How can a former shy person go from merely functional to friendly?
June 7, 2012 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I used to be very shy. Through years of pushing myself (I'm 33 now), I've become pretty amazingly functional. But I find myself in an unexpected spot. While I very much want to be around people and I can now handle it without freezing up, my experience of actually being around people is one of gritted teeth and willpower. There's very little joy in it. In theory, I'd like nothing more than a bushel of friends hanging out in my kitchen on a Sunday night. In practice, I push myself into social situations like dunking my arm in freezing water, pulling it out with a huge sigh of relief as soon as I let myself. That's not a recipe for forging new friendships, which I know take time and certain amount of vulnerability. What can I do to take myself to the next level -- from functional to genuinely friendly? Do people ever make it to the next level? On the phobia scale, it's not enough for me to be able to let a spider crawl on my arm without having a panic attack, I need to be able to lay down in a cave full of spiders and love it. (I've been in therapy for a year, but aside from that, I'd like to hear from you all.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

No, really.

I'm not talking about getting drunk. That's no good, and a serious recipe for more--and more serious--problems.

But have a beer or a glass of wine. Maybe two. Alcohol is an amazing social lubricant. Your shyness may be as much a product of anxiety and self-consciousness as anything else, and a little ethanol can numb those things out pretty effectively.

And here's the thing: doing that for a few months can teach you that hey, being around people ain't so bad. I was pretty socially awkward back in the day* but once I hit twenty-one and started drinking socially, I learned that people are actually kinda fun. Now, despite a woefully expensive taste for scotch, I don't actually drink all that much. But it served as a really useful tool to get me to relax in public, and now I don't need it anymore.

Because people are kinda fun. And if you can just give your brain something other than anxiety hormones to metabolize for a few minutes, you can start to get that. To the point that you get that all the time, drink or no.

And before anyone jumps down my through for recommending this... what's the difference between a judicially titrated buzz and anxiety meds? Other than the fact that beer is cheap and pills are expensive, I'm not aware of much. Both are an attempt at using chemicals to affect one's mood towards a particular outcome. Only we're pretty sure we know how booze works, while SSRIs and whatever are still a major psychochemical black box.

*No snotty comments from the peanut gallery. The jokes write themselves.
posted by valkyryn at 8:25 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

You could organize events that involve groups by limited interaction, as a means of taking the pressure off the evening. Like going to a movie. You can talk a bit before, watch the movie in silence, talk a bit after, and then everyone calls it a night. That also leaves the option open for increased interactions (suggesting everyone goes out for a drink after) if you are feeling more comfortable. It also gives you good openers if you see people later in the week ("Hey, wasn't that a great/terrible movie on the weekend?").

Also, if it makes you anymore comfortable, it is absolutely OK to not like to socialize in large groups of people. You could always invite one or two people over to watch a game or a movie, and that is completely alright.
posted by Nightman at 8:26 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, my advice for these situations (which can be taxing to me too) is to:

1) Remind yourself that the stakes are really really low. The worst case is that you talk to someone and you dont click, and you both move on.

2) Practice being curious. Ask people what they're into, and really listen. Listen way more than you talk, listen way more than you feel like you should be talking. Take the pressure off of yourself and really develop a curiosity about others. The best conversations will be between two people like this.
posted by softlord at 8:27 AM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Why do you feel the need to have a bushel of friends to regularly hang with? That may be an unrealistic goal and will set up unrealistic expectations. Start with forging some close friendships with people who share some similarly deep-felt interests. If there is a community nearby with the same deep interests, it should make it much easier.

I have a few close friends spread around with few local. There are people I can count on but I don't have a coterie. It doesn't appear to be a handicap and I don't fixate on it. Maybe the key is not to fixate so much.
posted by JJ86 at 8:29 AM on June 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

You're an introvert. It's not an emotional illness, it's as ingrained as a sexual orientation.

If you want to spend only a little time with a few friends – and that's all you have the taste for and tolerance for – this will be fine, if they're true friends and understand that.

Unless you have a job or aspirations that mean glad-handing a lot of people, why try to force it? Find the balance you're comfortable with and go on from there.
posted by zadcat at 8:30 AM on June 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Using alcohol to treat anxiety is a poor idea. As a gaba receptor agonist, prolonged use will eventually induce downregulation of the gaba receptors, raising your baseline anxiety levels.
posted by dereferenced at 8:38 AM on June 7, 2012

Practice, mainly, and try not to force it. Try doing some solo travel and couchsurfing or staying in hostels. People are very casual and open to friendships while travelling. I found this did a lot for me in terms of learning to open myself up. Also, if you live in a big city there is probably a couchsurfing community that runs regular events which will be attended by a mixture of locals and travelers. Again, these will be people that are easy-going, so it will be a low-pressure situation.

The next step is solo connections with people. Ask new friends out / over for beer, tea, coffee, breakfast. Have a few conversations one on one and they will start to feel familiar, and you will begin to relax around them. Once you begin to relax, you will begin to trust them not to hurt you, and you will feel safe about letting yourself come out. They will do the same and you will start to grow closer. That's generally how it seems to work.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:58 AM on June 7, 2012

I think there's a little kernel of truth in the Inebriati approach, but you can't really rely on that. It's a short-term lubricant, not a long term self-medicating solution. (Plus if you ever mess up and have more than slightly less than two drinks, you run the risk of causing The Event.)

More seriously, I'm firmly in the don't-force-it camp. Forcing things is antithetical to making and strengthening friendships in the same way it is to any sort of positive relationship. Honesty, too: you have to be honest about what you really want. Do you really want--even in theory--a "bushel" of friends in your kitchen? (Sounds exhausting to me, but I'm one of the needle-pegged-at-the-stops side of the introvert-extrovert axis.) Only you can answer that for you. I suspect--perhaps projecting due to aforementioned pegged-needle--that you don't actually want that, that you'd rather have maybe one or two or a handful friends in your kitchen at most, and that you may just be telling yourself you want the full bushel.

If you do wan the full bushel, then that's different. softlord's points up above are worth underscoring. People like it when others are interested in them, and taking interest in other people is a skill that can be strengthened through use. To them I'd add as something to keep in mind: other people are every bit as prone to social anxiety and oh-god-they-can-tell-I'm-faking and what-if-they-think-I'm-stupid as you. Introverted, extroverted, whatever--people are pretty much the same critters. Which loops right back around to: relax and don't force things.
posted by Drastic at 9:00 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not everyone in the kitchen has to be your best pal-=-you can invite a couple of people and ask them to each bring someone and voila! you have party. If you're an introvert, make sure there's an extrovert in the crowd to introduce everyone to each other, make sure they've each got a beverage, and you can enjoy the whole scene without having to interact with each and every person. My husband is glad to be the guy whipping up snacks and chatting with one or two people, while I'm flitting around, making introductions and dragging people over to look at the view or whatever. It's okay to have a low key conversation in the midst of hubbub. You don't have to lead the conga line, but you can provide the space and facilitate the socialization. Start small, and see how it goes.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:06 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Something I find really helpful (aside from therapy and limited alcohol) is to have something to Do while I socialize. I'm one of those people who'll jump up and do the dishes to avoid my social anxiety, but in situations where I've been volunteering with others - trail cleanups, painting parties at friends' houses, even playing games at game nights.

Try socializing while doing something else, and see if you don't become so comfortable with some of those people that you couldn't see hanging out with them in the kitchen some night.
posted by ldthomps at 9:08 AM on June 7, 2012

I agree with zadcat that this just sounds like you're an introvert, which is a perfectly normal and fine thing to be.

To make a broad generalization, introverts do better with intimate gatherings of close friends while extroverts thrive in "lots of people you don't know very well" scenarios. Mrs. usonian and I are both introverts and have some great friends who we adore spending time with... but when a gathering creeps much beyond 2 or 3 guests at a time it really burns us out. We may have a perfectly lovely time, but we'll spend the next couple of days recharging our batteries.

Of course, being an introvert and trying to forge close friendships presents a bit of a catch-22, because you have to socialize up front with people you don't know very well before they become close friends. That's why I'm always suggesting that people join a club/fraternal organization/service organization in threads like this... After you leave school and go out into the real world, it's damn hard to meet new people who aren't neighbors or coworkers.

A group that meets regularly gives you a chance to meet a cross-section of your community you probably wouldn't encounter otherwise, but at the same time there's usually structure to meetings or activities that takes the pressure of arbitrary socializing off; you can get as involved as you want or you can just sit and listen. Eventually you'll strike up some good friendships that will lead naturally to other friendships within and/or without the group.
posted by usonian at 9:27 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm a self-enforced extroverted introvert myself. I can handle being with people in social situations without screaming my head off afterwards, but it took a while. Actually most people who don't know me well find it hard to believe just how introverted I am. Let me tell you, it took a lot of practice.

I think Ideefixe hit it on the head. You don't have to be best buds with everyone around. The way I see it, introverts don't do well with a huge circle of friends. It's not because friends are like spiders crawling on the arm, it's more that our webs stretch too thin and they snap from trying to keep up with too many people. Extroverts don't have that problem because they have the energy to weave so many webs. We've got to re-energize after socializing, extroverts do not. Intoverts do better with a small circle of friends (sometimes one or two) and a larger circle of "friendly people we know." I can count on one hand the number of people I consider close friends, but I can't even count the number of acquaintances I have. Close friends help you plan a gathering, acquaintances are the ones you invite so you can be surrounded by friendly people. Does that make sense?

See, I can abide the thought of having a bunch of people in my kitchen chatting it up, but I'd rather go to *their* kitchen where I don't have to play the hostess but can sit in the corner and sip a drink (non-alcoholic, please) and chat with one or two people while being surrounded by, if not friends, then friendly people.
posted by patheral at 9:45 AM on June 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

In theory, I'd like nothing more than a bushel of friends hanging out in my kitchen on a Sunday night.

Why? Serious question. What is good about that scenario to you? I guess what I'm wondering is, have you been so focused on learning to cope with the basic mechanics of being in social situations that you've lost sight of what your actual goals are? What rewards do you hope to gain from being in social situations?

Perhaps there may be some value in investigating whether you need to seek out different kinds of social situations that are apt to produce rewards that are worth the bother. Jumping into to whatever situations in a bid to develop the tolerance to just do it may have been a good strategy up to now, but maybe now that you have the ability to deal it is time to think about where that tolerance is actually going to produce for you.

There are kinds of parties I would never do any more. Because I have no pleasure in being in a press of people and nothing will happen there that is fun for me. But I will definitely negotiate the things I dislike (the press, pervasive loudness, ubiquitous drinking) to be in a situation where there are enough pockets or relative calm where I can catch up with several people I genuinely like but rarely see. Likewise I will push myself into situations I positively hate and would not go for my own sake ever, because I know my kid will get a kick out of it. I can't exactly enjoy most of it but my child's delight produces experience that I consider worth the bother.

An arachnophobe does not need to learn to love reclining in a cave full of spiders, they need to be able to do the things they want to do without the near universal presence of spiders spoiling it for them. I will probably never be a person who would enjoy being in social situations for its own sake. But I can brave pretty much any situation now, and actually enjoy myself if there is something I actually enjoy on offer.
posted by nanojath at 9:48 AM on June 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

I used to be very shy, I pushed myself too. Now, although I still do need plenty of alone time, we have a kitchen/dining room/patio/etc, filled with people when we choose to.

We plan pot luck game nights with endings built in, we plan that Sunday mornings will be the time for people to drop in, listen to the church people next door make their music and eat delicious things.

We've had this going on for about 5 years now and our friends (and sometimes their friends) know that mostly we are open to people dropping by, walking in the back door and looking for us, joining us at the patio table. They know that they are welcome to the treats that we have in the kitchen, or to bringing their new game over for us to play.

When we don't wnt to be disturbed, when we are feeling low energy and need to recharge (we're a house full of introverts) we lock the back door or tell people who call that today isn't good. They get it, and then we plan for another day. If it's just one or two of us who need to not be around people, we hide and the others play. So far so good.

It takes a while to get there both friend wise and personally. At first we needed a lot of down time. A small get together would mean at least a week of recovery. Now it's just a day or a few hours.

Good luck, this is a wonderful way to live in the world.
posted by saffronwoman at 9:48 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you might be happier having a small group of friends that you get together with one-on-one (and actually enjoy such events), with group events being the rarer birthday outing or other major celebration. If socializing is that much work, you need to have more control over the frequency of it and more enjoyment of the occasions when it happens, and most introverts find that a few lower-key contacts are the way to make that happen. You can always watch "Friends" reruns for the group-contact buzz, heh, but realize that the people who thrive on that kind of constant socializing aren't Better just Different. There are plenty of happy introverts in the world who aren't locked in their rooms...
posted by acm at 9:52 AM on June 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had severe social anxiety to the point where I dropped out of high school and wouldn't leave the house.
Honestly, what worked for me was antidepressants and alcohol. I dont drink any more because I get migraines but it helped my confidence.
posted by KogeLiz at 10:29 AM on June 7, 2012

I can't help you with acquiring friends to hang out in your kitchen, but I have two suggestions that worked for me about learning how to become less shy.

Suggestion One - Get a part-time job where you interact with the public for a short length of time. For me, this was bartending. I'm not necessarily suggesting that job in particular, but any situation (even volunteer work) with these attributes:

* Some requirement to interact with the public and be friendly about it - This forces you to practice your social skills. It helps if the job allows the occasional lengthier interaction, rather than a string of "Would you like fries with that?" and "Have a nice day". Bartending was ideal for this. On slow nights, the only thing to do was chat up the lone customer.

* An opportunity to NOT interact with the public, even for a few minutes - This gives you a chance to catch your breath. As a bartender, I could escape to the basement for a breather if things were getting too intense for me. (Obviously I wouldn't leave the bar unattended and I wouldn't be gone long - just enough to recharge.)

* A set length of time - If you know that your shift is from 8-midnight or whatever, you can psyche yourself up for it. You know in advance that it will end, so it doesn't seem like some kind of eternal torture.

* A regular group of people to work with - As in any work situation, you get close to the people you work with. And they may have friends that you might get introduced to, thus widening your social network.

Suggestion Two - Teach. I don't mean, necessarily, becoming a full-time 3rd grade teacher or whatever. But do you have a skill or a hobby that you're proud of? Find a way to teach it to others. Libraries, nursing homes, community centers, adult education programs at the local college, retirement communities, park districts - all of these are places that would love to have someone come in and teach the basics of using Google, or to fix a flat bike tire, or to lead an exercise class. I never gained so much self-confidence in a short time as I did when I started teaching. Having a room full of people looking at you like you walk on water just because you know how to change the screen resolution on your monitor will do wonders for your self-confidence, and self-confidence is what gives you the ability to talk to people in lots of situations.

Good luck! And remember you're pretty cool just the way you are!
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:39 AM on June 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're basically trying to do some ad hoc exposure therapy, which is great except for the fact that the exposure itself isn't enough.

Treating anxiety in large part involves eliminating the physiological fight-or-flight response caused by the situation in question, which is accomplished in part by challenging your negative thinking about the scenario and in part by exposure to the scenario. It sounds like part of your problem is that you're consumed with worry the whole time, and that worry triggers the uncomfortable physiological response that your mind has learned to associate with social situations. Exposure therapy works by forcing you to stay in a situation that causes you anxiety and to ride out the subsequent physiological response (because, absent any other factors, it will eventually fade) so that your mind replaces the association between social situations and anxiety with one where social situations are no different than any of the other activities that you can do without getting anxious. The problem is, your brain also associates the fight-or-flight response with the negative thinking that you engage in when you're in social situations, so your anxiety never fades because you're sort of artificially augmenting it, thus only strengthening your association of social situations with anxiety.

So, in conclusion, the trick is to avoid negative thinking while you're experiencing the fear-inducing stimulus. Unfortunately, policing your thinking that way is really difficult. If you're in a cognitive-behavioral therapy program (I hope you are, it's pretty much the most effective non-medical treatment for anxiety out there), then you're sort of familiar with the process: when an exaggerated negative thought comes up, you respond to it with a rational, objective counterargument. The only difference here is that you'd be doing it on the fly. Honestly, though, what I've found much easier is to borrow techniques from meditation to shut off my internal monologue, which eliminates the possibility of maladaptive thinking in the first place. You start off by doing something like counting breaths, starting over at ten, really paying attention to the sensation of your chest rising and falling (I used this as a guide; there's not nearly as much woo as you'd expect, it's mostly pretty practical, though obviously the stuff about sitting posture isn't immediately relevant here). It takes practice, because at first thoughts intrude pretty forcefully and before you know it you've been out of the meditation-state for five minutes. After you get good at it, though, you can dismiss wayward thoughts pretty easily, and not having to listen to your mind tell you how awful everything is really takes the edge off anxiety-producing scenarios. That, combined with exposure* as outlined above, will I think do a lot to get you to where you want to be.

* I really recommend that you work this out with your therapist instead of trying to do it yourself; the ones that know how to do CBT/exposure therapy will be able to plan a series of scenarios that start out with minor fear-inducing scenarios and escalate to the ones that bother you the most, which is important. If your therapist doesn't have experience with CBT or exposure therapy, it might be worth finding one who does.
posted by invitapriore at 11:21 AM on June 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

"non-medical" above should read "non-medicinal."
posted by invitapriore at 11:23 AM on June 7, 2012

Do you genuinely like other people?

It might be more tolerable to be around others if you can cultivate a deep and genuine appreciation of others into your tool kit.
posted by jbenben at 11:27 AM on June 7, 2012

I didn't read all the responses, but going to a trivia night at a bar, or playing cards or a board game might make it less harrowing to socialize in a group. Or have people over once a week to watch a show like Game of Thrones or Mad Men, which will give you all something to bond over and more importantly, something to focus on besides omgwhatthefuckdoidowithmyhands.
posted by désoeuvrée at 8:38 PM on June 7, 2012

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