5 Strategies for Combating Shyness & Social Anxiety Disorder, Too: How to Build Social Skills, Pt. 2

By Matt Sandford

This two-part series on how to increase one’s social skills and confidence in social interaction is a companion piece to my article on Shyness, Social Phobia and Introversion. Part one proposed the need for trying new approaches in terms of social interactions, offered some places to look in making new friendships, and then provided strategies 1 and 2, which were I Don’t Know What to Say, and I’m Afraid to Initiate. Here are the final three strategies.

3. What If They Think I’m an Idiot or Something Worse!

We now have to consider the seemingly unpleasant prospect that someone does respond poorly or rudely or belittles you or your opinion or comment. There’s no getting around the reality that there are insensitive and small minded individuals in this world who are self centered or just plain mean. However, I think it helps to remember that if someone like that has a poor opinion of you, it actually says more about them than about you. You see, everyone has negative thoughts about others, but mature people choose when, how and if they share them. Since we’ve already clarified that they are a jerk, should their opinion of you really hold great sway over you? What you can do is practice responding to dimwits by simply saying, “Thanks for the feedback.”, meaning “I choose to not receive your shaming comments without stooping to your level,” and move on to connect with someone else.


But sometimes the critical or belittling attitude or comment comes from someone you respect, someone you have thought highly of, or someone you have been longing for approval from. Yeah, that hurts. At those times it is important to take the time to separate the comments from the person and do some analysis. What is the person’s motivation? Are they seeking my good, are they just being mean, or is there something going on with them personally that is interfering with them being sensitive or objective? Sometimes there can be relevant information that we need to hear, but the delivery system is flawed; meaning maybe they are saying it out of anger or spite. At times like that, it will be very helpful to respond non-defensively and ask them for clarification. “Could you help me understand what you are telling me?” or “It seem like you are saying that…do I have that right?”


Here is what you need to keep in mind. Learning how to hang in there with negative feedback and taking care of yourself will strengthen your self-esteem and increase your confidence, i.e. criticism can have some value for your growth.   


4. I Don’t Have Anything in Common with them

There are times when we’ve begun to engage with someone and then get stuck. We’re not connecting. They are way too different for us, or they’ve rubbed us the wrong way. You sure don’t have to befriend everyone you initiate with and it’s okay to chalk it up as a good practice at initiating and then move on. However, I will say that hanging in there sometimes with those who are different, maybe quite different from you, can be really beneficial. One reason is that people who are like that challenge us and expand our thinking – which is exactly what you are working on by tackling your social anxiety or shyness anyway. So, when we encounter someone really different from us, we can grumble about it or we can remind ourselves to be flexible and open-minded.  Let me be clear that I am not encouraging you to violate your values, or pretend to be someone you aren’t. Hardly. But the reality is that as you begin having more social interaction, you should be prepared to find that there are a lot of people different from you. The best part is finding out that that isn’t bad! You see, by hanging in there and continuing to interact with those who are different in their thinking, beliefs, or preferences, we can come around to understanding that differences don’t have to separate people or produce conflict or hostility. If we go into it with humility we can deepen our understanding, our compassion and our connection to those who are different from us. It really increases your self-confidence when you don’t need to limit yourself, but you can interact with someone no matter how different they are. This comes around on itself because as you grow in your self-worth, then differences are no longer a threat and you can embrace those differences even more.


5. Body Image, Categories of Embarrassment

Sometimes what holds someone back pertains to how they feel about their body, such as “I’m ugly,” or “I’m too short” or some concern that they will embarrass themselves. When I lived in China, I found out very quickly that in the Chinese culture, there really wasn’t a stigma about staring at someone. Since I was a foreigner, that meant I would be stared at quite a lot because I stood out. This bothered me because I believed that the reason they were staring was because I was interesting in a negative way and that the stares represented judgment or mocking of some kind. What I felt was embarrassment.


If there is something we are embarrassed about – something in our appearance or behavior that we don’t like about ourselves –  then we may read the gaze of others as scrutinizing, judging, or mocking. Many feel this way about themselves because they have received some kind of shaming response from someone before.  Others have this sense about themselves because the media has proclaimed and defined beauty and they feel they don’t measure up. These struggles will surely contribute to someone holding back socially.


A common misconception about how to handle these embarrassments is that you must eradicate them, change them or cover them up to be accepted, hence the billion dollar businesses of weight loss systems, plastic surgery, cosmetics etc. The idea is that you must look a certain way or meet a standard to fit in and be accepted and there are people out there who think this way. But maybe they wouldn’t make the best friends anyway.  When you intended to improve your social skills and feel better about yourself, you probably weren’t thinking you wanted to develop good relationships with shallow and judgmental people. It is possible that you have developed your shyness or social anxiety because you have been around too many of these types of folks and so you had layered on your messages about standards, looking the part etc. So do you really need to change yourself so that you won’t be embarrassed? Or do you rather need to find some good folks who aren’t shallow and judgmental? Remember the previous point: everyone is different; embracing differences is healthy and helps us grow socially. The point here is that acceptance of our own differences and our uniqueness is incredibly powerful for helping us grow in our social interactions. You will need to risk being embarrassed in order to find out that you will actually be accepted and embraced. You can do this slowly in a new group, testing them to see if they are safe and non-judgmental.  Finding a safe person or group is powerful for lessening the fear and control that embarrassment has over you.


The bottom line is, do you need to change yourself to fit in to the group, or do you need to change the group you are trying to fit into?

The Wrap Up


Building social skills is part skill development and part heart development. Developing what to say and being prepared, building common groups, and practicing responses when criticized are the skill parts. Working through and challenging your fears, confronting your negative self talk, your negative beliefs and struggles with embarrassment and shame are the heart parts. All of it is about building courage and strength. I believe you will experience the best results when you balance working on both parts.


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