A lot of people “suffer from the disease of shyness” as the Sylvester Stallone character so aptly put it in the hit film Rocky. According to some research, nearly 50 percent of our adult population, more than 140 million people, consider themselves to be chronically shy to the degree that it presents a problem in some aspect of their lives.
Even though I consider these figures somewhat inflated, it is certainly true that a lot of people display traits typically linked with shyness: self-consciousness in social situations, inhibited speech, fearfulness and a poor sense of self-esteem to name a few.
The term shy covers a lot of ground. Webster’s defines it as sensitively diffident or retiring; a timid reserve and ashrinking from familiarity or contact with others. Symptoms more severe than these may be pointing to social anxiety, a condition treatable with medication or counseling. Consult your family physician if you suffer from severe anxiety in social situations.
There are specific and concrete ways to work toward overcoming shyness that will gradually increase your tolerance for engaging in high risk social interactions. Even those who do not consider themselves as being shy can benefit from some of the exercises outlined below. Despite even an idyllic setting, we are constantly buffeted by the fast-paced demands of our increasingly technological (and impersonal) society. Building a community is more than just living in proximity and I fear that learning and practicing basic social skills is fast becoming a lost art, particularly among younger people.
For the first two weeks of this program, the assignment is make eye contact with, smile at and say hello to strangers. Feel free to skip those who seem somehow creepy, but otherwise target anyone you meet in the course of your day-to-day activities. Sometimes we fall into the habit of waiting for others to initiate contact. If you suffer from shyness, you know that for you it’s because you don’t feel confident and don’t want to risk rejection, but to others you may just seem indifferent or unapproachable. Some people will not respond to you, but don’t let that stop you. You’ll be surprised by how many people will respond with a smile of their own and the difference that will make in how you feel about yourself. It can really brighten up your day!
During the next two weeks practice your small talk skills. Turn to the person next to you on-line at the grocery store and comment upon the weather. When getting your morning coffee, ask the cashier how her day is going. You may wonder if such familiarity is appropriate, but your doubts are probably a result of telling yourself that others will reject you. You will meet exceptions, but the majority of people respond to friendliness and openness in kind. You’ll be amazed at how much nicer the world can seem if you maintain a relaxed, friendly relationship with people you don’t really know.
During weeks five and six begin to offer people you know simple compliments. You don’t have to get carried away, just say how attractive someone’s tie or blouse looks, what a great job they did on that project, or how well they just parallel-parked. One of the most basic of human principles is that we like those who like us, so show other people that you like them. People you know may have assumed your former restraint reflected a lack of interest in them rather than your insecurities and are likely to respond to the change in a positive manner. Finding something to compliment people on is always a useful skill and sheds a positive light onto everyday occurrences that makes them special at no cost or obligation to you.
The task in weeks seven and eight is to begin reaching out, to be the person who extends invitations. By this time you are feeling more comfortable around others and getting to know them. Now is the time to make new friends. Ask a co-worker to join you for lunch or arrange to go out after work with the guys/gals for a drink. Invite a neighbor over for dinner or to join you at a movie. Not everyone will say yes, but if you are friendly and open you’ll receive more acceptances than rejections.
Now that you are feeling more comfortable around individuals, you may need to face any apprehensions you have about being part of a larger group. You’ll need practice so you’ll have to find a group to join. Sometimes colleges or adult education programs offer group assertiveness training courses, but that need not be your only focus. There are many different types of special interest groups and organizations that you could consider joining. If you have a special interest, such as woodcarving, speaking Spanish, modern dance or raising Bonsai plants, sharing that interest in the group will provide an automatic area of commonality. You may also choose a group activity that you don’t know anything about but may be interested in; people always love taking a newcomer under their wing.
Whether you are engaged in overcoming shyness or are interested in building a stronger community and serving as a role model for younger citizens, I think you’ll find these exercises to be fun and rewarding experiences. Take them on as a worthwhile challenge and see for yourself if you don’t feel better for having done so.