wrinkled our parents must have been wondering if we were hypothermic.
But something changed for me around the time I moved to my grandfather’s house in 1985 and changed schools in second grade. I quickly became a very shy person. My circle of friends shrunk to a handful. I grew fearful of social situations. I had trouble speaking out in class. I couldn’t muster the confidence or the inner strength to speak with kids I didn’t know. Everyone who was larger or older than I was seemed like a giant just waiting for the opportunity to bite my head off.
This was an era of upheaval for me and my family. I didn’t know it at the time but the medical bills accumulated by me—undiagnosed asthma—and my mother—recently diagnosed diabetes—had pushed my family’s finances to the brink. We’d had to surrender the home we lived in to the bank and took possession of my grandfather’s house after he died with the help of my aunt (who surrendered her financial claim to the home without much fanfare).
For me, as a child, this financial affected me but in ways I only now understand.
- My parents could no longer afford new clothes for me as often they’d like so I ended up in hand-me-downs and thrift store finds
- They weren’t able to pay for cool vacations to Disneyland (or even Six Flags) like other kids enjoyed. Instead, we spent weeks in the woods at remote campsites my father had discovered decades ago as a pulp wood truck driver.
- Activities like sports and band were difficult too because new equipment (cleats and shin guards, and saxophones) were out of the question.
- The home we lived in had an ancient septic system that simply couldn’t handle the demands of a modern family (showers were few and far between).
- Food was cheap-ish but mostly junky—soda, chips, Little Debbie.
While I was happy, relatively healthy, and had a huge backyard (including ledges, forest, and blueberry fields) in which to play, these things were affecting me without my even knowing or understanding.
- Imagine being a new kid coming into a new school not knowing anyone.
- Imagine packing on several unwanted pounds and being labelled “chubby” or “fat.”
- Imagine dressing in outdated clothes and wearing the same ones until they ripped out or you outgrew them.
- Imagine not being the cleanest of kids.
While this childhood is far from terrible and millions of kids have it much worse, you can bet your bippy that I was the brunt of a thousand jokes, that I got picked on by fancier kids, that I got bullied by bigger kids.
And all of this was new to me. I didn’t know what was different or why I was being treated this way. (Turns out, kids of that age are just judgmental little turds who adopt the attitudes of their parents—or maybe that’s too harsh.)
Overnight, my gregarious nature vanished. I became shy.
I wouldn’t trade a moment of my childhood though. It made me into who I am today and made me appreciate my parents more than you can imagine. But, after 30 years I’m just now starting to unpack the emotional and financial impact my childhood has had on my life since. It’s my hope that:
- My story will resonate with some of you.
- My successes will inspire you.
- My advice will help you change your lives for the better.
Are You Shy?
- Are you fearful of social interactions?
- Do you lack the confidence to stand up for your beliefs?
- Do you lack necessary communication skills to do more than “get by” in life?
- Does anxiety strangle every attempt you make to break out of your shell?
- Do you hyper-fixate on failure?
The root question is, are you shy?
That’s not really an easy question to answer. Unfortunately, shyness is a complex state of being that’s been so wrapped up with various other emotions, perception styles, personality types, and social stigmas that it would be hard for the average person to give you a good example of what shyness is.
So let’s start there.
What is Shyness?
Shyness, defined by KidsHealth.org, is
“. . . is an emotion that affects how a person feels and behaves around others. Shyness can mean feeling uncomfortable, self-conscious, nervous, bashful, timid, or insecure. People who feel shy sometimes notice physical sensations like blushing or feeling speechless, shaky, or breathless.”KidsHealth.org
Even that’s not very clear or concise. The follow up they tack on to the end of that definition is perhaps more to-the-point but it’s even vaguer. “Shyness is the opposite of being at ease with yourself around others.”
The key phrase there is “with yourself.” In essence, shyness is extreme self-consciousness—to the extent that it creates anxiety. That anxiety then shapes your thoughts, your emotions, your actions, your responses, your attitude. Sometimes that can be perceived as a lack of confidence but it’s not really. It’s more of a learned response to situations which have occurred in the past.
For me, my shyness really took over when I began to get bullied—for the way I looked, for the way I dressed, because I didn’t do cool things or hangout with cool people.
It didn’t help that I was already biologically tuned to be an introvert.
The Connection Between Shyness and Introversion
Many people confuse being shy with being introverted. They are not the same thing. Introversion is a very specific personality type (a syndrome of various personality traits) that occurs because of various biological and social stimuli. In recent years, there has been a ton of research into introversion and the biggest takeaway from it all is that introversion is likely something we’re born with, not something we acquire or learn.
Differences like increased baseline electrical activity in the brain, larger numbers of specific neuroreceptors, and variations in cerebral blood flow patterns all point to very real physical differences between introverts and extroverts. (If you’re interested, I created this blog post to help people understand just what is an introvert.)
The reason many people wrongly equate shyness with introversion is that introverts and shy people exhibit many of the same behaviors. Both:
- Prefer to be alone
- Avoid social situations
- Are very self-aware
- Don’t often speak out in crowds
- May have trouble effectively communicating
- Have increased anxiety when forced into interactions
- Struggle with interpersonal relationships
- Have to work harder to enjoy professional success
The biggest difference is that shyness is almost always a learned behavior. There is some scientific evidence that roughly 20% of the population is genetically predisposed to shyness, however, further study finds that a significant portion of those with the genetic markers for shyness do not develop the temperament.
Shyness is Not a Lack of Confidence
Confidence is your ability to be comfortable with your personal skillset as applied to whatever situation you’re in. Shyness is your emotional reaction to situations in which you don’t feel comfortable. One is a personal comfort level, the other is an emotional response to discomfort.
The difference is a little hard to understand. For example, a shy person can be supremely confident in their ability to write excellent short stories, persuasive articles, and blog posts but when it comes to public speaking, they’re an absolute disaster. On the flipside, a confident person can be at ease striding into a room full of perfect strangers but they might become shy if asked to sing a song or do a dance—even if they’ve perfected the routine in private.
There is a link between shyness and confidence. Building confidence in a certain aspect of your life will naturally reduce your shyness in that particular avenue (and those avenues that are tangentially related). So, for example, you’re extremely shy in social situations but you gradually improve your social performance (usually through what experts like to call exposure therapy), you’ll incrementally increase your confidence. With that increased confidence, you’ll likely experience less anxiety (which means you’re diminishing your shyness).
The good news is that because the vast majority of shy behaviors are learned, they can be unlearned. It’s not going to be easy because learning those behaviors was—at some level—automatic and undertaken by your subconscious mind. Unlearning those behaviors will take active mental exertion and requires personal responsibility.
Regardless of where you are on your personal improvement journey, the 5 steps to overcoming shyness below will help you claw back control of your life from the fear, discomfort, and emotional stress that your shyness has caused you.
5 Steps to Overcome Shyness
Understand Your Shyness
It’s important to recognize and understand your shyness for what it is—a learned behavior. If you continue through life thinking that your shyness is an ingrained part of your personality, you’ll never be able to root it out and change it.
It may help to take a look back through your life at the situations that likely contributed to your shyness. For me, it was bullying by kids my age and older. For you it may have been negative interactions with a parent or sibling. I’m not a psychologist and I can’t really help you unpack all of that, but I know that when I recognized these influential moments in my life, I was able to de-emphasize the power the long-lasting emotional effect stemming from them had over me.
Mindfulness techniques may be helpful to you here. Acknowledge the negative incident and the emotions it causes within you but don’t allow yourself to dwell on it or them. Let them wash over you. Let them go. We live in the moment and our past only shapes us (and our future) if we let it.
Practice Interactions with People You Trust
Exposure Therapy works because you incrementally increase anxiety-inducing situations so you can learn to cope with the stress they cause. You can do this yourself to help combat your shyness. However, I would suggest you start by working with people you trust. This may be a parent. It may be a friend. It may even be a co-worker or mentor. Whoever those people are, force yourself into those uncomfortable situations and use the mindfulness techniques above to take the power away from the negative energy they generate.
Recognize the Value of Your Thoughts, Emotions, and Opinions
Shy people often sublimate themselves to the will of others. We often go with the flow just so we don’t rock the boat. But you can’t do that forever without sublimating your life and your life is yours. It’s the only one you have and you can’t afford to waste it. Live it.
I’m going to say this now. It sounds hokey but it’s true. Your thoughts, your emotions, and your opinions have value. They are what create you. And you have value.
I mean both in the sense that you’re a human being and should be respected as such but also in the sense that your individual contributions to the world, to your family, to your relationships, to your work, to strangers even, have value.
Sometimes it can be hard to see that value ourselves. Sometimes we have to see ourselves through the eyes of others in order to recognize that value. If it’s not enough that I see your value and acknowledge it, start believing the compliments and positive feedback that people give you. Too often shy people write off those positive interactions as one-offs. “Oh, they must not know the real me.” “She didn’t really mean that.” “He just said that to be nice.”
In my experience, everybody is reluctant to give praise—even the most positive of people. So, if somebody said it, it was real enough, true enough, and powerful enough to make them say it. Believe in that authenticity.
Be Assertive and Be Genuine
Assertiveness can be hard for shy people. As mentioned above, we often sublimate ourselves to others with stronger personalities. However, when you tie that assertiveness to your genuine self, you’re tapping into a strength that reaches right to the core of you.
I’ll give you an example. I’m a leader in the retail world and have dozens of employees under me. I’m also a perfectionist and NEED things to be right. I take pride in my work being complete and the finished product being attractive, presentable, and proper. When I first stepped into a leadership role years ago, I allowed my shyness to overrule that natural perfectionist tendency. I was happy if my employees were just getting the job complete. However, that led to mediocre results, poor reviews from my superiors, and employees who were really disengaged with their work. For them, it was just a task they had to do for 8 hours before punching a clock.
One day, I decided that I could no longer stand sitting by and watching this mediocrity. I dialed my perfectionism to eleven and came to work with it blasting. At first it was hard (very hard) for my employees to buy into this new me. It made more work for them. They were getting more “constructive” feedback than they were accustomed to. They were frustrated. However, when the praise from up the ladder started raining down, when the sales figures rocketed, when customers came in to give those same employees compliments on the quality of work they were now providing, those same employees internalized that pride and that perfectionism.
My assertiveness rubbed off not because I just repeatedly beat people over the head with it. It worked because it was coming from a very authentic place within me. I was showing one of my core personality traits and how it could positively affect our entire department.
Give Yourself a Break (but Not Too Long of One)
If you’re shy and an introvert, you’re in for a long road. You will easily be overwhelmed emotionally, mentally, and physically (dopamine spikes are a real thing). It’s necessary to give yourself a break, an opportunity to rest and recharge those mental batteries. However, don’t let procrastination sit in. If you break for too long, your natural emotional momentum will kick in and it’ll be like starting all over again. Instead, give yourself a timeline—an hour, a day, a week—and then get back to work. Schedule it, if you have to. Let people know about it. Tell them you’re feeling a little overwhelmed and need to take a lunch or that you’re going to table the project you’re working on until after the weekend.
You’re the only one who knows your own thresholds. Just be sure that your threshold you’re approaching is real, not imagined.