Understanding Shyness and Social Anxiety

When our anxiety gets the best of us, it’s difficult to connect with new people. Here’s how to be more present.

grandfailure/Adobe Stock

Confidence is a quality that many of us wish we could have more of—especially when we’re in a new place, or with a group of people that we don’t know very well. For some, confidence appears to come naturally. But what about the rest of us?

According to Andrew Horn, the founder of Dreams for Kids DC, much of confidence comes from our sense of presence.

“Presence is that embodied existence in the moment, it’s when you’re only responding and reacting to what’s happening right now,” Horn says. “There’s no story from the past, there’s no fear of the future, and it’s a magical thing when we can create that in conversation.”

Here’s how you can soothe social anxiety, and uncover your confidence:

Understanding Shyness and Social Anxiety

Often, what stops us from participating in conversation or events is a simple case of shyness.

“One of the most common symptoms of starting out or being early in our career is shyness, is just these feelings of being intimidated, feeling unworthy,” Horn says.

These feelings of unworthiness often spring up from comparison: we look at someone with confidence and think, “I’ll never be as intelligent or well-spoken as them.” So we stay silent—and then because we stay silent, we criticize ourselves for not being outgoing and confident, further eroding our self-esteem.

“If we’re constantly comparing ourselves with other people, we’re not going to be able to enjoy the [conversation],” Horn says.

Self-doubt not only prevents us from partaking in conversation—by occupying our minds with worry and doubt, it also prevents us from being fully present in the moment. So what can we do about it?

Practice Naming and Taming Your Thoughts

“Our brains are really good at telling us what is going to go wrong in social situations,” Horn says. “It wants to keep us safe; it wants people to like us.”

In order to be less anxious in the moment, Horn recommends envisioning what may cause you to be anxious in a certain situation before the situation actually happens.

For example, if you’re attending a large work conference later in the month, you may already feel nervous about going. Instead of dreading the days leading up to the event, use that time to question what is driving your anxiety—it could be fear of saying the wrong thing, anxiety that no one you know will be there, or imposter syndrome telling you that you don’t belong there.

By cultivating this sense of awareness, you will be able to notice your anxious thoughts when they surface and accept them for what they are.

“Just by actually articulating the undesired state, you are naming it, and you’re taming it,” Horn says. “You’re going to be more aware when those undesired states manifest.”

By cultivating this sense of awareness, you will be able to notice your anxious thoughts when they surface and accept them for what they are. This will help keep you from getting sucked into them, so you can direct your attention back to where it needs to be in the moment.

Try It Out: Practice “Turning” the Conversation  

A common anxiety many people have is that they believe they have nothing interesting to say, or will make a fool of themselves in conversation. Horn recommends overcoming this fear by practicing mindful listening.

“One of the easiest ways that we can practice active listening and avoid a conversation dead-end is to make sure that we are ‘turning’ the conversation more than we’re ‘taking’ it,” he says.

By this, he means consistently remembering that we are engaging with another person by turning the conversation back to them—not taking it all for ourselves.

For example, if someone says they ate at a new restaurant, we might respond with, “Oh, I went there last weekend and had the pasta. What did you try?” instead of, “Oh, I went there last weekend. It was ok.” “If we commit to turning the conversation back three and four times, we’re going to peel off those layers and get more depth out of our conversations,” Horn says.