Secret to Overcoming Shyness Revealed ... Tentatively

Credit: Wazari/Stock.Xchng (Image credit: Wazari/Stock.Xchng)

The next time you're invited to a party but afraid to go, try approaching this: shyness may affect up to 40 percent of the population, but it doesn't have to be a life sentence.

People can overcome their shyness with preparation followed by slowly engaging themselves in new social situations, according to psychologists.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that one of the world's foremost experts in shyness, Bernardo Carducci, has battled with shyness himself.

"I had lots of friends, but I had no dates," Carducci, the director of the Indiana University Southeast Shyness Research Institute, said of his youth. Shyness is "something that I work at."

Recipes for shyness

Carducci says that despite beliefs to the contrary, shyness is not completely hardwired.

This is because shyness requires a sense of self—which develops only after about 18 months of age. It involves feelings of excessive self-consciousness, negative self-evaluation and negative self-preoccupation, he explained.

"Shy people operate as if thy have a mirror in front of them all the time," he told LiveScience.

Genes do, however, seem to play a role. About 15 percent of babies are born with what is called an "inhibited temperament"—meaning that they react stressfully to new experiences. They might cower at the sound of a bursting balloon, for instance.

And if one identical twin is shy, the other also is likely to be shy, said Jonathan Cheek, a psychologist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

"This does not mean that shyness is predetermined by inheritance, or that it cannot be overcome," Cheek said, "but simply that some people are born more susceptible to becoming shy than are others."

A shy disposition

In a nutshell, shy people want to be outgoing and friendly, but can't seem to figure out how to do it, Carducci said.

They are also slow to "warm up" in new social situations, partly because they are so self-conscious.

"They'll go to a social function, but if they're not comfortable within 10 minutes, they'll turn and they'll run," Carducci said.

Finally, shy people tend to have what Carducci calls a "limited comfort zone." They may be social and have friends, but they tend to do the same things over and over again with the same small circle of people, rather than exposing themselves to new social situations.

Carducci points out, however, that shyness is not related to self-esteem. People can be confident in certain aspects of their lives—they may be able to give presentations in front of hundreds of people—but the thought of making small talk with a stranger might make them extremely anxious.

Don't be shy of a cure

There are a number of approaches to overcoming their shyness.

One is through relaxation training. People might try imagining themselves in different social situations while taking slow, deep breaths to keep calm, said Cheek, the Wellesley psychologist.

They can also work to slowly expand their comfort zone, Carducci said.

He suggested volunteering as a good way to do this. "When you volunteer, [people] don't really care your level of skill; they're just after your time, so there's no critical self-evaluation," he explained.

It's also important to overcome shyness one step at a time, according to both psychologists.

For instance, "if a shy man wants to ask a woman he sees at work out on a date, his first goal might be to have a brief conversation with her about some work-related topic," Cheek said.

Before doing so, he should practice the conversation with a friend or a counselor, Cheek said. Then the second time the shy guy speaks to the woman, he could talk about something a bit more personal, until eventually, he feels comfortable asking her out on a date.

People should also realize that "they need not take all the responsibility for any failure they might encounter," Cheek said. "Sometimes another person is unresponsive for reasons that have nothing to do with the shy person."