Overcoming Shyness
Mary M Buxton LCSW, Inc.
AASECT Certified Sex Therapist

John was tired of the hours of tight neck muscles and a queasy stomach before going to a party. Always afraid of being discovered as the loser in any group, he went only because party-loving Pete had insisted. John was afraid to say no for fear of offending his only friend. He dreaded spending another public night in Pete’s shadow, saying little to others while saying plenty to himself.

He would reproach himself for not having anything to say that wouldn’t sound stupid. And besides, they’d probably have thought of it already.

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Anyway, nobody cared what he had to say. And certainly no girl in her right mind was going to like him.

It’s easy to understand why John, subjected to such self-scorn, feels awkward and stays silent, lacking the confidence to reach out and take risks.

Why are people like John shy? Invariably they have a very strong, active internal critic and censor. They fear failure and rejection. When shy people are in a social situation or in a position to initiate an activity, they are immobilized by negative thoughts and images of disaster.

In his Stanford Shyness Survey, Dr. Philip Zimbardo studied five thousand subjects and discovered that shyness is common, widespread and universal. He found that 80% of the subjects reported being shy at some time in their life, 40% were presently shy, 25% were chronically shy, and only 20% were not shy. One hopeful finding was that 40% of the subjects reported that they had found ways to conquer their shyness.

Shyness is a vague concept.  Webster’s defines it as discomfort in the presence of others. But it’s really difficult to define precisely because shyness means different things to different people. You’re shy if you think you are. Some people are shy in all situations while many only in specific situations that involve authority figures, the opposite sex, large groups or public speaking. Some people are very shy but overcompensate for the feeling by becoming outgoing in a self-conscious way. They may not appear shy to others because they talk incessantly, but they have the same internal experience of discomfort as other shy people. Some people actually prefer to be shy, turning it into an asset by presenting themselves as reserved, unassuming, modest. Shyness may even be appropriate in some situations, like a budding romance or a meeting with a highly revered person. It can lend a softness and affecting quality to such encounters.

Shyness is usually expressed in silence, reticence, embarrassment, and self-consciousness. Physical symptoms include blushing, dizziness, dry mouth, fatigue, increased heart rate, sweating, tingling sensations, and weak knees. Some people try to conceal their shyness by drinking, eating, or talking too much; by being silent, always listening; and by asking questions while never sharing anything personal. There are, of course, people who aren’t shy but are intensely curious about what they can learn from others, preferring to listen.

Overcoming shyness involves developing self-esteem and social skills. To communicate about oneself and show interest in the other person requires self esteem, which can be developed through awareness and practice.

Self Esteem

Try spending a day or two writing down all the negative messages you give yourself. Amazed at how self-critical you are?  You would probably not subject friends to the same relentless scrutiny.  And if you verbalized it, they would wilt in your presence and soon seek to avoid you. But that is exactly what you are doing to yourself, which is one reason it is so difficult for you to have the confidence to reach out and take risks. Whenever you catch yourself thinking negatively about yourself, shout internally, "Stop It!"

Try listing ten things that you like about yourself. You might like the fact that you are an ice cream connoisseur, that you floss your teeth daily, or that you are athletic. Most people have difficulty recognizing all their good points because they’re more used to criticism than praise. Add to this list of affirmations daily. Put each of your good qualities on an index card, and place the cards around your room -- in your closet, in your chest of drawers, on your mirror, as a reminder to be supportive of yourself.

You’ll find that your self confidence increases the more you give yourself positive messages. With persistent practice this new habit can become the cornerstone for overcoming shyness. Some people require psychotherapy to help them make this change, if their personal history has been too traumatic to be able to make this transformation on their own.

Greeting Talk

Julie found herself carpooling to her job in a van with several coworkers. Not knowing what to say to them, she spent her time looking out the window. If she risked looking at a fellow worker, she blushed and looked away as soon as their eyes met.

Like Julie, many people find it difficult to start a conversation even with an acquaintance, let alone a stranger. A good way to practice conversation is to compel yourself to say a few words to someone while waiting in a line at the grocery, the movies, or the bank. Write down what you might say and practice out loud in front of the mirror, with a friend or into a tape recorder. By over learning the skill in a safe situation, you improve your ability to make a change in the anxious social situation.

Choose one of the approaches below:

  1. Introduce yourself. "Hi! I’m ______ What’s your name?"
  2. Compliment and ask a question. "I like your house. Have you done the work on it yourself?"
  3. Ask for help. "Do you know how to prune roses?"
  4. Share your feelings. "Gee, I’m nervous about work today. have a review with my boss."
  5. Be polite. "Can I help you take those packages to your office?"
  6. Try the usual openers. "Nice day, huh?" "What section do you work in?"
  7. Refer to something in common. "Boy, is this a traffic jam !"
  8. Say something positive. “The people that ride in our van pool are really interesting."
  9. Ask a question. "When are they going to open the new mall?"

The important thing is to start! There is no perfect place time or way to start a conversation. Choose someone who looks available, look at the person, smile, and invest yourself in what you have to say. Have a goal that you want to improve your ability to initiate conversations and a general plan of what you might say. The more you practice the easier it becomes to overcome your initial anxiety when speaking with others. As you develop confidence in this skill your self image will improve.

Julie made a list of five uncomfortable social situations, and rank ordered them from least to most threatening. If she decided to experiment in the van the next morning, the worst thing that could happen would be embarrassment, blushing, and sounding dumb. Knowing she could survive her worst fears, she took a risk with the least threatening situation on her list.

"Hi! I’m Julie. and I m new at work. What s your name?" she asked. That wasn’t so bad, she reflected later. She was nervous and blushed a lot but felt that she had handled the situation pretty well for a first try.  Julie felt comfortable after practicing greeting talk for several weeks and then tackled the next step on her list.

Keeping a Conversation Going

Unlike Julie, Mark had no trouble greeting or talking to people at work. As an outside salesperson, he was confident, outgoing, and successful. He knew his role and the lines that went with it. However, Mark clammed up in social and personal situations. When there was no defined path that he could follow, fear held his tongue. Keeping a conversation going was tough. He would quickly say hello to people, and then grab the nearest magazine or drink to distract him and take the pressure off.

A good conversation is based on finding a common interest. For example, what if Mark is at a party and he has just been talking to a woman about how they both ended up involved with the same single s organization.  Eye contact starts to drift and silence seems to be taking a grip on the interaction. Mark s normal response is to get nervous, make an excuse and walk away. Instead, he brings up a new topic. "I'm on a soccer  team and we won our game today. Are you involved in a sport?" In this way Mark gives the conversation a chance to continue. If this doesn t work he can bring up another topic that he’s interested in or ask her about some of her interests. Finding a topic that they are both interested in will help the conversation become natural and spontaneous.

In the past Mark felt like he pushed people away when he talked to them. He got so nervous about being adequate that he said nothing, did a monologue, or asked twenty questions as if interviewing the person for a newspaper column.

A good conversation has balance.  To get balance you have to listen, ask questions, and share about yourself.  Listening is the main thing that shy people don’t do when faced with a conversation.  Instead they are busy trying to figure out what they should say next or criticizing themselves for being a failure before they say anything.  The secret here is to decide that you will carefully listen to every word that the other person says and be able to repeat what they were trying to say.  Listen for information that the other person is giving you about him or herself. This provides the clue to what you say or ask next.

You have four options. You can share something about yourself that relates to what they just said, ask a question to get more information, change the subject entirely, or end the conversation.  Choose one or several of these options. In the example above, Mark did not get caught up internally criticizing himself. Instead he changed the subject, shared about himself, and asked for more information from the woman he was talking to.

The diagram below demonstrates the skills to achieve balance in   conversation.







  • Share
  • Question    
  • Change subject 
  • End discussion



  • Share
  • Question    
  • Change subject 
  • End discussion

Make it a point to experiment with these skills over a period of one week and evaluate what happened and how you felt at the end of the week. Or invite a friend to practice and set up a learning lab for the two of you. One will start the conversation and the other will listen and follow up with questions or sharing or both. Use the conversation starters from the exercise on greeting talk.  Your goal is to get to know this person. After five minutes, switch roles and see what it feels like to be on the other side of the conversation. Changing your behavior feels awkward at first but your comfort and confidence will increase with practice and success.

Ending a Conversation

Holly was taught by her parents not to interrupt.  Consequently, she was reluctant to enter into casual conversation because she feared that she would get trapped into talking long after she wanted to stop.  Instead of feeling pleasure she felt resentment when the conversation finally ended.

Ending a conversation involves confidence and social assertiveness. There are verbal and nonverbal approaches to ending a conversation. Verbal conversation closers like "Okay?". "Right?".  "That’s all?" "Anything else?". or "Is that it?" help end the conversation. Raising your tone of voice slightly and using a questioning tone that begs for agreement will help get your message across. Some other things that people do to indicate their wish to end the conversation are summarizing, "So, it’s been fun talking to you,"; indicating their need to leave, "I have to leave now in order to meet my sister,"; and expressing a desire to make a contact again in the future, "I hope I see you soon.

For example, Holly was talking with a woman she met at a party. She was ready to try her conversation skills out on someone new and wanted to close the conversation. "Well. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you. I would like to circulate now. Maybe we can talk again later. Okay?" The woman agreed, and Holly was free to circulate.

The next person she talked to required more impact to end the conversation. She added body language to what she was saying by breaking eye contact and looking at her watch. When that didn’t work, she stood up and stepped a few paces away and repeated herself again. Luckily, the person got the message. If he hadn’t, she could have picked up her things to go, fidgeted, or rocked back and forth slightly on her feet to reemphasize her wish to end the conversation.

Where to Meet People

Anywhere is a potential place to meet someone who interests you. All you need is an open and positive attitude about yourself, other people and the surrounding environment. Ralph noticed how many more people he spoke with when he was in a good mood than when he was depressed. So, one important factor in meeting new people was Ralph’s positive mental attitude. Good places to meet people were those in which Ralph was doing something that he found interesting and enjoyable. If he met someone he liked, he had a built in common interest, and he was probably at or near his best self because he was doing something he liked.

An ongoing class or activity allowed Ralph to relax and get to know people slowly. He had a chance to form trust and a more complete impression of the other person.  His research turned up the following choices: volunteer work in an environmental or political campaign. taking an adult education course, joining singles groups in the area, pursuing a hobby like photography, joining a special interest group with regular activities like the Sierra Club. attending church or participating in a racquetball or tennis ladder. Ralph also asked
friends to introduce him to new people.

Singles groups are organized for profit or for service.  Service singles groups are set up in churches and synagogues, through community college courses. or through special interest groups like Apres Ski, the Sierra Singles. Stanford Bachelors Club, the Pacific Heights Club and the Professional Guild. Singles groups for profit include Trellis which offers a combination of lecture and discussion groups, a personals column in the quarterly magazine and weekly dances. Computer and video dating costs considerably more and usually takes a while to get any results, if you get any results.  Bars and dance clubs are other opportunities to meet people but watch out for excessive alcohol use in yourself and anyone you meet in that type of setting.

Any of the above choices will offer you a chance to practice and learn about yourself in social settings, and it might result in your meeting someone you would like to get to know better.  Many people despair at the amount of time that they have invested in trying to meet a new friend or someone to date. They get discouraged and want to quit. If this is the case for you, remember that you have to meet a lot of people, maybe even one hundred, before you find someone you like. It can be useful to do one social event a week to hit a balance between a desperate search and dropping out all together. A planned approach helps you relax because you are doing something to fill your social void on a regular basis and you can relax more at the event and at home alone.

Asking Someone to a Social Event

Where to meet people, how to ask and what to do are the stumbling blocks to initiating a date with someone. A date can be a single person asking someone of the same or opposite sex to go out for the evening, a married person asking a new acquaintance to lunch, or simply setting up a time to get together with a friend. All of this involves the risk of rejection and that makes it easy to avoid.

Susan met Charles, a person she wanted to spend some time getting to know, but balked at asking him to go out with her. To telephone for the date, she wrote a script card using the following guidelines. Then she practiced out loud until she was comfortable with what she wanted to say.

  1. Give them your name and where you saw them last. "Hi, this is Susan and I met you at Joe s party last weekend."
  2. Check to make sure that they remember who you are. Give them more details and don t lose heart if they don’t remember you at first. "Do you remember me? I’m the one who’s on the swim team."
  3. Tell the person that you would like to get to know them better because they seemed fun or interesting at your last meeting. "I really enjoyed talking with you about scuba diving and I wanted to get together again."
  4. Ask them to do something and be specific about what and when the occasion will be. "I’m wondering if you would like to go to a movie on diving for sunken treasure ships this Saturday night?"
  5. If yes, make specific plans to get together and end the conversation. "Great! What if I pick you up at seven o’clock. Wear jeans. Let me get directions to your house…OK, I ll see you on Saturday. Nice talking to you. Bye."
  6. If no, ask if another time or activity would work out. If the answer is still no, try to find out if they are interested in seeing you at all. Then end the conversation. "Oh, Saturday won t work for you. How about the following week? There’s a lecture on diving in the Cayman Islands…No…Do you think you will be interested in getting together at all?…Oh, I see. I didn t realize that you were dating someone already.  OK. Well, I hope to see you around sometime. I enjoyed meeting you. Bye."
Who Asks Who?

It is fine for women to ask men out and it is fine for men to say yes. Men are more accustomed to being in control and initiating and women are more used to accepting or rejecting. When the traditional sex roles in dating begin to change, we are forced to learn from each other.

Women have to develop a tolerance for rejection and realize that they are not undesirable because one man says no to their request. Men know that dating is a numbers game and that you have to ask more women out than you ever get dates with.

Men need to learn to say no gracefully without giving in to the desire to take care of the woman s feelings or to putting her down for putting him on the spot.

After all, why should men always have to shoulder the risk of initiation and possible rejection, and why should women always have to react to someone else s idea of what might be fun to do. It is nice for men to feel the flattery of being asked out, and it is nice for women to have a shot at going out with their first choice of who they would like to get to know better. Traditional sex roles for dating are fine, but don t limit yourself if you get the urge to try something new.  It’s only an experiment, right?

What to do on a First Date or Get Together

It is a good idea to keep the activity casual and the time short when asking someone out for the first time. On their second date, Charles asked Susan to do something with a group of friends and on their third date they chose a physical activity such as racquetball or dancing to ease the tension.

Each date activity gave them something to focus on in addition to each other.

Think about each successive date like going up a set of stair steps with the length of time and the type of personal involvement required for the activity getting greater with each step.



weekend day together























Some casual activities to begin with are sports, going for a cup of coffee or lunch, taking a walk, playing backgammon, scrabble or cards, studying together at the library, going shopping, or attending a movie or lecture. If you have the opportunity to offer a very exciting first date like a day sailing on the San Francisco Bay, give it a try and check to see if the other person would be comfortable with the idea. If not, switch to something else and go sailing later when you are both more comfortable with each other.

What John, Julie, Mark, Ralph, Susan, and Charles all have in common is a fear of rejection. However, getting no for an answer doesn t necessarily mean that you are being rejected. Sometimes people have previous plans or aren t interested in the suggested activity and so they say no. Sometimes women are afraid for their physical safety and say no to activities that put them in a vulnerable position until they know and trust the man.

Hopefully, the other person will make it clear that something other than you is the cause for their "no." Listen for the person’s interest in you or ask if you are unclear. "Is there some reason why you can t go out Saturday night," Clarify the reason and then ask again. If you get three "no’s" in a row with good excuses, it’s probably  safe to assume that the person has a hard time saying no directly, so don’t call again.

Even though rejection hurts for a while, it is advantageous to find out that the interest isn’t mutual as soon as possible. You are then free to look for someone who might be interested in getting to know you. Turn this fear around by trying for ten rejections this month. If you haven’t gotten that many, then you haven’t asked enough. This approach should help you take control of your fears and the risk of rejection.  Remember, there s nothing really wrong with you if you happen to be attracted to someone romantically who isn’t interested in you.  It just feels that way.

Saying no can be as much of a risk as asking someone out.  Many people are afraid to say no because they don t want to hurt the other person s feelings. Rejection hurts.  It’s like taking a band aid off.  You have a choice about whether to take it off quickly with a brief moment of pain or to take it off slowly and stretch the pain out over a longer period of time in the hopes that it won t hurt so much. The longer route involving excuses and unfulfilled promises can result in guilt, confusion, and low self esteem for both parties. So. it’s up to you to make your choice about when and how to say no.

You have the right to say no to anyone who asks you out for a date. Obligation is not a good foundation for any encounter because it tends to sap enthusiasm and build resentment. You do not have to go into a detailed explanation of why you are saying no. Just say, "Thanks a lot for asking me. but I’d rather not go." If pushed for an explanation, say, "I really like you as a person, but I just don’t feel like I want a dating relationship with you.  It doesn’t feel right to me."

You have the right to say no to anyone who asks you out for a date.  Obligation is not a good foundation for any encounter because it tends to sap enthusiasm and build resentment. You do not have to go into a detailed explanation of why you are saying no. Just say, "Thanks a lot for asking me. but I’d rather not go." If pushed for an explanation, say, "I really like you as a person. but I just don t feel like I want a dating relationship with you. It doesn’t feel right to me. The direct approach may seem harsh. However, it is clear and honest and gives the other person the information that he or she needs to make choices and take care of him/herself.

Sometimes a person has honest reservations that they need to ask about before saying yes. Clear up your doubts as soon as possible. "You know it sounds like fun. but I have to ask you something first. I seemed to get the impression that you were already dating someone seriously. What’s the deal?" Ask what you need to in order to take care of your personal comfort level.

Frank sometimes found it hard to tell when and how to show affection and when to initiate sexual activity in a new relationship.  He had had very little training or experience in talking openly and honestly about sex and affection. There are few if any models of open communication about sex in the media. The non verbal "bumper car" approach was the one that most of his friends used in high school, college, and in the adult singles scene. The bumper car approach is one where two people touch without talking until the degree of physical intimacy has crossed one or the other’s limits. Then they either create distance or one passively gives in. Both people have feelings and anxieties about their performance and what the other person thinks about them but are afraid to talk about it. Talking about physical involvement seems awkward and weird in today s social world. Frank and his friends avoided talking because it was uncool, vulnerable, and could destroy a perfect opportunity by making what is implicit explicit.

Frank found that with some women sexual involvement that was too intense and too early in a relationship hindered the development of the relationship. Other women were glad to get the tension about sex out of the way so that they can get on with the rest of the relationship. Still others had very clear moral values from their family or church that helped them decide what was best for them.  Sometimes Frank and his dates used alcohol and drugs to overcome their inhibitions and fear of rejection or failure concerning sex.  Recently, however, Frank has become more careful about the issue of sexuality because of the threat of AIDS, herpes, chlamydia, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Most specialists that he was familiar with recommended safe sex along with clear communication about one another s sexual history, birth control method, and the expectations for the relationship.

Frank found that he preferred a partner who had the ability to say no to a sexual request as well as the ability to talk about what she wanted sexually. This usually helped to reduce anxiety and increase emotional and physical satisfaction in sexual situations. When Frank s partner did not communicate about what she wanted, he would get frustrated because he could not read her mind. Frank preferred to be told so that he could respect her wishes. He appreciated guidance. 'You know I’m not comfortable going that far right now. but I do really enjoy hugging and holding hands.”  An example of how Frank would make a request for more information and discussion before further involvement went like this, “I really like you, and I want to stop now. It’s important to me that we take some time to talk about safe sex before we so any further. How do you feel about that?"  Of course, the same precautions apply to same sex as well as opposite sex relationships.

Communicating about sex ahead of time is necessary part of developing a relationship today. Although it is a core issue and involves a great deal of risk for most people when they begin to talk about it, it gets easier with practice.


The goal of overcoming shyness is to become confident and skilled in dealing with people in social situations. Give yourself lots of praise for having the courage to try new things whether or not they work out successfully. All you can control is the attempt, not the outcome. So try to focus on and feel good about the things that you ve done that are in your control. You will probably feel more encouraged to continue if you feel good about what you have done so far.

Overcoming shyness involves the regular practice of small steps towards your goal. This takes time, so be good to yourself. Plan out an easy path and put it on your calendar. Be sure to give yourself plenty of rewards for your effort. Find a friend or group for support and feedback in your journey. If it is difficult for you to find this in your life right now, then go to psychotherapy until you can develop it for yourself.

Finally, you re not as fragile as you think. Continue to take small risks. Stay curious about people, life and yourself as a motivation to try new things and approaches. So, have fun taking risks!

  1. Shyness: what it is. what to do about it. Philip Zimbardo
  2. Asserting Yourself. Bower & Bower


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