Understanding shyness and loneliness
As humans, we’re meant to be social creatures. Having friends makes us happier and healthier—in fact, being socially connected is key to our mental and emotional health. Yet many of us are shy and socially introverted. We feel awkward around unfamiliar people, unsure of what to say, or worried about what others might think of us. This can cause us to avoid social situations, cut ourselves off from others, and gradually become isolated and lonely.
Loneliness is a common problem among people of all ages and backgrounds, and yet it’s something that most of us hesitate to admit. But loneliness is nothing to feel ashamed about. Sometimes, it’s a result of external circumstances: you’ve moved to a new area, for example. In such cases, there are lots of steps you can take to meet new people and turn acquaintances into friends.
But what if you’re struggling with shyness, social insecurity, or a long-standing difficulty making friends? The truth is that none of us are born with social skills. They’re things we learn over time—and the good news is that you can learn them, too. No matter how nervous you feel in the company of others, you can learn to silence self-critical thoughts, boost your self-esteem, and become more confident in your interactions with others. You don’t have to change your personality, but by learning new skills and adopting a different outlook you can overcome shyness or social awkwardness, banish loneliness, and enjoy strong, fulfilling friendships.
Is shyness and insecurity a problem for you?
- Are you afraid of looking stupid in social situations?
- Do you worry a lot about what others think of you?
- Do you frequently avoid social situations?
- Do other people seem to have a lot more fun than you do in social situations?
- Do you assume it’s your fault when someone rejects you or seems uninterested?
- Is it hard for you to approach people or join in conversations?
- After spending time with others, do you tend to dwell on and criticize your “performance?”
- Do you often feel bad about yourself after socializing?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, this article can help.
Tackling social insecurity and fear
When it comes to shyness and social awkwardness, the things we tell ourselves make a huge difference. Here are some common thinking patterns that can undermine your confidence and fuel social insecurity:
- Believing that you’re boring, unlikeable, or weird.
- Believing that other people are evaluating and judging you in social situations.
- Believing that you’ll be rejected and criticized if you make a social mistake.
- Believing that being rejected or socially embarrassed would be awful and devastating.
- Believing that what others think about you defines who you are.
If you believe these things, it’s no wonder social situations seem terrifying! But the truth is never quite so black-and-white.
People aren’t thinking about you—at least not to the degree that you think. Most people are caught up in their own lives and concerns. Just like you’re thinking about yourself and your own social concerns, other people are thinking about themselves. They’re not spending their free time judging you. So stop wasting time worrying about what others think of you.
Many other people feel just as awkward and nervous as you do. When you’re socially anxious, it can seem as though everyone else is an extrovert brimming with self-confidence. But that’s not the case. Some people are better at hiding it than others, but there are many introverted people out there struggling with the same self-doubts as you are. The next person you speak to is just as likely to be worried about what you think of them!
People are much more tolerant than you think. In your mind, the very idea of doing or saying something embarrassing in public is horrifying. You’re sure that everyone will judge you. But in reality, it’s very unlikely that people are going to make a big deal over a social faux pas. Everyone has done it at some point so most will just ignore it and move on.
Learning to accept yourself
When you start realizing that people are NOT scrutinizing and judging your every word and deed, you’ll automatically feel less nervous socially. But that still leaves the way you feel about yourself. All too often, we’re our own worst critics. We’re hard on ourselves in a way we’d never be to strangers—let alone the people we care about.
Learning to accept yourself doesn’t happen overnight—it requires changing your thinking.
You don’t have to be perfect to be liked. In fact, our imperfections and quirks can be endearing. Even our weaknesses can bring us closer to others. When someone is honest and open about their vulnerabilities, it’s a bonding experience—especially if they’re able to laugh at themselves. If you can cheerfully accept your awkwardness and imperfections, you’ll likely find that others will, too. They may even like you better for it!
It’s okay to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s part of being human. So give yourself a break when you mess up. Your value doesn’t come from being perfect. If you find self-compassion difficult, try to look at your own mistakes as you would those of a friend. What would you tell your friend? Now follow your own advice.
Your negative self-evaluations don’t necessarily reflect reality. In fact, they probably don’t, especially if you:
- Call yourself names, such as “pathetic,” “worthless,” “stupid,” etc.
- Beat yourself up with all the things you “should” or “shouldn’t” have done.
- Make sweeping generalizations based on a specific event. For example, if something didn’t go as planned, you tell yourself that you’ll never get things right, you’re a failure, or you always screw up.
When you’re thinking such distorted thoughts, it’s important to pause and consciously challenge them. Pretend you’re an impartial third-party observer, then ask yourself if there are other ways of viewing the situation.
Building social skills one step at a time
Improving social skills requires practice. Just as you wouldn’t expect to become good on the guitar without some effort, don’t expect to become comfortable socially without putting in the time. That said, you can start small. Take baby steps towards being more confident and social, then build on those successes.
- Smile at someone you pass on the street.
- Compliment someone you encounter during your day.
- Ask someone a casual question (at a restaurant, for example: “Have you been here before? How’s the steak?”)
- Start a conversation with a friendly cashier, receptionist, waiter, or salesperson.
How to face your biggest social fears
When it comes to the things that really scare us, you want to face your fears in a gradual way, starting with situations that are slightly stressful and building up to more anxiety-provoking scenarios. Think of it as a stepladder, with each rung a little more stressful than the last. Don’t move on to the next step until you’ve had a positive experience with the step below. For example, if talking to new people at parties makes you extremely anxious, here is a stepladder you could use:
- Go to a party and smile at a few people.
- Go to a party and ask a simple question (e.g. “Do you know what time it is?”). Once they’ve answered, politely thank them and then excuse yourself. The key is to make the interaction short and sweet.
- Ask a friend to introduce you to someone at the party and help facilitate a short conversation.
- Pick someone at the party who seems friendly and approachable. Introduce yourself.
- Identify a non-intimidating group of people at the party and approach them. You don’t need to make a big entrance. Just join the group and listen to the conversation. Make a comment or two if you’d like, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
- Join another friendly, approachable group. This time, try to participate a bit more in the conversation.