science of us

The Shy Person’s Guide to Being the Center of Attention

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re winding down a nice birthday dinner with your friends, contemplating dessert, when you see it: A gang of clapping, singing waiters carrying forced smiles, free cake, and a hat. They crown you, and the song begins. You smile and bear, it but inside, you’re screaming: Get me out of here.

Few among us are fans of the birthday dinner ambush, but if you’re a shy person in general, it’s a whole other circle of hell. The problem is that life is full of spotlight moments like this one. Your birthday, your wedding day, even just a meeting you have to facilitate at work — at some point, we all find ourselves the center of attention.

It’s an unpleasant and inevitable reality — but there are ways to make the feeling a little more bearable. For example, the age-old advice to take deep breaths really does work. Researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium said that deep sighs served as “psychological and physiological resetters” to calm anxiety, making it a great way to cope if you’re nervous about a speech or a walk down the aisle. A deep breath, though, is also a last-ditch, in-the-moment effort; if you really want to conquer the anxiety that comes with the spotlight, here are a few things you can do ahead of time to get yourself in the right headspace.

Find an anxiety anchor.

One of the most effective ways to ease your nerves is to pinpoint an anchor in the crowd — someone you know and trust — and focus on them. “It makes a big difference knowing they’re nearby and can … provide you with some relief, understanding, and strength during those stressful center-of-attention moments,” says Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist in Tarrrytown, New York, who specializes in working with clients with anxiety, shyness, and introversion.

This advice is easily applicable for something like wedding day jitters, when you’re surrounded by the people closest to you (including your soon-to-be spouse). In other situations, you might have to work a little harder to make sure you have an anchor. I once gave a radio interview, for example, and the idea made me so nervous, even though there would only be one other person in the room. I asked a friend to come with me for support, and with her there, the whole thing felt much friendlier and intimate. If circumstances allow, bringing someone who helps you feel supported and encouraged makes it that much easier try to drown out the rest of the noise.

Stick to a script.

“I’m kind of a weirdo. I hate talking in front of people but I do a lot of community theatre,” says Cat Smith, a voiceover artist and radio host at KSVY. “I get horrible stage fright. I have to give a lot of presentations for my new business … to prove I know what I’m talking about. And that terrifies me more. At least in theatre, I’m pretending to be someone else. Being myself is harder.”

This tip won’t work for impromptu events, but if you have time to rehearse, Smith says sticking to a script can take away much of the pressure when the attention is on you. “I prefer to make sure I know what I’m talking about backward and forwards over having an outline or note cards,” Smith says. “It’s too easy to get lost using them and that’s when I sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about, even though I wrote it.” Visuals, like props or a basic PowerPoint presentation, can also be helpful. If you give the audience something to look at, you feel less like they’re staring at and judging you. This can ease some of the pressure, Smith suggests. Even for things that are supposed to be more off-the-cuff — say, thanking guests for coming to a party you’ve hosted — it can help to think ahead of time about the details: what you want to say, when you want to say it, even where you plan to stand.

Turn anxiety into excitement.

If the attention is making you nervous, try morphing the feeling into a more positive one. In a series of studies published in 2013, Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School looked at how excitement affects performance anxiety. For example, in one experiment, she had participants play a karaoke video game, asking them to tell themselves either, “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing at all before singing. In another experiment, subjects had to make a short speech and tell themselves either, “I am calm” or “I am excited” before performing. In a third experiment, participants were given similar instructions but asked to solve a difficult math problem.

Across the board, the study participants performed better when they told themselves they were excited. In fact, when people told themselves they were excited, they actually saw the math problem as less of a threat and more of an opportunity. The idea is that while anxiety and calm are two completely different emotions, anxiety and excitement are kind of similar — in both cases, your senses are heightened and aroused — and therefore somewhat interchangeable. Implementing this research might be as simple as telling yourself “I am excited” before the moment everyone’s eyes land on you.

Alcee suggests focusing your energy outward instead of inward as well. “For public speaking, it helps shy or anxious folks to find ways of coming at it from the inside-out,” he says. Focus on what you love about the subject itself, and attempt to lose yourself in that more than dwelling on how others will perceive you. “Much easier said than done,” he adds, “but it’s more helpful than trying to focus from the outside-in.”

Talk to yourself.

Yes, it sounds cringey, but talking to yourself as though you’re someone else can be surprisingly effective for reducing stress. In a series of studies, University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross found that using your first name or even the pronoun “you” helped people feel more confident and less anxious before a performance. When study participants talked to themselves in the third person, they both felt calmer and performed better. This has to do with a concept known as self-distancing, or viewing yourself from the perspective of someone else — it helps you to feel less in your own head and to put your anxiety in perspective. So next time you find yourself in front of an audience, you might try talking yourself through it the way someone else might.

Finally, as a shy person myself, one thing that’s helped me deal with being the center of attention is forcing myself to get out of my ruts. If I had things my way, I would live inside a Snuggie with my cat and never deal with another human, but getting used to that level of solitude makes it so much harder when the attention is on you  — when the waiters come at you and start singing. Being in the spotlight is like exercise. The more often you do it, the easier it gets.

And practice can be something simple. Strike up a conversation with the barista. Wear those cute, attention-grabbing earrings. Volunteer to lead your next work meeting. We shy folks may always hate the spotlight, but it isn’t quite so sweltering if you’re used to the heat.

The Shy Person’s Guide to Being the Center of Attention