(RealSimple.com) -- Hi. My name is Sarah, and I'm a reporter, so you wouldn't think that I would hesitate at all talking to people at parties. But I'm shy, too. And I have been since I was a kid.
Genes may have something to do with my shyness. People with different genotypes on average tend to have different levels of social anxiety, says Scott F. Stoltenberg, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has conducted recent research on the topic. But environmental factors count more: We take cues from our parents. We suffer if we're bullied. Even the bold can become shy when faced with certain challenges, like a job loss or a rejection, says Anne Marie Albano, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, in New York City. Half the people in the United States say that they're shy to some degree, according to Philip Zimbardo, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and a pioneer in research on shyness. He and other experts think of sociability along a spectrum, with one end being, essentially, "I live for parties" and the other, "Leave me alone -- forever." I fall somewhere in between.
There are worse things in life, of course, but I would love never having to feel awkward in social situations again. Plus, it has always been a little too easy for me to talk myself into staying home instead of going out. Experts say that every time a shy person avoids a social event, her anxiety may grow, and it won't be any easier to feel confident the next time around. "People think that social confidence is just something people have," says Lynne Henderson, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Shyness Institute, in Berkeley, California. "But it's something you build by repeatedly putting yourself in social situations."
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That's why I decided to put myself through a self-designed boot camp. For four weeks, I read self-help books and was coached by the foremost experts on shyness. Then I took their advice to get-togethers, the running path, and even the stage. The challenge proved to be just that -- a challenge. But it also worked, as it may for those of you who are shy and willing to try your own version of the program. Here's what I learned.
Lesson No.1: Every Sentence Coming Out of Your Mouth Isn't Going to Make Sense; Accept It
"Many shy, socially anxious people report the fear of being unable to make a desired impression on others," says Barry Schlenker, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, who has done extensive research on social anxiety. Shy people often appear to others as socially competent, but for whatever reason (unrealistic personal standards, a lack of confidence), they can't see it themselves. Shy people also tend to believe that when they inevitably fail to come across well, they'll suffer unpleasant consequences, including shame, because of it. It's no wonder, then, that they tend to clam up in large gatherings. Instead, says Henderson, they should try to "bumble freely," to realize that it's OK to lose their train of thought or forget a person's name. While there's no magic switch to change the way you view your social interactions, you can make a conscious effort to talk more often and to deliberately edit your self-judgments afterward. Pretend to be your best friend. When you're being hard on yourself, ask, "What would she say to me?"
Lesson in action: To practice speaking spontaneously, I enroll in a class at the Peoples Improv Theater, in New York City. Improv helps, experts say, because it calls for a zero-tolerance policy for perfectionism. The scenes move so quickly that mistakes are inevitable, even for the most experienced performers. Plus, says Tom Yorton, the CEO of Second City Communications, a company that uses improv to build communication skills in corporate employees, participants "focus less on judging themselves and more on creating a connection with others."
At first, every new exercise makes me nervous, and about half the scenes that I'm in are total busts, filled with awkward pauses and topics that fizzle. One in particular, about a trip to the beach, ends with a lame "Well, it was good to see you." Later I catch myself fixating on failures. But rather than wallowing, I remember that messing up is no big deal, and that everyone else did it, too. By the third week, I feel more relaxed and realize that the more mistakes I make -- and I make a lot -- the less each one seems to matter.
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Lesson No. 2: The Word No Is a Major No
The most important rule of improv (and a good guideline for life) is this: Say "yes, and..." instead of "no." In other words, agree rather than argue. Compliment, don't insult. The theory, says Yorton, is that "the notion of 'no,' whether spoken in improv or in work and social situations, creates a barrier. It closes off possibilities instead of opening up new ones. If you affirm what the other person is saying and build upon it, there's unlimited growth potential." But why does this practice build confidence? "Because it feels empowering to acknowledge and validate others, to be someone who is helpful and giving," say Yorton.
Lesson in action: A week into my experiment, while on a run, I bump into another jogger, a friend of my husband's. My initial instinct is to tell him to go on ahead; I'm self-conscious about how slowly I run. But that would essentially be saying no, which is counter to the rules, so I keep running with him. We start chatting, and he tells me that from a distance, he thought I was someone else. I'm a little put off by the comparison to this person, but I don't let it faze me, and we move on to other topics, such as work and a play that he acted in. The run breezes by so quickly that I almost don't notice how well the improv rules worked.
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Lesson No. 3: The Eyes Are the Window to a Good Conversation
Recent data analysis by Quantified Impressions, a communication-analytics company based in Austin, Texas, suggests that in order to forge an emotional and meaningful connection before or during a conversation, you need to engage in eye contact for 60 to 70 % of the interaction. What's more, eye contact increases a person's likelihood of participating in a conversation, according to a 2002 study at Queen's University, in Ontario, Canada. "If three people sit down for coffee and one person isn't being looked at, that person is less likely to talk," says Briar Goldberg, the director of feedback at Quantified Impressions. "Your level of eye contact lets the other person know that you're interested in them and that they should feel comfortable continuing on with the conversation."
Lesson in action: I show up at a weekly swing dance, where the only way to participate is to ask someone to be my partner. I've been trying to convince myself to go to this event for months. (I take group swing-dance classes.) But I haven't been able to work up the nerve. But now that I have a plan, I feel more self-assured. After scanning the room, I spot a potential partner and try to catch his gaze. When he looks my way, I walk over to him and ask him to dance, and just like that we're out on the floor. The trick winds up landing me partner after partner. In fact, I'm so encouraged, I come back to the dance twice more over the next month.
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Lesson No. 4: You -- Yes, You -- Make for an Interesting Conversation Topic
Shy people often hesitate to talk about themselves for fear of seeming boring or being judged, says Deborah C. Beidel, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando. But that just makes it hard for them to keep a conversation going. As Alan Garner, a communications expert, writes in his book "Conversationally Speaking," "The people you meet want to know about you, too." If you don't share, the person you're talking to might conclude that you really aren't interested in making a connection. What's more, if you keep pelting someone with questions without offering any statements, you force the other person to do all the talking. "The general spirit of the principle," says Yorton, "is don't put the burden on other people to carry all the freight." Conversations should be symmetrical. People typically self-disclose at the same rate, writes Garner, who also offers instructions for doing so without appearing self-absorbed: When you ask questions and receive responses, "attempt to link those responses to your own knowledge and experiences." In other words, don't start randomly spouting facts about your dating life or job, as some shy people do when their nerves get the best of them.
Lesson in action: At a clothing swap about three weeks into my experiment, an acquaintance says that she didn't realize I was still in New York. Instead of just confirming that I'm still in town and leaving it at that, I share a little about how crazy the last year has been. (I got married, my husband quit his job, and my mother-in-law had major surgery.) And by the time we're leaving, we're making plans to get coffee. I also make it a point to chat with the barista at my new favorite coffee spot whenever I go in. We don't talk about anything special. I just ask him how he's doing and tell him a bit about my day in return. Then, one afternoon, he tells me that this time my coffee is on him. It's the first time that has ever happened to me, and it feels like a victory.
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Lesson No. 5: Curb Anxiety by Admitting That You Have It
According to a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, putting a negative emotion into words (that is, labeling it) can lessen that emotion's severity. When subjects who were all fearful of spiders were asked to approach a large, live tarantula, those who had previously expressed their emotions out loud were able to get closer to the arachnid than were those who had kept their fright to themselves. This tactic may work for social anxiety, too. In fact, says Henderson, saying that you're shy is sometimes one of the easiest ways to relax about it. There are a few theories as to why. One is that a single region of the brain, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, seems to handle both the labeling and the regulation of emotional responses, says Katharina Kircanski, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Stanford University and a coauthor of the study. Zero in on one and the other will follow. The benefits of mindfulness could also be at play. "Verbalizing that you're afraid may help you notice your feelings in the present moment, rather than trying to push them away, which can sometimes create even more distress," says Kircanski.
Lesson in action: It's been four weeks since I started my boot camp, and my improv class is preparing a show. The thought of inviting my friends immediately makes me nervous, but I e-mail them anyway and make it a point to tell them how I'm feeling. Just admitting it calms me down. One friend writes that she thinks that I'm "ridiculously brave." Another says that what I'm doing is "sort of a nightmare" of hers. Hearing that reassures me even more. When the day of the performance arrives, I sneak a peek at my pals in the audience. I realize that if I mess up, it just doesn't matter, and my friends are not going to think less of me. It's exactly how a socially confident person would feel. And it feels great.
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