5 Strategies for Combating Shyness & Social Anxiety Disorder: How to Build Social Skills Pt. 1


By Matt Sandford

In a previous article I provided some tips for sorting out the differences between shyness, introversion and Social Anxiety Disorder. This is a companion piece meant to offer suggestions for addressing the skills of the person struggling with shyness. I believe it can certainly be helpful for those who identify as introverts or those struggling with SAD as well. Let me explain here something specific concerning introversion. Unlike shyness and SAD, introversion is a personality trait, and therefore the goal - my goal - is not to change it. No one’s personality needs to change in order to be fulfilled and be their best self. Our goal should be to mature, to grow. We may need to become more comfortable with whom we are, but we don’t need to change our identity. Maybe you need to understand and discover your identity, but that’s not changing it. My desire is to provide some helpful skill development, but what that means is simply developing and honing your ability to be yourself in the presence of others.

When you’re shy, you hold back in social situations, often because you feel uncomfortable and insecure. You may also be anxious of what others will think about you, or fearful of being misunderstood or not accepted, like the person with social anxiety disorder. Or, you may tend to be drained by more intense social interactions or by bigger groups or by folks you don’t know well, like the introverted person. But one big contributor to these feelings of inadequacy and discomfort is the lack of social experience, which is a bugaboo. The shy person has accumulated fewer social experiences than the non-shy person, which is part of the reason the shy person feels the way they do. And because they feel the way they do about social interactions, they therefore continue to accumulate fewer social experiences, or the ones they do are not very encouraging or motivating. One huge contributor to shyness is simply the lack of experience, which perpetuates.

However, you don’t just want to shove yourself into a bunch of social interactions in order to overcome shyness, introversion or SAD. That will probably not lead to improvements because the nature and quality of the interactions are more likely to be replications of past experiences. The shy person will benefit from trying something new if they would like to produce different outcomes. The different outcomes are not intended to make everyone like you or think you are awesome (although that would be encouraging). These different outcomes pertain to outcomes in yourself. In other words, the goal is to have social interactions in which you walk away and feel good about yourself: maybe about how you took the initiative with someone, how you participated in a conversation, how you persevered when you became nervous, or how you were able to connect with someone. We can’t control circumstances or other people, but we can increase our abilities in terms of how we interact with others and grow in our ability to cope with anxiety, and in our attitudes and perceptions about our experiences. Let me break things down into some common challenges.

Let’s start with a few healthy ways to meet people:

-          Focus on your own interests and your personal development; check out a group or class on something you are interested in. You’ll be more engaged and motivated to go, and you’ll be around people with at least one interest you share, which is a great place to start when relationship building: finding common ground.

-          Consider church involvement and opportunities to serve or volunteer. Having a task or goal can be quite helpful when you’re uncomfortable generating conversation.

-          Forego the age-old routes of bars and nightclubs; these are for hook-ups, not building quality relationships (even if a blind squirrel has found a nut there before)

-          Keep this in mind: as you try some new endeavor, you want to be shifting your goal more and more from fear, which is inward-focused, to curiosity, which is outward-focused. This means striving towards developing curiosity about others and about learning. 

Here are the Five Strategies

1.     I Don’t Know what to Say

Often, those with shyness or social anxiety struggle with what to say in social situations. They may feel like their mind betrays them, or their body when they get tongue tied, as in the proverbial shy guy trying to ask a girl for a date. What’s happening is stress and the way that anxiety affects our body physically. Anxiety like this tells the brain to prepare the body for danger: the fight, flight or freeze response. And so the body gets ready for action, sending hormones that increase heart rate and blood flow to the muscles in the extremities, and take short cuts to the instinctual part of the brain, the amygdala, which actually makes it harder to think rationally and clearly.


So what can help? Having a plan of some things to say for highly stressful moments can help to get past this initial stress or keep it from climbing so high inside us. In some cases, this may mean educating yourself a bit ahead of time. If you are going to a movie with someone, read a review so that you have something to comment on to get started. Plan out a few topics you could bring up, or questions you could ask to get to know someone. Think through some get-to-know-you questions you can ask – about someone’s career, what they like to do for fun, their favorite this or that, or how they know a mutual friend of yours. Often the person will ask you back and before you know it, you have a dialogue going. The point isn’t actually to prepare for every possibility, but to give you some confidence, which can help keep your anxiety from shooting too high.


I know what you’re thinking. What about when you get asked something and you freeze up because you don’t have a reply? Here’s the big secret I was saving just for this question. This is what you say: I…don’t…know. How radically insightful! You may not want to respond with an “I don’t know” for fear of looking stupid or “uncool”.  However, the problem isn’t with the response, it’s with your perception about the response. The reality is that it’s more uncool to make up something or say what you think the person wants to hear, than to be courageous and comfortable enough to say you don’t know something. You won’t know what it’s like to be respected for being real until you practice it. And here’s where you can really shine. Invite the person to educate you, to tell you about what they are asking you that you have no answer for. Then what you’ve done is focused more on connecting with them, and you’ll also be more informed for the future.


2.     I’m Afraid to Initiate

It can be scary and intimidating to initiate with someone; especially if you have had a negative experience before. And especially with certain people, maybe someone we look up to or admire. One way to bring down the intimidation factor involved in initiating is . . . do it more often. You see, actually the fear and pain involved is proportional to the percentage of times you’ve experienced rejection versus acceptance. Meaning if you’ve only initiated say 10 times and 6 times you got a “no” of some kind, then you may feel horrible, dreading how often you have been rejected, because it was over half the time! But if you initiated 50 times and got rejected 6 times you probably would be feeling pretty good and ready to initiate some more, because that’s only 12% of the time. 


I already know what you are thinking. You’re saying, “Yeah, but if I initiated 50 times I bet I would experience 40 rejections (or some high number)! That’s why I don’t initiate, because who would want to experience that? I would feel worse after that than if I hadn’t initiated in the first place. Holding back protects me.  Yes, holding back is protective. The only problem is that holding back and not initiating will never help you overcome your shyness or social anxiety and it will never protect you from feeling lonely or disconnected. Besides, the idea is that by working on all this, you will reduce your risks and increase the likelihood that you’ll have more positive experiences.


Maybe this is not what you wanted to hear, that you need to step into your fears for them to diminish, but you don’t have to take on the scariest fears first. Think through a scale of methods of initiating, beginning with those that would be more comfortable, then less comfortable and then the hardest kind. Work your way up, building your skill and pushing into your fears as you grow.


In part two of the series, we will address the remainder of the five points.

Stay tuned.



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