Dealing with Loneliness and Shyness

Making Friends Even if You Feel Shy or Socially Awkward

Men talking at gymAre you shy and self-conscious in social situations? Do you feel isolated and lonely, but unsure how to connect with others? It may feel like you’re the only one, but the truth is that lots of people struggle with shyness and social insecurity. No matter how awkward or nervous you feel in the company of others, you can learn to silence self-critical thoughts, boost your self-esteem, and become more confident and secure in your interactions with others. You don’t have to change your personality. By simply learning new skills and adopting a different outlook you can overcome your fears and build rewarding friendships.

Do you need help dealing with 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 are hesitant to admit to. It makes us feel defective somehow. 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, so you’re building a social life from scratch. In such cases, there are lots of things you can do 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. Whatever your age or situation, you can learn to 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 or cancel at the last minute?
  • 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 their 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 undermine 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 that 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. So what about the embarrassment in the moment when you say or do the wrong thing? In your mind, the very idea is horrifying. You’re sure that everyone will whisper about it and 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. Most people will just ignore it and move on. When you realize that social mistakes don’t have to be devastating, it’s a lot easier to put yourself out there.

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.

Changing your self-image for the better isn’t something you can do overnight. Learning to accept yourself 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. It doesn’t mean you’re useless. 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 1) call yourself names, such as “pathetic,” “worthless,” “stupid,” etc., 2) beat yourself up with all the things you “should” or “shouldn’t” have done, or 3) 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 catch yourself 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

Once you get past your shyness and adopt a more self-accepting mindset, you may find that you do just fine in social situations. But if you still have trouble making conversation and navigating socially, you’ll need to work on your social skills.

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 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 _____?”)
  • Start a conversation with a friendly cashier, receptionist, waiter, hostess, or salesperson.

Small friendly interactions such as these can be very positive and confidence building. And if certain interactions end up feeling a little awkward, there’s not a lot at stake.

How to face your biggest social fears

Some social fears are fairly minor, and you can get used to them pretty quickly. But for more intense social fears, you’ll need a more detailed—and gradual—plan of attack. When it comes to the things that really scare us, you don’t want to just jump right in before you’re ready. That’s like diving into the deep end before you’ve learned to dog paddle.

What you want to do is face your fears in a gradual yet systematic way, starting with situations that are slightly stressful and building up to more anxiety-provoking situations. 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 before. For example, if talking to new people at parties makes you extremely anxious, here is a stepladder you could use:

  1. Go to a party and smile at a few people.
  2. 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.
  3. Ask a friend to introduce you to someone at the party and help facilitate a short conversation.
  4. Pick someone at the party who seems friendly and approachable. Introduce yourself.
  5. 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.
  6. Join another friendly, approachable group. This time, try to participate a bit more in the conversation.

More tips for developing social confidence

  • Fake it ‘til you make it. People will respond more positively to you when you project confidence. What’s more, simply acting as if you’re confident can make you feel more confident.
  • Focus externally, not internally. People who lack social confidence tend to be in their heads when interacting with others, thinking about how they’re coming across or worrying about what they’re going to say. Try to switch your focus from yourself to the other person. You’ll be more in the moment, plus you’ll feel less self-conscious.
  • Laugh at yourself. When you do something embarrassing or bungle a situation, humor can help you put things in perspective. Laugh, learn, and move on.
  • Do things to help others. Go out of your way to help someone or brighten another person’s day. It can be something as small as a compliment or smile. When you spread positivity, you’ll feel better about yourself.

Tips for making conversation

Some people seem to instinctively know how to start a conversation with anyone, in any place, be it a party, bar, health club, the checkout line, a crowded elevator, or on public transport. If you’re not one of these lucky types, don’t despair.

Here are some easy ways to engage in conversation with someone new

Remark on the surroundings or occasion. If you’re at a party, for example, you could comment on the venue, the catering, or the music in a positive way. “I love this song,” “The food’s great. Have you tried the chicken?” or “That’s a great view.”

Ask an open-ended question, one that requires more than just a yes or no answer. Adhere to the journalist’s credo and ask a question that begins with one of the 5 W’s (or 1 H): who, where, when, what, why, or how. For example, “Who do you know here?” “Where do you normally go on a Friday?” “When did you move here?” “What keeps you busy?” “Why did you decide to become a vegetarian?” “How is the wine?” Most people enjoy talking about themselves so asking a question is a good way to get a conversation started.

Use a compliment. For example, “I really like your purse, can I ask where you got it?” or “You look like you’ve done this before, can you tell where I have to sign in?”

Note anything you have in common and ask a follow up question. “I play golf as well, what’s your favorite local course?” “My daughter went to that school, too, how does your son like it?”

Keep the conversation going with small talk. Don’t say something that’s obviously provocative and avoid heavy subjects such as politics or religion. Stick to light subjects like the weather, surroundings, and anything you have in common such as school, movies, or sports teams.

Listen effectively. Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can’t concentrate on what someone’s saying if you’re forming what you’re going to say next. One of the keys to effective communication in any situation is to focus fully on the speaker and show interest in what’s being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person, and make sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal cues like “yes” or “uh huh.”

What to do when social situations tire you out

There’s a common misconception that introverts aren’t social. In fact, introverts can be just as social as extroverts. The difference between the two is that introverts lose energy when they’re around people and recharge by spending time alone, while extroverts gain energy by spending time with other people.

What this means is that even socially confident introverts will feel drained when they don’t have enough alone time. For introverts, it’s normal to get tired after a lot of socializing. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or you’re incapable of having a fulfilling social life. You just need to understand your limits and plan accordingly.

Don’t overcommit. You know yourself and your social limits better than anyone. Whatever that limit is, plan around it. It’s okay to turn down social invitations because you need a break. And be sure to schedule the downtime you need after socializing. For example, after a fun Saturday out with friends, you may need to spend all of Sunday alone to rest and recharge.

Take mini-breaks. There will be times when you’re feeling drained, but you don’t have the luxury of leaving the situation for extended alone time. Maybe you’re at a busy work convention, you’re on a getaway with friends, or you’re visiting family for the holidays. In these types of potentially draining circumstances, even short breaks can help you recharge. Try to find time to slip away to a quiet corner when it wouldn’t be seen as rude. Even 10 or 15 minutes here and there can make a big difference.

Talk to your family and friends about your alone-time needs. Be up front about the fact that socializing drains you. It’s nothing to be ashamed about, and trying to hide it will only add to your social exhaustion. Good friends will be sympathetic and willing to accommodate your needs.

Dealing with social setbacks and rejection

As you put yourself out there socially, there will be times when you feel judged or rejected. Maybe you reached out to someone, but they didn’t seem interested in having a conversation or starting a friendship.

There’s no question: rejection feels bad. But the important thing to remember is that it’s part of life. Not everyone you approach will be receptive to starting a conversation, let alone becoming friends. Just like dating, meeting new people inevitably comes with some element of rejection. The following tips will help you have an easier time with social setbacks:

Try not to take things too personally. It’s hard not to take rejection personally, but social interactions don’t happen in a vacuum. The other person may be having a bad day, distracted by other problems, or just not be in a talkative mood. Always remember that rejection has just as much to do with the other person as it does you.

Keep things in perspective. No one likes being rejected, but it doesn’t have to devastate you. Remember that someone else’s opinion doesn’t define you, and it doesn’t mean that no one else will be interested in being your friend. Learn from the experience and try again.

Don’t dwell on mistakes. Even if you said something you regret, for example, it’s unlikely that the other person will remember it after a short time. Stay positive; refrain from labeling yourself a failure, or from telling yourself that you’ll never be able to make friends.