Dear Pink Hair Girl,
I’m naturally a very introverted person. I’m just really quiet and don’t feel too comfortable in large groups. When I do open up to people, it’s usually after I’ve spent quiet time around them for a while. This works fine around other geeks and people I have stuff in common with, but I’ve recently been transferred to a new location for work, and I have to be around lots of people I don’t know. It’s harder to see my friends since I moved further away, and I’m having a lot of anxiety around my new coworkers. I want to make new friends, but I wind up just sounding nervous and dumb when words come out of my mouth. I spend time working up the nerve to be social, and then give up before actually trying. And when I’m put on the spot at work, I think I must be coming off as a total weirdo. How do I get over being so shy? Or at the very least, how do I stop being so nervous around new people?
What we think of as ‘shyness’ can actually be a few things lumped together. Introversion is actually a socio-psychological trait that describes a person who feels energized or recharged after spending time alone. The opposite of that is an extrovert, or someone who feels more energy after spending time around other people. But someone who’s introverted isn’t necessarily shy. They might act outward and openly in crowds, but being around other people just isn’t where they feel refreshed. The opposite can be true too. An extroverted person who would otherwise feel refreshed hanging out with lots of people might be experiencing social anxiety. They act shy but desperately want to make friends and be social; however, their fears stop them. So it’s not uncommon for people who experience social anxiety or shyness to lump themselves into an ‘introverted’ category. Naturally, once they’re alone, they feel relieved, because the pressure is off. But that’s not the same as feeling rejuvinated by solitude.
What you describe, NA, is definitely some form of social anxiety. It’s one thing to be reserved around people, or feel drained of energy in a crowd, but it’s another thing entirely to be uncomfortable even just to speak to a new person. That’s a deep-seated learned behavior, and doesn’t necessarily have to be a ‘natural’ part of who you are.
So how would you change it? Let’s make a checklist. My favorite!
You do this by practicing minor interactions with strangers in low-risk settings. See a stranger at the grocery store, deciding between a couple kinds of cereal? Tell them which one you prefer, smile, and move on. Mention the weather when you’re waiting for a light to turn green crossing the street. Any place that you find yourself around strangers you never have to see again, smile and say something pleasant and decisive. At first you’ll probably be nervous, but go in pretending that you’re cool, and it doesn’t matter what they have to say. You never have to see them again anyway. Eventually, it will be less scary, and your brain will re-wire itself to not flip any switches at all when you approach strangers. It will be a non-threatening experience after you condition yourself to perceive it as one.
Unlearn the nervous behavior! I don’t know if you’ve heard this one before, but it’s one of those fake-it-till-you-make-it exercises. Your anxious feelings around other people aren’t a normal social reaction. Somewhere in your life, you learned to feel nervous around new people. I don’t know what that experience was, or if you even know why it happened that way–but, whether you figure it out or not, the only way past it is to change your behavior. Your brain is plain old wired to flip the ‘anxiety switch’ when talking to someone new, the way that a Boo must turn away when Mario looks at him, or a weeping angel must turn to stone while focused on by an outside observer. Luckily though, you are not a video game baddie, or a species that is subject to being quantum-locked. You can reprogram your brain not to flip the ‘anxiety switch’.
- Quiet down any obsessive self-criticism. This means ignoring that nagging feeling in your head where you scrutinize everything you do or say before you do it. Lots of people who get social anxiety tend to over-think what they’re doing, or they’re afraid other people are watching them, and judging. The first step to fixing this one is to realize that most adults are very preoccupied with their own world, and aren’t being nearly as critical or judgmental as you are of yourself. They’re busy with their own shit, seriously. And someone who IS obsessively watching other people’s behaviors just to judge them has some serious issues and isn’t someone you want to be friends with anyway. Do NOT worry about what other people are thinking when you speak. Just speak like yourself. Which brings me to my next bullet point…
- Strengthen your sense of self. Solidify in your mind the things that make you unique as a person, and be proud of them. When we’re in high school, we start turning into the people we’ll eventually become as adults. Geeks especially can feel intimidated by this because the things they value about themselves get made fun of or are considered uncool. This could cause them to begin to deny their individuality and sense of self because the cool kids make those unique traits and quirks seem undesirable. So if you’re a geek, then it’s possible that instead of embracing the things that make you different at that age, you spent a lot of time trying to fit in to avoid the stress of ridicule–and, BAM! The result is that your self-image is either non-existent or negative. It’s hard to be confident in yourself if you don’t really think “yourself” is a good person to be. Spend some time acknowledging what you’re good at, and what makes you unique. It’s cheesy, but you have to like yourself. When you do, it won’t matter what other people say, and so it won’t make you nervous when you interact with them. And in any case, it’s cool to be a geek now. Screw those jerks!
- Don’t poo-poo the self-help section. There are plenty of sites and self-help books that can give you more details and specific exercises to help you get over shy situations, but one in particular I keep hearing about time and time again is the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People“. Disclaimer: I haven’t read it, personally. But I have talked to numerous geek-types who’ve overcome their social anxiety that specifically recommend that book. And yes, I hear a lot of cynicism around stuff like self-help books, both from people who are considering them AND people who just feel like harping on something. But the truth is, it gets a lot of flack because self-improvement is hard. The people who make fun of it do so because a lot of self-help stuff gets advertised as a miracle cure, or something that can be done in a few easy steps, when it’s never that easy. And people who could probably benefit a lot from it poke fun because they’re protecting themselves from possible failure, making the self-help genre to blame rather than their own shortcomings.
Anytime we need to change a deeply engrained behavior, it takes time, energy, and lots of effort. The more serious your case, the longer it will take to overcome it, and that’s the simple truth. But there are also plenty of success stories out there. The most important thing is to want to change, and to honestly believe that it’s within reach for you. If you’ve got the resources, do seek a professional psychologist to help you plan out personalized steps to get over your anxiety, because an educated, objective opinion on your experiences is a powerful tool. If you don’t have those resources at your disposal, then dive head-first into some self-help literature, and give it all you’ve got. Because there’s nothing more important than investing time and energy into being a happy person.