Holiday Survival for the Ultra Shy

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Just because you're shy doesn't mean you have to dodge the mistletoe this holiday season.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

From surviving small talk with Aunt Mary on Thanksgiving to sidestepping the mistletoe at the office Christmas party, shy people may view the holiday season as a daunting obstacle course. If you're one of them, you're in good company. According to surveys by the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, about 40% of people consider themselves shy.

The institute's director, psychology professor Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, tells WebMD, "Shy people are not alone. They feel nobody else is shy, because shy people don't talk to each other. They fail to realize that there are lots of other people just like them." He suggests keeping that in mind when you make the rounds this holiday season. "Look to your left, look to your right ? Chances are one of those people is shy."

What Is Shyness?

According to Jonathan Cheek, PhD, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, shyness is "the tendency to feel tense, worried, or awkward during social interactions, especially with unfamiliar people." Shy people may have trouble maintaining eye contact or relaxed body language at social events and often agonize over what to say in conversation. "Shy people are their own worst critics," Cheek tells WebMD. "They have a perfectionist vision of what they ought to be doing."

Unlike introverts, who prefer spending time alone, many shy people want to enjoy the company of others. "They force themselves to go to social functions, parties, bars, concerts," says Carducci, who is also the author of Shyness: A Bold New Approach. "The problem is they don't know what to do once they're there."

Jeremy Ruggles, a network administrator in Davie, Fla., says he tends to get nervous and lose his train of thought whenever he talks with someone new. "It has been seen as rude or odd."

So what makes a person shy? According to the American Psychological Association, genetics and natural temperament play a small role. Other factors include:

  • Stressful life events, such as moving often during childhood
  • Negative family interactions, including overly critical parents
  • Stressful work or school environments

Ruggles tells WebMD he has been shy for as long as he can recall. "I remember my mom dropping me off at kindergarten, and I wrapped myself to her leg and wouldn't let go."

Evaluate Your Shyness

Carducci says the first step toward enjoying the holiday social scene is recognizing that there is nothing wrong with being shy. "The world would be better off with more shy people. Shy people are generally good listeners. They are highly motivated and they yield to others. Imagine if everyone acted like Dennis Rodman or Howard Stern."

But shyness can become a problem if it holds you back. Cheek says to ask yourself if shyness is a barrier to your career or relationship goals. "When people feel blocked, they should seek professional help."

People who are so overwhelmed with anxiety that they go to extremes to avoid socializing may have social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. This intense and persistent fear of being judged or humiliated can interfere with work and other everyday activities. "For awhile I didn't even want to go out to lunch with people at work," says Nan, a 30-year-old educator who asked that we use only her first name. She developed symptoms of social phobia in her teens, and the problem became worse as she got older. "I'll accept the faults and imperfections in other people, but I don't want anyone to see mine."

During the stress of the holidays, even people with ordinary shyness may show signs of social phobia or another potential pitfall, the holiday blues. "Shyness is a risk factor for depression when a person feels lonely or lacks social support," Cheek tells WebMD. "What shy people need to do is stop drifting passively and instead make some concrete plans, no matter how modest."

Respect Your Shyness Comfort Zone

Carducci says the key is to make plans that suit you. "Don't feel you have to go to everything. Pick and choose where and how you want to socialize." For Ruggles, that means "intimate gatherings among friends." Like many shy people, he is most comfortable sticking with familiar places and faces.

For those who want to expand their comfort zone, Carducci recommends changing one factor at a time. If you want to meet new people, try to do it on familiar turf. If you want to check out a new club, bring along familiar people.

"One thing shy people can do is pick out a friend or family member as a coach," Cheek says. "That person can then act as a bridge to the social world."

When considering invitations outside your comfort zone, focus on the possible benefits rather than the risks. "Going to an office party might make you feel anxious, but it has the potential for the rewards of human connection," Cheek says. He advises shy people to avoid the "all or nothing" trap. "They tend to think, 'Either I've got to stay home or I've got to be the life of the party.'" Showing up at the office party doesn't mean you have to hang out under the mistletoe. Give yourself permission to enjoy being an observer.

Forget "Fashionably Late"

In the days before a big party or daunting social function, do some reconnaissance. Find out where to park, who will be there, what type of food will be served and how much money you will need. Knowing what to expect may remove some of the stress on the day of the event.

When the date arrives, don't make the mistake of showing up late. Carducci explains that shy people need time to warm up to a new situation. "Shy people think, 'I'll go to the party late so there will be lots of people there. I'll blend in.' But it's harder to break into ongoing conversations. Rather than showing up late, we tell shy people to show up early. You get to meet people on a one-to-one basis."

Another common mistake is leaving the party after just 15 or 20 minutes. Carducci says that while putting in a quick appearance may seem like a good compromise, it doesn't give you a chance to get your bearings. Those who tough it out longer may find their initial discomfort fades. This strategy works well for Nan, who is back on the social circuit with the help of counseling and medication. "When I get to a party, I give myself a few minutes to survey the situation and see where I can ease into a conversation. I usually find the people I know and talk to them first."

Keep the Small Talk "Small"

According to Carducci, the No. 1 concern among shy people is starting and maintaining conversations. Shy people often worry they won't have anything smart to say -- a fear that stems from a misconception about the purpose of small talk. "The purpose is just to let others know you are willing to talk," Carducci says. "It's not to show people how brilliant, sophisticated, or funny you are. It's not designed to help you find a soul mate. The basic rule is you don't have to be brilliant, just nice."

"We call it small talk, because it is small," Cheek says. If you need ideas for things to say, try watching the news or reading reviews of movies or books. "A shy person can prepare for small talk by doing some 'culture of the day' homework."

Carducci recommends reading books or taking seminars on small talk, as well as practicing with friends. "You are not born with the gift of gab. It's an acquired skill, like learning to play golf or tennis."

People Don't Bite

For Ruggles, the opportunity to practice small talk comes with his job. "I'm always going to new clients' offices to fix their problems," he says. "The more social interaction I have, the better I get."

If your day job doesn't offer the chance to meet new people on a regular basis, Carducci suggests signing up for volunteer projects. He says the holiday season is the perfect time to start volunteering at a soup kitchen or an animal shelter, where you can meet people who share your interests. "You have the basis of conversation. You see [the other volunteers] again and again. They can become friends."

Volunteering backstage with a community theater group helped Nan expand her shyness comfort zone. Eventually she felt comfortable enough to perform on stage in three of the group's musicals. "I've started to realize my friends are going to be my friends," she says, "and I care less about what other people think."

While the holiday season can be challenging if you're shy, it can also be a time of growth. To make the most of it, Ruggles offers a sensible reminder. "People don't bite... and if they do bite, they aren't worth your time."

Published Nov. 8, 2004.

SOURCES: Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, New Albany, Indiana. Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, professor of psychology; and director of the Shyness Research Institute; author, Shyness: A Bold New Approach. Jonathan Cheek, PhD, professor of psychology, Wellesley College. Jeremy Ruggles, Davie, Fla. American Psychological Association. National Institute of Mental Health.

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