Friendly. Socially confident. Responsive.
At first glance, the intention of outgoing may make your palms sweat and your heart skip a beat.
But outgoing doesn't mean you have to be the loudest person in the room. It doesn't mean you have to get up on your desk at work and start singing “Don't Stop Believing.” The intention of outgoing can manifest itself in a variety of different ways: most importantly in a way that is true to you.
First, let's dive into a culprit that exacerbates social anxiety and shyness. Then we will discuss research findings support the natural transformation of more confidence in social settings.
Although labels such as extrovert and introvert have been used since the beginning of the 20th century, over time the original meaning of these words has gotten lost.
For instance, what do you usually think of when you hear the word extrovert? Probably someone who is outgoing, confident, and probably pretty talkative.
And the word introvert? You likely imagine someone who appears shy, reserved, or anxious.
But here is the thing. That is not what these words mean! The labels of extrovert or introvert are not fixed personality types, rather they point to our preference for how we feel most energized. People with introverted tendencies tend to recharge by having some alone time. They tend to get tired when around people for long periods of time. Whereas, people with extroverted tendencies recharge by spending time with other people. In contrast, they often feel a lull in energy when they have too much alone time. (1)
Why do I bring this up?
Because we typically describe ourselves as being either an extrovert or an introvert and create a really compelling story around these concepts that impacts how we feel and what actions we take in the world.
“There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.” –Carl G. Jung
Over my career, I have seen the tendency for people who experience nervousness, a racing heartbeat, or sweating palms while around others, be really hard on themselves. They wish they could only be more socially comfortable. They sometimes even experience pressure from loved ones to be “less shy” and more outgoing. But fear paralyzes them from putting themselves out there. So they only feel more guilty and down on themselves and they shy away even more from social opportunities, even though deep down they do desire to be more friendly, socially confident, and responsive.
But they are already these things! So are you. So am I.
Think of your interactions with your closest friends, your partner, or your family member. There are times when all of us are outgoing and socially confident whether we are aware of it or not. And there are times when almost all of us feel shy and anxious.
So what if being shy isn't the problem? What if feeling anxious wasn't a problem either?
Yes, sensations that accompany shyness and anxiety are uncomfortable, but they always pass. So aside from fearing physiological sensations, at the core, it is really that many people fear being judged. They are terrified they will humiliate or embarrass themselves. They “care too much what people think.”
But haven't you experienced this? That you knew, at some point, that you “cared too much what other people though”…but just knowing this didn't help you in feeling more confident and comfortable in social situations?
Reflect on this. A study was done where participants had to wear an “uncool t-shirt” with a photo of Barry Manilow. Across the board, participants wearing the shirt grossly overestimated the extent to which other people noticed what they were wearing (2).
So ponder this irony. You are walking around feeling subconscious around others and caring so much what other people think….
and nearly everyone else is doing the same thing!
We all tend to overestimate the impact we have on other people. That is because each of us is most concerned with ourselves! So why do we all fall into this trap of believing other people care so much?
“Gilovich and colleagues suggest its because we are so focused on ourselves. We are acutely aware of our own appearance and actions, and we have trouble realizing other people might not be as focused on us. This is an example of a phenomenon called “anchoring and adjustment.” We are anchored by our own experiences and we have trouble adjusting far enough away from them to accurately estimate how much attention other people are paying us.” – Dr. Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
This phenomenon is also called the spotlight effect and it points to the common experience of people believing they are being noticed (or cared about) much more than they actually are by others. So even though your neighbor Susie may gossip about you for a few minutes, her mind will quickly go back to focusing on all of her goals, insecurities, and problems.
So how can you move towards enhancing the experience of social confidence and outgoingness?
Practice. Confidence often comes through repetition. Just like learning to ride a bike was terrifying at first, over time you just stopped falling down. You became less afraid of getting on the bike and therefore road the bike more, only enhancing your bike riding skills.
Here is a real-world example. A client reported she used to be painfully shy. However, since taking a job as a flight attendant two years ago, she now experiences new levels of social confidence and manifests being outgoing in her own unique way. Through repeated exposure, her fears began to melt away. She began to see that she actually was quite socially capable and has even grown her current skills. She has harnessed her ability to read others and thus feels the outcomes of her social experiences are more fruitful. She even frequently gets asked on out dates by passengers in her cabin.
How can you enhance your natural ability to be outgoing in a way that is authentic to you and not in a way that makes you feel bad?
(Read this next: 6 Steps to Becoming More Outgoing)