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By "Today" contributor
TODAY
updated 1/27/2005 11:05:25 AM ET 2005-01-27T16:05:25

Q. In social situations, people think I’m stuck up — which couldn’t be less true. The reality is that I’m terribly shy. Worse, I find it difficult to make friends. What can I do?

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A. Shyness, which is likely an inborn trait, makes new encounters difficult, as you know. You feel anxious and assume others will criticize you. This makes it tough to come off as warm and welcoming.

A severe and crippling form of shyness is known as social phobia. People are truly panicked in social situations — with sweating, nausea, palpitations and a feeling of losing control. They can benefit from therapy or medication.

Chances are that you are not in this group. Instead of exhibiting these extreme physical symptoms, you look away, clam up, fold your arms and use protective body language. Others perceive you as arrogant and aloof; meanwhile, you are feeling scared.

Breaking through shyness is difficult —so give yourself lots of time and practice. Start slowly and build up from there. Don’t try to change yourself overnight.

Here are some ways to get started:

  • In social situations, make a concerted effort to establish direct connections with others. Make a point of looking at them in the eye three times during a conversation. Or touch them lightly on the arm. Or pay them a specific compliment.
  • Think ahead about subjects you are comfortable discussing — movies, current events, pets — so you can bring them up if there’s a silence. This way, you’ll feel more in control of the interaction.
  • If you really clam up, write out several sentences about suitable conversational topics. Review and rehearse them ahead of time so you can feel prepared.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: With effort and practice, making new friends does  get easier.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com. Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” is to be published in May 2004.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.

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