How to Conquer Social Anxiety: A practical guide

Social Anxiety can affect all aspects of life adversely. Here's a guide to help you overcome your shyness and reclaim the happiness you truly deserve

Woman sitting by herself in a pub | overcoming social anxiety concept

Social anxiety is not just a harmless personality trait; it affects all aspects of life adversely. If you’re shy and hesitant, you miss many opportunities to find happiness and success, all because you are unable to interact with people easily. Your social anxiety and your awkwardness with others — especially those with who you are unfamiliar — costs you greatly. But you no longer need to suffer silently; this article will help you to overcome social anxiety so that you can begin to live the life you deserve.

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Introduction: How My Shyness Held Me Back

Here’s a real story. Several years ago, I was heading home from work—a 30-mile commute by train. On the same platform, probably waiting for the same train, were a young woman and her sick son. The boy was maybe three years old, about the same age as my own sons then. His bald head and frightfully thin frame suggested that he likely had cancer. Even the effort of raising a bottle of water to his lips caused his hand to tremble. He paused drinking to vomit into a plastic bag. This young child was suffering like I have never suffered in my life. His mother was caring, but firm. She held his head firmly when he vomited to avoid a resulting mess.

My heart sank. I felt bad for them—mother and child both suffering so greatly there on that platform. I wanted so much to talk to the mother, to offer her an encouraging word or a friendly chat to distract her temporarily. I wanted to tell the boy that I had two sons his age and that I thought they could become good friends but… I didn’t. My own shyness prevented me from lifting another’s spirits. I was unable to approach people I didn’t know; I was unable to embrace the vulnerability required to reach out.

I actively talked myself out of trying to offer what I could to them: If you walked up to them, what would you say? That you are sorry for them? Words are cheap. And what have you to offer? Money? You are not rich. Time? You are a nine to five slave. Encouragement? Can you cure the boy?

I didn’t speak to them that day; didn’t express my compassion for them. My social anxiety overcame my desire to reach out to a fellow human being.

How Social Anxiety Affects Your Life

Social anxiety is crippling for a human being, because we are social animals. The ability to interact with others [or the lack of it] affects every area of our lives. Take success for example. It is said that “your network is your net worth.” But if you are shy, it’s difficult for you to build a network of contacts in the first place. You may even be good at cultivating your relationships—I was decent in this respect—but you cannot grow your network. Your road to success is closed before you even take the first step.

Success is not so important, you may think. Our definition of success is skewed toward financial and tangible benefits, one-time achievements and rewards. Attaining one success milestone after another can nonetheless leave you miserable and frustrated. You need to enjoy the process of becoming successful and not just aim for the milestones.

However, happiness doesn’t come from financial status. The truth is, scientists only have a vague idea where it comes from, but they have found a single reliable predictor of happiness: relationships. The quality and, to some degree, the quantity of your relationships are the reasons for your happiness [or lack of it]. Thus, if you are a shy person, you are disadvantaged from the beginning. You cannot start relationships and you have trouble sustaining them.

With this discovery, the correlation between social anxiety and depression is more understandable. If you are unable to create relationships, you are doomed to living an unhappy life.

Social Anxiety is a curse that looms over your whole life. It eats into your happiness, your success and everything in between. You need to defend yourself against it. You need to make overcoming shyness and social anxiety among your top priorities.

Why Do You Feel Shy

The etymology of the word “shyness” is interesting because it suggests that its root is fear. The word “shy” originated from the Proto-Germanic skeukh(w)az, which means “afraid”. Many languages followed suit: the late Old English sceoh—”timid, easily startled,” the German scheuchen—”to scare away,” the Old French eschiver—”to shun,” and the Italian schivare—”to avoid.”

To overcome shyness, you have to face your fears. But shyness and the fears that give rise to it vary from one person to another. For example, I’m not afraid of public speaking. I’ve spoken to groups of various sizes, ranging from a few to a few hundred people, and I was never as intimidated as when speaking to a single stranger. I avoided people I didn’t know. When I was forced to interact, for example, asking a shop clerk about something, it wasn’t so bad. But I wasn’t able to start a conversation with a stranger on my own, especially with attractive women. I was paralysed by fear, I had butterflies in my stomach and I always talked myself out of starting a conversation.

I could give speeches all day long, but I don’t suppose it would have improved my one-on-one social skills significantly. Social anxiety, introversion and shyness can each display with different intensities and in varying forms.

You’ll need to understand and overcome your own combination.

3 Easy Steps to Conquer Your Social Anxiety or Shyness

1. Face your fears

Have you ever tried to start a conversation while having a lump in your throat? I have. It’s harder than any physical work.

Of course, in the beginning, the fear is overwhelming; you are simply unable to act against it. Your own body betrays you—your knees go weak; your hands shake; your voice trembles; your stomach becomes uneasy; a lump forms in your throat; you flush and sweat. You may suffer some of those symptoms or all of them at once.

When I was writing my book From Shy to Hi, I recall reading those clinical definitions of shyness that described physical sensations. Those definitions incited the same sensations in me. If you are anything like me, even the thought of facing your fear might trigger the same reactions in your body. But, you have no other choice than to act in spite of your fear. There is simply no other alternative.

Inaction = failure

One of the pillars of my philosophy is a firm belief that inaction is the only foolproof method to fail. If I don’t do anything, I won’t accomplish anything. If I give up, the results will never come. How could they if there is no power to generate them in the first place?

My other core belief is that even the smallest action always brings results and even the smallest results are better than nothing. Thus, giving up is irrational. Yes, the effects I see may be disappointing, but if I give up and do nothing, there will be no results at all!

With these beliefs and attitudes, giving up is not a viable option. It’s not even an appropriate idea to play with. Such thinking is idle and useless. A better use of my time would be to work out ways to improve my actions or figure out what hinders my progress. If you won’t act against your fear, you will be sentenced to an existence shadowed by shyness.

There is a school of thought that preaches acceptance of yourself and your shyness, but I don’t buy it. It’s OK to feel comfortable in your own skin, but the negative effects of shyness I’ve listed are real. Self-acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t attempt to change what hurts you. And change you must, if you wish to live a full life.

Related » Let’s get your fear out of the way

» Keep your reasons for overcoming social anxiety in mind

I have found that change is less painful than sticking with the status quo. In the short term, the pain of being a bit unhappy or a bit less successful is not very severe and you probably become used to it. But it compounds and the years of shyness become more agonising than several months of facing your fears.

For me, I felt strangled in my shy shell. I truly wanted to help more people, but I couldn’t reach out to them. When I couldn’t overcome my fear and help others, I didn’t feel fully human. The idea of improving my prospects was just a bonus. Most of all, I wanted to love people like they deserve.

Overcoming your fear will not be even half as scary as you imagine. Find your own reason and review it in your mind at least once a day. Keep the reward in front of your mind’s eye. This will be the reason you’ll go past your comfort zone. I assure you that soon you will feel at ease outside of it as well.

Make no mistake, the change will be difficult. Facing your fear will be painful. However, the pain will reduce the second and third time you act against it. And your fear will keep shrinking with time. Besides, as the popular acronym says, fear is just False Evidence Appearing Real. When you face it, you will discover how insubstantial your trepidation was.

Once I felt sheer terror at the thought of speaking to a stranger. When I faced my fear, I discovered—surprise, surprise—they didn’t bite my face off! They didn’t scream at me and weren’t hostile to me. It had all been in my imagination. The worst thing I got from a stranger was indifference.

2. Plan ways to track your progress

How will you face your fear? It depends on you. It depends on what your particular challenge is. Are you shy of people of the opposite gender? Are you afraid of public speaking? Are you unable to approach a stranger as I was?

The good news is, you know what your problem is and you have a solution, too. It’s within you. Ask and you shall receive. The moment I asked myself what can I do about my shyness, the answer was clear: I needed to speak to strangers.

You may be clueless as to the exact path to take, but you know your heart’s desire. Once you know what troubles you and what to do about it, you know the destination. The specific path may be a matter of trial and error, but as long as you know where you are going and you take action, reaching the destination is just a matter of time.

At first when I decided to talk to strangers, I gritted my teeth, mobilised my willpower, and sought occasions to talk to new people every day. I fell flat on my face because I started too ambitiously for my timid, reserved personality. I was in no position to talk to strangers. The thought of approaching someone and opening my mouth paralysed me. Each time I tried, my heart pounded, my hands shook and butterflies had a party in my stomach.

Even thinking about those early experiences causes my body to become tense. Talking to a stranger seemed to be the toughest, most impossible act in the universe.

» I confronted my problem by habit-tracking

I used a sheet of paper with the list of my habits-in-construction, ticking them off when I succeeded, or writing a minus sign when I failed. I tasked myself with talking to strangers every day.

Going through my notes after a few weeks, I realised that I had a lot more minuses in the “talk to strangers” category than in all other habits put together. I realised, there might be something wrong with my approach in that discipline. I examined my attempts and results, and decided I was not ready to talk to strangers yet. Trying it was draining my energy and undermining my self-confidence rather than driving growth.

I had to change my approach.

With this mental feedback, I could redesign my discipline. I painstakingly planned it from scratch. I’m a firm believer in consistency and continuity, so talking to strangers remained on my list of daily actions.

But this time, I started small.

Because conversations were too ambitious for me, I committed to just making eye contact with a stranger and smiling at him or her. I was so socially awkward that even this was challenging and I still found myself collecting a few minuses on my tracking sheet. However, I didn’t want to stop at smiling, so I set three levels of difficulty.

  • Level 1: The relatively passive activity of making eye contact and smiling.
  • Level 2: Chime in on an existing conversation.
  • Level 3: The hard level: Start a conversation with a stranger.

I gave a lot of time and attention to details like these to help revive and support my determination.

» Tracking your progress in detail can bring fast results!

My experience is that the more detailed you make your tracking, the faster you will achieve results. When I was satisfied to register smiling at a stranger once a day, I didn’t pay much attention to this discipline for the rest of the day. When I decided to track every single instance of performing a habit that I was currently developing, my results were fast and furious.

Of course, more detailed tracking is also more taxing. You need to channel more of your energy for every single action you take, and you also sacrifice the time it takes for those actions. It may be only a second or two at a time, but if you measure the number of smiles [in this case], it compounds very fast.

Again, you are in control of the process. You get to decide whether or not to track in greater detail. You know how much you need to be accountable and how soon you desire to be free from the shackles of shyness. It’s your call.

3. Action is the key to overcoming social anxiety

I’ve theorised a lot, but what will really liberate you is action. Your action. To obtain different results, you need different action. No affirmations, incantations or visualisations will move you forward one inch without action. They may prepare the groundwork, but they won’t substitute for action.

Chart showing flow of change

Take a look at this chart.

Your personal philosophy is—has always been—constantly shaped by your input. The information you give most attention to is your results and they stem from your actions. Which action you decide to take and how much heart you put into it will depend on your beliefs which, in turn, are formed by your personal philosophy.

It’s a cycle. Results are all but impossible without action, because personal philosophy and beliefs are hard to change for most people. We are not used to tampering with our heads and altering our thoughts. It’s not something they teach at school, is it? Taking action, however, is accessible and instantaneous. This you have control over and can execute at a moment’s notice.

For the record: I don’t believe in progress if it’s not translated into daily discipline. If you don’t practise every day that which you want to improve, you set yourself up to fail. Daily practice is the base on which you can build and from which you can grow. Keeping that in mind, your actions should be as big as you can sustain.

When I began my quest to overcoming social anxiety, speaking to a stranger was beyond my capabilities, therefore I couldn’t sustain that discipline. Mustering all my courage, willpower and energy I was able to start a conversation with a stranger about once in two weeks.

» Don’t try too much at once

Deciding to perform an unsustainable discipline is a recipe for disaster. You will fail and you will beat yourself up for your failure. Instead of focusing on what you should be doing, you will focus on chastising yourself.

Once you design your discipline and at least try to do it every day, tracking comes into play. In my case, tracking helped me realise that I wasn’t able to sustain such a “big” habit as talking to strangers every day. Thus, I decided to make eye contact and smile at strangers because that was within the realm of my capabilities.

The more often you show up the better. Your discipline should be done at least once a day. This is the approach I prescribe to everyone for everything, the approach that will build a habit for you.

When you do something every day and you actually take notice of that activity, you feel like you invested a lot into it. You will not want to lose that “investment”. This mind trick will help you to resist the temptation to quit.

Take three minutes right now and answer the questions below off the top of your head:

  • What am I afraid in social interactions?
  • How does that make me feel?
  • How would I like to feel instead?
  • What I need to do, who do I need to become, to feel that?
  • What daily action can I take to make it true?
  • What’s the tiniest action I can do every day to move me closer to that goal?

Quick answers are usually as good as the well-thought-out ones and, in any case, it’s not like they are set in stone. You can change your course later on. But those “here and now” answers have given you some substance to act upon.

You’ve discovered the tiniest action that will start your journey from shyness to confidence. Perform it ASAP, preferably right away.

» Beginning is always the hardest part of the process

But you’ll start, won’t you? You want to have it done.

Initially, your actions may be altogether internal. If you are afraid of public speaking, visualise yourself on stage confidently speaking to a big crowd. If you are afraid of talking to strangers, notice people around you and perform imaginary chats with them in your head.

Your subconscious cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality, so you will gain confidence through those visualisations. You can’t rely solely on them however, because it is action that gives a true boost to your confidence.

Every time I looked someone in the eyes, every time I smiled at a stranger, I found arguments with which to counter my internal critic: “See? I can do that! I’m not hopeless! I can actually do something to improve!”

You Can Conquer Your Social Anxiety!

Overcoming social anxiety doesn’t need polished first liners, wonderfully white teeth or a body language that emanates confidence. It takes minuscule habits practised every day with consistency. Your habits determine who you are. If you always look down to avoid interactions, try raising your head a few times a day when you are in uncomfortable social situation.

It doesn’t take more than that. I assure you, it’s worth it to become more confident. It will affect your whole life, every single aspect of it. The habits you make will grow in strength with time and you will be able to start bolder actions.

Here are a few things I’ve been able to change in my life since I challenged myself to make new habits and track my results:

  • I made new friendships, both online and offline,
  • I improved my professional skills by passing a few exams and got a new job [with 35% higher salary].
  • I learned how to network online and I am in contact with entrepreneurs who have six-, seven- and eight-figure businesses.
  • I made at least a dozen strangers happy by praising them spontaneously.
  • I lost excess weight and have kept my body trim and fit for the last three years.
  • I beat around 100 personal fitness records.
  • I became an author; I published 12 books and sold over 17,000 copies of them.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people read my stuff online.
  • Thanks to my publishing side business and increased salary I bought the first house for my family and I have been able to pay off the mortgage two times faster than the bank’s plan had set up.
  • My influence caused a ripple effect—at least a few of my readers published their own first book.

All of these things are awesome. I feel more in control of my own life, enjoy it more and contribute more to the lives of others.

But do you know what’s best? I love people more. It’s not just a fuzzy feeling inside my chest any more. Nowadays I can take action: smile at someone, make eye contact and wink, praise spontaneously or offer my help. I’m no longer constricted by my shyness.

This is real. I no longer live in a shell.

Also read » Overcome hesitation in 4 easy steps

Conclusion: How My Life Changed After I Overcame My Social Anxiety

In February 2012, the millionaire Brendon Burchard launched a product called “Expert Academy”. He put some free videos on the web to promote the launch. Bernard threw a challenge in his video: make a video talking about five life lessons. He would give away five tickets to his event and pay for the winners’ plane tickets. I decided to try. It would be the first video I’d ever made. I wrote the script while commuting on the train. One of the points to cover was: “Take action.”

As I worked on the script, I noticed an old lady sitting next to me deep in prayer. I thought: “I pray every day, we have something in common. I will ask her about her prayers.” At this point, my shy nature reacted with panic: “Oh, no! That would be rude! It will be disaster! Don’t do it!”

And I didn’t.

After several minutes, I wrote the words “Take action!” in the script. This time I felt compelled to speak to the old lady. I did, and found out that she had two very ill grandchildren, one had heart problems and the other, autism. I learned that their parents struggle financially. I decided to take action, and I’ve been helping them financially since that time.

The old lady’s son-in-law is an atheist; he more or less makes fun of her Christian beliefs. The fact that some stranger is donating money for his son, solely because the stranger saw his mother-in-law praying, is incomprehensible to him. It’s totally contrary to his worldview, where everybody cares only for themselves. He hasn’t converted to Christianity or anything, but this gesture caused a rupture in his belief system. Maybe, with time, it will transform into something greater.

That year, I got Christmas wishes from the family. The lady I talked to, the grandmother of those ill kids, prays for me every day. And I get tears in my eyes every time I think about it [even now, as I write this].

That was the first time my chat with a stranger affected my life and the lives of others, but it wasn’t the last. That conversation happened when I really did not feel ready to talk to strangers. It was a great struggle. But the rewards that blossomed from it—being able to help others, knowing that I am making a difference—were well worth the struggle.

Now I love more. So will you. Take action, affect your personal philosophy and set of beliefs. Become someone liberated from the curse of shyness and social anxiety. Love more.

This is an updated version of an article that was first published in the May 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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