To celebrate turning 40, I’ve challenged myself to blog for each of the 40 days leading into my birthday. This is post number 36. You can read all the posts here.
I am an extreme introvert amongst new people and people I don’t know very well. I don’t like this about myself because I am a really cool person once you get to know me and I feel comfortable enough to be myself. I feel like this really precious gift but, because I am wrapped in newspaper and don’t have a bright shiny bow stuck on top, people don’t spend enough time with me to take off the wrapping paper. I completely understand it from their point of view. How will they know how precious I am if I don’t tear off at least one corner of that newspaper for them to see just a glimmer of what is underneath? How do I overcome my social anxiety? How do I become more comfortable in my own skin?
Dear Shy Introvert
I could have written the question above. Which, I guess, is why you sent it to me.
People tend to think shyness and introversion are the same thing. They’re not. I know many shy extroverts and non-shy introverts.
Introversion, more than anything else, is an energy thing. Many introverts love people (I certainly do), but find one-on-one interactions quite tiring.
Shyness, on the other hand, is a social anxiety. It’s the tendency to feel worried, tense and awkward in social situations, particularly around unfamiliar people.
I’ve always blamed that ‘terrible’ combination of shyness + introversion for my inability to connect with people, particularly new-to-me people, but have recently come to understand that shyness is actually the bulk of the problem.
Shyness is the voice in my head that says:
Kelly, no one wants to talk to you unless you can add value to their lives.
Oh my God, someone’s talking to you, quick, say something super-smart and profound.
Uh oh. They’ve just glanced over your shoulder. They’re so bored by this conversation they’re looking for someone else to talk to now.
Quick, excuse yourself from the conversation before they do.
My shyness is also confusing for people.
Someone might see me chatting easily with another person, (because I am super-comfortable with that person), yet find me stand-offish, (because if I not 100% certain someone likes me and/or wants to speak to me, I won’t approach them).
Even more confusingly, while I might feel comfortable and able to approach someone and chat with them when they’re by themselves, I’d be unlikely to approach them if they were standing with someone else.
Here’s how that conversation goes in my head:
There’s Fran, I’ll go say hi.
Oh, wait, Fran’s just started talking to Grace. I don’t really know Grace.
I’ll just stand here by myself.
Is Fran looking at me funny? Maybe I’ve offended her by not saying hi.
Oh God, I don’t know what to do.
I know. I’ll go on my phone and look busy.
I’ll message Fran later and explain.
Wait, would she think that’s weird? Do I need to explain anything?
I know you’re nodding your head here Shy Introvert. I know you’ve experienced the relentless overthinking above. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Especially when you add the frustration of knowing I’m a cool person once someone’s gotten to know me.
In the end, it’s that frustration that’s our undoing. We’re spending so much time wanting people to unwrap the gift we are; we’re spending so much time focusing on ourselves; we’re forgetting there’s another person involved in the interaction.
We’re lacking understanding of the fact that the other person has their own things they’re dealing with.
So, here’s what changed everything for me Shy Introvert.
I got on board with small talk.
If I met someone ‘cool’ at a conference, instead of trying to impress them with how well I knew their work and make assumptions about how they were feeling in the moment so I could be super-insightful, I’d say:
Have you been to Australia before?
Have you had any chance to get out and about?
How long did it take you to get here?
If I was chatting with a mum at school, instead of trying to mind-read how their day had been and, again, be seen as super-insightful and perceptive, I’d ask:
How’s your day been?
Got anything fun planned for the weekend?
Isn’t this weather the pits?
Here’s where introversion presents a problem. We introverts do hate small talk. Some of us, (me), like to think we’re above it.
Here’s what small talk does, however.
- It brings you out of your head.
- It forces you to observe what’s going on in the moment because that’s what you’re speaking to.
- It takes your focus away from yourself and points it squarely on to the other person.
Which creates connection. Genuine connection.
So, in answer to your questions:
- How do I overcome my social anxiety?
- How do I become more comfortable in my own skin?
Focus less on overcoming your social anxiety and more on managing it more effectively.
Focus less on yourself during conversations and more on the person you’re speaking to.
When you help other people feel comfortable in their skin (by giving them your full attention), an interesting by-product is you automatically become more comfortable in yours.