Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about what it means to be an introvert, kicking off with Susan Cain’s landmark book Quiet and culminating most recently in a New York Timesop-ed debunking the Myers-Briggs personality test (which may be the reason, flawed or not, that many people self-identify as introverts in the first place).
But, as much play as the topic of introversion has been getting, the original (though perhaps whispered) war cry of wallflowers everywhere hasn’t seen much action. That's right, we’re still not talking much about simply being shy. And, maybe we should be.
“Being shy and being introverted are not necessarily one and the same thing,” says Harvard-trained psychotherapist and author Katherine Crowley. Shy people tend to be the observers, the listeners, and sometimes the hardest workers among us — and yet, the very qualities that make them especially valuable can hold them back.
So, what’s a shy girl to do in a be-agressive, ask-for-what-you-want world, when she feels a little lost in the crowd? Well, not change dramatically, for starters. We chatted with a couple of experts to find ways for you to work within your personality type and achieve professional and personal success — and also know when to challenge yourself so that shyness doesn’t hold you back. Read on for pro tips about how to speak up and stand out.
(Related: The Yes-Woman's Guide to Being Assertive)
Learn To See Your Shyness As A Strength
Being shy is often described as a drawback, but it’s actually a really valuable quality and — especially when you’re a shy person who might be a little self-conscious about it — it’s important to understand why.
“Shy people are very good observers, not busy being known or making sure everyone sees them, so they’re usually very aware of others and good at picking up on themes in a meeting, and figuring out what other people’s motivations are,” says Dr. Crowley. And, this isn’t just the case in the office: Shy people have an advantage in their personal lives with social groups, because they intimately understand the dynamics at play — which often allows them to avoid missteps, faux pas, and other things that less-observant people might not be aware of, so that they can set themselves up to get what they want. Plus, when they say something, people tend to actually listen, since shy people don’t always assert an opinion.
Another great thing about shy people, says relationship expert and author Andrea Syrtash, is that they tend to be excellent listeners — so, people feel like they can come to you to help solve problems. And, being the person who others look to is a highly prized leadership quality that can easily work in your favor.
But Figure Out When It's Holding You Back
Okay. We’re all on the same page; being shy can be a really good thing. But, it can also be something that keeps you from being noticed, even when you’re doing things that are unequivocally trophy-worthy. What to do in those cases? Determine what’s holding you back and find workarounds — even if it means going out of your comfort zone.
As Dr. Crowley points out, recognition isn't doled out based on fairness. “The reality is that shy people are often the workhorses in the office,” she says. But, we live in an age where personality is king, and sometimes it’s the loudest voice that gets all the attention rather than the one that's doing most of the work.
So, here's how you make yourself heard. First, figure out which channels make it easier for you to assert yourself, whether that’s scheduling a one-on-one meeting with your boss every week to go over the progress you’ve made, or sending out a regular wrap-up email or to-do list.
On a personal front, you might be tempted to hold back from telling a partner how you really feel about something. Syrtash cautions against that impulse, saying that it often manifests in passive aggression that will ultimately hurt every kind of relationship. So, figure out what setting makes you most comfortable, and then be brave and try to discuss the tough stuff under those conditions.
Bring Back The Buddy System
Remember the days when going somewhere alone seemed like the scariest possible thing, and how adding a friend into the mix immediately helped? Well, it still works. If you won’t know very many people at a social gathering or are headed to an ever-dreaded networking event (where you're expected to mingle with unfamiliar folks and also manage a little self-promotion in the process), think about bringing the buddy system back.
Dr. Crowley says it works the same way as it did in our younger years: Knowing someone is there with you really helps to set you at ease, and a friend or colleague who knows that you might have a little bit of a tough time warming up socially is the perfect cheerleader.
Of course, this trick doesn't totally work when it comes to dating. Whether you’re out at a bar or just chilling in the park on a sunny afternoon, it’s just a fact that groups are less approachable than people flying solo. So, challenge yourself to do something on your own, suggests Syrtash — but make sure you’re in your literal happy place. “In spots that make you comfortable,” she says,” you’re going to be the less shy version of yourself, giving a suitor the opportunity to swoop in and say hello.”
Breathe. No, Seriously.
Yes, this might seem a little yoga-teacher-y. But music therapist Maya Benattar regularly recommends it to clients who feel a little panicky in highly visible social or professional situations. Her tips include mindfulness exercises like noticing the top of your head and the bottom of your feet, and just getting into your body. It’s a good way to ground yourself in the present and remember that everything is just fine.
This works when it comes to public speaking and presenting, too. She recommends “keeping it short and sweet… and being gentle with yourself.” If you know you’re projecting a chilled-out persona, that will help you to feel calmer. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle.
Memorize the First Rule of Improv
If you’ve never taken an improv class, that’s okay. We’re going to tell you the most memorable takeaway right here: Never ask a question that might elicit a "no."
Why not? Because it shuts down the conversation, and that makes everyone uncomfortable (shy people especially so, because then you have to figure out how to navigate over to the next subject). This is pretty easy to master in the workplace, where it's easier to de-personalize...but what about when it comes to dating?
Great news: Being a shy date, when you go about it the right way, can actually be an awesome experience for the other person. Lots of people have what Syrtash calls the “opera singer complex” — where everything is about “Me! Me! Me!” (say it out loud, you’ll get it) — and if you pair two of these people, they'll both walk away feeling like their date didn’t put enough focus or attention on them. So, you can mask your shyness a little by asking questions, remaining curious, and really listening to the person sitting across from you while talking to them about their life and keeping the conversation going.
“Being a shy dater really allows your date to shine,” she points out. But, she also cautions against asking questions all night without answering any yourself. Sure, it’s good to be a little mysterious, but dating is a two-person game, not a one-way interview, and in order to make an impression you have to do more than listen: You have to share.
Know When You Have To Speak Up For Yourself
This is admittedly the toughest thing for shy people to do; but sometimes you have to have your own back to accomplish your goals. And, that can come at the cost of your own comfort.
All three of the pros interviewed for this piece emphasized that sometimes putting yourself out there is the difference between getting what you want — whether it’s a promotion, a job, or the significant other of your dreams — and not. So, make a practice of knowing the best ways to make yourself stand out at work, get things off your chest with your friends, and tell your partner what’s in your heart and mind. It’s your job to find the microphone in the way that's most manageable for you. You don't have to do it all the time, but you should be able to pull it out when it matters.
Face Your Fears
No matter what you need to say, or to whom, sometimes you just need to face your fears. The good news is, practice makes perfect.
Because, here’s the thing about shy people: They’re like old-fashioned Edison bulbs. It might take some time to warm up, but once they do they burn just as brightly as anything else. Think of dealing with a tough situation as a warm-up to help you handle it when it comes around the next time. Practice, in this case, can make (almost!) perfect.
One more thing: Confidence often comes from fulfilling the commitments you make to yourself — and trusting yourself to keep the pact — so if you want to be less shy, commit to it and deliver, and you'll become more comfortable over time.
Let Your Passion Drive You
“It’s important to remember that people will connect with the intention behind your words, so if you stumble a bit when you speak, or get nervous, simply let your passion shine through," says Benattar. “Passion doesn’t need to be perfect.”
How does that actually work? For one thing, try asserting yourself in situations where you already feel passionate. If you love working with animals, volunteer at a shelter with a group, where it might be easier for you to take the lead because you’re doing something you care about. And, translate it to your love life by guiding plans to play to your strengths and interests. If you’re doing something you enjoy instead of just sitting at a restaurant where you have to make conversation, communication will come more naturally, and the awesome parts of your personality can take center stage.
Channel Your Vacation Self When All Else Fails
This is an amazing Syrtash-ism and we love it. “When you’re on vacation, you’re a little more open,” she says. “You’re not in your head the whole time, and you tend to be more present.”
Basically, you’re a breezier you on vacay-mode — and why not? Suddenly, the everyday bullsh*t is suspended and you only have to think about the “now” instead of next week and the week after that. “We’re not in our heads as much on vacation, and we just let things happen in the moment,” she says. Vacation brain is a good thing to hold onto, when you're trying to meet new people, especially, because it helps to offset the pressure.
An added bonus? “The next time you see someone you met as ‘vacation you,’ you might be comfortable enough to take a few more risks and show more of yourself.” Cheers to that.
When You Need Help Get Help
Sometimes — even with a full toolkit to help you deal — shyness just holds you back and there’s nothing you can do about it, even with the help of friends, coworkers, partners, and support networks. That’s when it’s time to call in the pros, Dr. Crowley says.
“The most important thing is to check your interpretation of reality. You might feel almost stuck inside yourself, inside of the box” — and that makes dealing with situations head-on next to impossible. In this case, you might want to explore your options for career or executive coaching, which will equip you with the skills to get out of your head and achieve your goals.
If you’re not quite ready to go the coaching route, talking about your personality quirks and communication needs with friends, coworkers, or even your boss can work. If you ask for help, people are usually more than happy to come to your aid. All you need to do is take the first step, but remember: Getting past your shyness will require admitting out loud that you’re shy. But, you can totally do that.
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