Growing up, the one thing I wanted to do more than anything was participate in our school plays. Theatre was my ultimate dream. Those bright audition flyers slapped on the hallway walls were open invitations saying, “We want you,” “we need you!” And I wanted to go. But I never did. All those years, from intermediate school through high school, not once did I audition, and my only justification for it was: “I’m too shy.”
As a child, when we’re supposed to be at our most carefree and fearless, I allowed my shyness and social anxiety to be the barrier between myself and my happiness in almost every aspect of my life. This was clearly an issue that I needed to resolve.
Shyness derives from fear – the fear of being humiliated, misunderstood, disliked – and it is often paralyzing. It’s a giant barrier, created by our own unkind thoughts, that tells us we are not good enough, not smart enough, not funny enough.
There is a level of uncertainty that comes with talking to people because, sadly, we are not mind readers; it’s this uncertainty that allows for a little something called the imagination to kick in and cause a ruckus inside our heads.
Imaginations run wild when we feel insecure or anxious talking to people, which, for a lot of people, is all of the time. Imaginations will conjure up the most outrageous thoughts, sure to tear down any shred of confidence or self-esteem you might've had. A slight glance from someone will suddenly become: “They looked at me like that because they hate me.” But where are the facts?! It goes from casual conversation to cataclysmic self-doubt, for reasons entirely fictional. It’s not this other person’s judgement that you feel – it’s your own.
Breaking Down the Self-Created Barrier
“Shyness, let it go, never have to feel so lonely" – Thieves Like Us
It sounds so simple. Just let the shyness go! But where do you even begin?
For starters, you have to acknowledge that being shy or socially anxious is not who you are. It’s not your identity, and by no means is it permanent. It can be tricky to overcome, and it might seem like you never will, but the most essential thing you need to have is the desire to change and the willingness to work for it. Being good at socializing is like a muscle that you have to exercise or a skill you have to practice. Start with the most basic rule of success: fake it ‘til you make it.
When we feel uncomfortable, we make ourselves small by slouching, keeping our heads down, arms and legs tightly twisted together in a vain attempt to keep people from noticing us. The truth is, people are still going to notice you, so you might as well let them notice you as yourself instead of as your fear.
Perhaps the most effective tactic is making eye contact; I don't mean just glancing at the person every once in a while or looking in their general direction, but really engaging with them. This levels the rocky terrain that you perceive, and helps you realize that both you and the person you're trying to communicate with are simply human.
Adopt a confident, powerful physicality and own your space.
There are those outgoing people whom you look at in awe of their seeming lack of social distress, wishing you were their friend, or just that you were them. How do those charismatic people present themselves? Observe and imitate. It might sound weird, but by doing as those people do, by asserting your presence and making yourself bigger, your brain will start to believe it is comfortable and confident too. The more at ease your body is, the more at ease your mind will be. And those are the facts!
Stop making up other people’s opinions of you.
Everyone has an opinion, some might be scarier and more critical than others, but you can’t control them, so don't let imaginary opinions control you. It’s too easy to devalue ourselves and think, I shouldn't have said that. It wasn't funny. I’m so stupid. These tiny mean thoughts will unleash an impossible spiral: They probably think I’m stupid now. They’ll tell everyone how much they don’t like me, or how weird I am. They don't even want to talk to me anymore. But then, of course, you’re likely the one who starts avoiding them out of embarrassment and insecurity, rather than vice versa. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fearing what people might think of you is not only a waste of your time, it perpetuates a negative mindset and might even cause your fears to come true if you let them control you.
If you're standing there, in the middle of a conversation with a group of people and you find yourself racking your brain for something to say, overthinking and panicking, just stop. Listen. Let go of opinions. Let go of expectations. Ground yourself in the present and stick to what you know. If you can't focus on what anyone is saying, literally take a moment to release tension in your body, meditate, and breathe. You know yourself.
What kind of energy do you want to be putting out into the world?
When do people make you feel at your best? When they are responsive, kind, open, generous? When they are afraid, reluctant, passive? People feed off of other's energy and often reflect it back at them. Instead of acting from a place of fear, act from a place of confidence, truth, generosity, and love, especially, toward yourself. Most people neglect this, but remember that your relationship with yourself is the starting point for everything.
Take back the power.
There is no success in holding yourself back or in being fearful. There is no benefit in choosing to hide who you are. Only when we act from a place of self-confidence and love, rather than fear of judgment, can we achieve real happiness, success, and so much more.