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How to come out of your shell | Psyche

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Guide

How to come out of your shell

You don’t have to be outgoing. But if being introverted is holding you back from the life you want, dive in for a way out

by Christian Jarrett + BIO

Photo by Danielle Kiemel/Getty

Need to know

A few years ago, Jessica Pan – a young journalist living in London and with the world at her feet – found herself at a low point. Life had become predictable and samey. ‘I realised that I was using the label “introvert” as an excuse to say no to anything new or anything that causes me anxiety,’ she told me. ‘I felt like I was totally cutting myself off from new experiences and new people. And I thought that can’t be healthy.’

Pan, who’d always identified strongly as an introvert, made a bold decision to do something about her malaise, conducting a self-experiment to live as an out-and-out extravert for a year. ‘I wanted to make new friends, I wanted to have more job opportunities, I wanted to feel more alive and not just have the same things happen to me,’ she says. One result of her extraverted year is Jessica’s funny and touching book Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come (2020).

Like Pan, a few years ago, I became frustrated by my introverted tendencies. I was writing a new book on personality change, Be Who You Want (2021), and made a conscious decision to act on the advice I’d discovered in the process. I didn’t go quite as far as Pan (among other things, she performed stand-up comedy and joined an improv club), but I did make a concerted effort to come out of my shell. I said yes to most personal and professional social invitations, and I made lifestyle changes, such as switching from solo sessions at the gym (cocooned by headphones) to group exercise classes that involved plenty of banter and laughter. My aim was to come out of my shell a little, to dial up my levels of extraversion so that I would feel less isolated, and to allow more room for the unexpected in life (I also made efforts to address other aspects of my personality, but that’s for another Guide!).

In personality science, our levels of introversion vs extraversion are considered one of the Big Five personality traits (alongside others, such as conscientiousness and neuroticism). These traits reflect our ‘tendencies to think, feel and behave in certain ways that are relatively consistent across time and situations,’ explains Rodica Damian, director of the Personality Development and Success Lab at the University of Houston.

Each Big Five trait, including introversion-extraversion, is a dimension, rather than a ‘type’ – that is, we all score somewhere along the spectrum, with few people at the very extremes. However, for convenience, I’ll use the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extravert’ as a shorthand for people with tendencies toward one end or other of the spectrum.

The extraversion-introversion dimension in modern personality science is similar to how we talk about these labels in everyday life, with some additional important characteristics. If you’re a strong extravert, not only are you chatty and sociable, but you are also optimistic, assertive, energetic and receptive to positive emotion – you seek out reward and you’re willing to take risks for pleasure. As a consequence, extraverts tend to be happier in life, bolder and more confident, which has benefits for their careers and health. By contrast, if you’re a strong introvert, you’re quiet and reserved, you experience less high-energy, positive emotion in life, you avoid too much stimulation, and you’re more averse to risk; you’re a chill-seeker, in other words, rather than a thrill-seeker.

For sure, there are also advantages to being more introverted, as celebrated so effectively by Susan Cain’s landmark book Quiet (2012) – among them, the lack of a need for constant reward and stimulation lends itself to more solitary career pursuits, including remote working, and it can provide protection against the dangers of overindulgence (it is extraverts who are more inclined towards problem drinking, drug-taking and sexual infidelity). The patience and sensitivity of strong introverts also nourish creativity and the ability to sustain dedicated practice. Introverts are also more effective leaders in certain contexts, such as when managing a team of highly proactive workers. Aside from these advantages, let’s be frank – wouldn’t life be incredibly dull and annoying if everyone were excessively talkative and attention-seeking?

Even so, it’s possible to desire to come out of your shell – that is, to dial up your extraversion – without completely denying your introverted nature and without aiming to go to the other extreme, to become a rock-and-roll party animal. This Guide is about helping you achieve a greater level of extraversion – if that is what you want, and to the extent that works for you.

Like Pan and me, you might feel frustrated by your own strong introverted leanings. Perhaps you’ve always felt this way, or maybe it’s a new sensation and you’ve noticed you have become more introverted than you would like lately, due to the force of circumstances. For example, many people have experienced loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this is known to foster increased introversion. Other studies suggest that major life experiences, such as divorce, can increase introversion for some people. Mental illness too, such as depression, can lead us to withdraw into ourselves.

If you feel that you are, or have become, more withdrawn than you would like, or that your introverted nature is holding you back from making friends or getting ahead at work, then the good news is that it’s possible to exploit the relative malleability of personality to choose to become more extraverted. It probably won’t be quick or easy, but it’s certainly achievable, and the rewards could be great.

‘There is extensive scientific evidence that we can choose to change our traits, but it takes a lot of consistent effort,’ says Damian. ‘You can think of it in the same way you think of physical fitness or healthy eating. It’s something you have to constantly work towards [more akin to a lifestyle change vs a short-term fad diet] – but, once you do it enough, it becomes a part of you.’ Mirjam Stieger at the Lifespan Developmental Psychology Laboratory at Brandeis University in Massachusetts has been working on a ‘personality coach’ app to help people change their personality traits. She agrees with Damian: ‘If people shift the way they think, feel and behave,’ she says, ‘they can change their position on the personality trait continuum of introversion-extraversion.’

And there are good reasons for cranking up your extraversion, even if only a little. Besides the extravert’s advantages for health and career progression (due to being more physically active, experiencing more positive mood and the greater social connectedness), numerous studies have also shown that, whatever our baseline disposition, we do tend to feel happier in the moment whenever we act more extraverted than usual, most likely because doing so increases our engagement with the world and increases our connectedness to others, which are basic human needs associated with wellbeing.

‘It’s a way to live more fully by experiencing new things,’ says Pan. ‘[By living like an extravert], I felt like I had lived a different life … it’s a chance to just inject some fun and serendipity and openness into your life. We can’t overestimate how much a new person, the right new person, can bring to our life. So, you know, even if you go to one party you didn’t want to go to, but you meet one person who becomes your best friend or your new boss or your networking partner or your tennis partner – that could change your life forever.’

I agree: by coming out of my shell a little at my sports club, my life felt more rounded. As other members began to know me by name, I came to enjoy a sense of community and belonging that balanced out my relative isolation working remotely as an editor. And by saying yes more often to more social and professional invitations, and with a greater willingness to take risks, I even found myself undertaking a significant career move, to a new digital magazine, the one you are reading right now.

What to do

General guidance and warming up for change

As you undertake the following steps and techniques, bear in mind that your personality traits – including your levels of extraversion – reflect your current deep-seated habits of thought, emotion and ways of relating to other people and the wider world. Think of your personality as your default, automatic strategy for dealing with life and relationships – how you currently behave without deliberate effort or planning. After all, when an extravert walks into a party, they don’t consciously coerce themselves into chatting to the other guests – it’s just what comes naturally.

Of course, habits, even deep-seated ones, can be changed. It’s true that some of your dispositional behaviour has genetic roots; it’s a profoundly ingrained part of who you are. But a lot of it is also learned over the years, via your many experiences in life. Critically, this means that, rather than waiting passively for life to change you, which it surely will, you can choose to change those habitual ways of being. With enough persistence and sufficient motivation, you can take intentional control over some of the internal and external forces that continue to shape your personality, to steer yourself toward becoming more extraverted.

‘Habits can be thought of like the layer between behaviours and personality trait change,’ says Stieger. ‘If a person repeatedly shows new behaviours, and these new behaviours become habitual, it can ultimately lead to lasting personality changes.’

Note that, especially if you are a strong introvert, deeply embedded in your shell, you might find some of the following practical advice challenging at first, but take heart that it will get easier. Humans are by nature adaptable. With practice and persistence, you can recalibrate to your new, bolder ways of living and being. ‘It gets a lot easier,’ says Pan. ‘I learned that through basically a year of exposure therapy. Talking to people and putting yourself out there is really, really hard. And it’s especially hard at the beginning. But once you’ve done it a few times and had a few positive experiences, it gets much, much easier.’

Before you embark on my recommended specific techniques and lifestyle changes to boost your extraversion, here are some ways to warm up and help focus your intentions (as used in the personality change app developed and tested by Stieger and her colleagues):

  • Talk to close friends and/or family members about your goal of becoming more extraverted, and ask for their tips and tricks.
  • Observe your own behaviours. In which situations could you be more extraverted than you currently are? In which situations are you already as extraverted as you want to be?
  • Write down your pros and cons of being an extraverted person.
  • Identify people in your environment who are more extraverted than you are. What are they doing differently? Can you try to copy specific behaviours?

Now that you’ve warmed up, it’s helpful to think in terms of a three-pronged strategy: first, to change yourself from the ‘inside out’; secondly, to change yourself from the ‘outside in’; and finally, to consider your overarching goals and values and how these might motivate and empower you.

‘Inside out’ strategies

Strong extraverts are habitually sociable. They happily strike up conversation with strangers and inevitably become highly practised at small talk and forging new relationships. To adopt these habits for yourself, set some specific, concrete goals for behaving in a more outgoing, gregarious fashion.

An effective way to do this is to use one or more if-then implementation plans, such as: ‘If I am waiting at a bus stop, then I will ask one of the other travellers there how they are.’ ‘If I am buying groceries, then I will say hello to the check-out assistant.’ ‘If it’s a Tuesday, then I will ask one of my colleagues to join me for a coffee.’ ‘If it’s a Saturday and I don’t have plans to go out, then I’ll ring a friend.’ Repeat the plan or plans aloud to yourself at least once each day and write them down somewhere you’ll notice them, such as on a notepad by your bed.

If the idea of striking up a conversation with strangers feels completely overwhelming, there’s no harm at all in putting in a little preparation. For instance, Christian Busch, the author of Psyche’s Guide to being lucky, advises coming up ‘with a number of hooks – interesting or memorable talking points, for example related to your current interests – that you can use in your next conversation, especially if someone asks you “What do you do?”.’

You should tailor the ambition of your if-then plans to your baseline levels of introversion. If you’re feeling very daunted, then take it easy and begin with more modest, gentle plans to increase your sociability (eg, simply saying hello to a fellow commuter), then scale them up over time as you adjust and make progress (eg, arranging to go out for coffee with a colleague). If you are very withdrawn by nature, these first tentative steps are likely to feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, but take heart: research has shown that talking to strangers is more fun than we think it will be, and people generally form a more positive impression of us than we anticipate. Also, keep in mind the rewards of having more random conversations – it will allow room for more unexpected plot twists in life. ‘I am a closet introvert,’ says Busch who teaches how to experience more serendipity. ‘I had to train myself to be more extraverted.’

Another way to change yourself from the inside out is to boost your optimism. One reason that extraverts are bolder than average is because they tend to believe that events will go well. There are techniques you can use to boost your optimism and willingness to take on challenges. One of them is known as the ‘best possible self’ intervention: spend about five to 15 minutes picturing yourself in the future, a few years from now, in a scenario in which everything in life has gone as well as you hoped. Form the picture as vividly as you can. Some versions of the technique recommend writing down a description of this ideal version of yourself in the future – bring it to life with detail and by exploring the different aspects of your life and how things will look, feel and sound. Aim to do this daily for about two weeks to gain the maximum benefit.

Yet another approach to increase your boldness is to practise cognitive reappraisal. There are different ways you might do this, but one is to try to reinterpret as excitement any feelings of nerves or anxiety (eg, the butterflies in your tummy prior to a party or a networking event) – so find a quiet space in advance of the social challenge and say out loud to yourself: ‘I am excited.’ Research has shown that doing this helps people to cope with upcoming challenges that make them anxious, such as giving a public presentation.

Finally, you could consider making a commitment to build your strength and physical fitness, to further increase your confidence and comfort with adventure. There are many associations between physiology and personality, but perhaps most relevant in this context is that taking up more physical exercise has been shown to lower people’s levels of social anxiety; people (especially men) who are stronger tend to be more extraverted; and moreover, people who are physically more active earlier in life tend to retain their extraversion over the ensuing decades, compared with others who are more sedentary.

Various mechanisms are thought to underlie these associations but suffice to say that taking up regular physical exercise (choosing an activity that you particularly enjoy and is convenient) is likely to make you feel more confident in yourself and lower your anxiety levels, thus making it more appealing to venture out of your shell.

‘Outside in’ strategies

As well as using techniques to alter your habits of thought and feelings to help you become bolder and more sociable, you can also leverage situations and relationships around you to shape your levels of extraversion. There are close links between personality trait expression and mood – including happier mood being associated with more extraverted behaviour – so, whatever your baseline personality, it’s likely that, when you’re feeling good, you will naturally tend to act in a more extraverted fashion.

Spend a while considering how certain individuals and circumstances tend to provoke different feelings and moods in you, and to bring out different sides of your character. Relevant here is a phenomenon known as affective presence – a trait-like tendency that people have to make others feel a certain way. You might be able to think of particular friends or relatives who have a positive affective presence, with whom you tend to come out of yourself a little or enjoy letting your hair down, for instance. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the eras in my life in which I was most extraverted was my first year at university, when early on I befriended an extremely boisterous, fun-loving extravert. By being more strategic about the situations you put yourself in, and the people you mix with, you will find it easier to become more outgoing.

A simple way to be more mindful and intentional about the environmental forces shaping your traits is via the situation selection strategy – for instance, ahead of next weekend, spend a little time considering what you will do and who you will do it with. Try to be more intentional than usual in planning your time and activities, rather than relying on your usual routines. Choose activities that boost your mood (remembering the links between positive mood and extraversion) and aim to spend time with people who make you feel relaxed and confident (remembering the concept of affective presence – the ways that others influence you). Before each weekend, you could even repeat a mantra out loud three times, such as: ‘If I am deciding what to do this weekend, then I will select activities that will make me feel good and avoid doing things that will make me feel bad.’

Psychologists at the University of Sheffield in the UK tested this approach and found that volunteers who rehearsed the mantra ahead of a weekend ended up experiencing more positive mood over that weekend than a control group. You could opt to amplify this benefit by tweaking the mantra (and your intentions) with a more specific aim to come out of your shell (eg, ‘If I am deciding what to do this weekend, then I will select activities that will make me feel happy, confident and outgoing, and avoid doing things that will make me feel bad and withdrawn’).

An even more ambitious approach to changing yourself from the outside in is to sign up for a club or group activity that will essentially require you to behave in a more extraverted fashion. Pretty much any challenging but enjoyable group activity that involves mixing with other people will do the trick, but if you are feeling daunted, I’d aim for a hobby, sport or game that immediately strikes you as especially fun or interesting, as this will help sustain your motivation and help you overcome any trepidation you might be feeling.

When I took this approach in my own life, I opted for a twice-weekly boxfit exercise class that required pair-work and group activities – crucially, the physical challenge of the tasks fostered camaraderie and, as a class, we often ended up laughing together and supporting each other. As long as you show up regularly over time to such an activity, you’re effectively shaping your character from the outside in, as the situation demands that you come out of your shell, even if only modestly.

During her extraverted year, Jessica Pan signed up for an improvisational theatre group, and she specifically recommends looking for a newly launched group programme or class so you have the advantage of everyone being new and in the same position. ‘I think if you sign up for something and you put down money, you’re much more likely to do it, and you meet loads of other people who are totally new at it as well. You just don’t feel as scared because everyone’s in the same boat as you and everybody’s a beginner.’ She also mentions that it can help to set yourself small goals when you go to these kind of events: ‘Just tell yourself you’ll talk to two people at the first day, even if it’s just literally “How did you get here?” or “Why did you sign up?” And then, the next time, talk to them for two minutes each or something. A tiny goal like that can be really helpful.’

Consider your overarching values and goals

Without a larger context or ambition, aiming to become more extraverted for the sake of it is likely, before long, to become a slog. You are far more likely to succeed if your desire for change serves a more meaningful value or goal. Consistent with this advice, research has shown that changes in goals and priorities more often precede personality trait change than the other way around.

For instance, say your newly launched business is your passion and you recognise that, to succeed, you will need to put yourself out in the world far more than is currently in your nature to do. Or perhaps, for you, a priority in life is to be the best possible parent to your young children, and you realise that, if they are to have a flourishing social life outside of school, you will need to get to know the parents of your kids’ friends. Maybe you have simply been struck by the shortness and fragility of this existence, and you are experiencing an overwhelming desire to live more fully. In all these scenarios, increasing your trait extraversion could help you be who you want and live according to your priorities.

For a compelling, real-life example of an overriding goal driving a commitment to personal change toward greater extraversion, consider the Nigerian activist Florence Ozor, one of the leaders of the Bring Back Our Girls movement (established to raise the profile of the plight of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014). Writing in her book Insight (2017), the US psychologist Tasha Eurich describes how Ozor, a strong introvert, realised early in her work that, to achieve the change she wanted, she needed to act more like an extravert. ‘Never again will I run away from something just because I’m scared of the spotlight,’ Ozor vowed to herself. True to her word, she became bolder and more assertive, and went on to found the influential Florence Ozor Foundation that aims to empower women in Nigeria.

So, it is worth spending some time carefully reflecting on why you wish to come out of your shell. What is your larger reason for desiring this change? If you currently feel that you lack any big, overriding purpose, passion or higher calling, I would recommend that you begin the process of personal change by first reflecting on what matters to you and who, ultimately, you want to be (to aid this process, read lots – memoirs, novels, history and more – experiment with different activities and listen to other people’s stories). If, after careful reflection, you believe that enhancing your extraversion will help you serve your overriding purpose or goals, now you will be so much more motivated. This will help compel you on toward more lasting and significant change, to escape your shell and live the life you want.

Key points – How to come out of your shell

  • The introversion-extraversion dimension is one of the Big Five personality traits. Although they are meaningful and relatively stable constructs, the Big Five traits are not set in stone, and you can choose to change.
  • There are advantages and disadvantages to being more of an introvert or an extravert. However, there are important reasons why you might wish to come out of your shell by dialling up your extraversion, including potential benefits for your health, career and relationships.
  • You can increase your willingness and ability to come out of your shell by making efforts to change yourself from the inside out, the outside in, and by considering your overarching values and goals.
  • ‘Inside out’ strategies will alter your habits of thought, feeling and behaviour, increasing your sociability, optimism and confidence.
  • ‘Outside in’ strategies, such as signing up to group classes, will help you take intentional control over the environmental forces shaping your personality, including the company you keep and the activities you undertake.
  • You are more likely to succeed at deliberate personality change if it is in the service of some higher aim in life, helping you live more closely aligned to your values, so spend time considering those goals and values and how coming out of your shell will help you reach them.
  • It is not fake to aspire to be who you want to be. Don’t let anyone tell you that staying hidden in your shell is part of who you really are.

Learn more

Dealing with fears of being inauthentic or faking it

It is not fake to choose to change one or more of your personality traits, so that you might live more in tune with your hopes and aspirations in life. Those hopes and desires are a part of you. It’s not as if your personality traits fully encompass who you are as a person – there’s also your values, your passions, morals, tastes and ambitions. That said, I completely understand that you might have reservations about purposefully acting ‘out of character’.

I know many introverts take pride in being more quiet and reserved than average, and they naturally baulk at the notion that they should change in order to fit into a noisy world. If you are completely content with how you are, and you do not feel your introversion is an obstacle to what matters to you in life, then that is a wonderful place to be. I don’t believe anyone should feel pressured to act more like an extravert just to fit in with cultural expectations.

However, if like Jessica Pan and me (and many others, according to surveys), you feel frustrated by your levels of introversion – if you have a nagging sense that your aspirations and need for connection are thwarted by your aversion to risk, challenge and social engagement – then it is not fake or inauthentic to cultivate a more outgoing personality.

‘If someone wants to change something about their personality, I don’t see why that would be any more inauthentic than wanting to eat healthier, for example,’ says Rodica Damian. ‘Do we say that people who change their lifestyle to eat healthier on a daily basis are fake just because they used to eat unhealthy before? They just made a choice for themselves, had the resources to make that choice, and worked at it consistently until the change stuck.’

These sentiments are backed up by research that involved asking people to write about times when they felt most authentic in life; people tended to report feeling authentic more often in situations in which they were acting in line with their ‘ideal self’, that is, more like the kind of person they aspired to be, rather than their actual current self. Similarly, other studies have shown that, regardless of our baseline traits, people tend to feel more real or authentic when they are acting more extraverted – probably because we’re more likely to act this way when we’re feeling happy, confident and socially connected. Still further research has found that people tend to report feeling more authentic in relationships in which their partner allowed them to act as their ideal self (rather than their actual self).

All of these findings speak to the idea that you should not feel tied to some mystical notion of what makes you ‘you’. You aren’t being disloyal to yourself by seeking to change. Bear in mind that you will change anyway – each day, as you learn new things and live through experiences, life is leaving its mark on you. You’re a work in progress and, if anything, seeking to take intentional control over how you mature and evolve is the opposite of inauthenticity – in fact, you’re being true to yourself by bringing about the changes you desire.

So, don’t let anyone tell you that you should stay hiding in your shell because that’s who ‘you’ are. If you want to poke your head out and live a little more dangerously, go for it.

Links & books

My book Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change (2021) provides many more exercises and inspiring stories to help you increase your extraversion (and develop your other traits).

Both my book and this Guide are grounded in the Big Five model of personality. Colby Personality Lab, led by Christopher Soto at Colby College in Maine, hosts various free tests to discover your own personality trait profile.

In this TEDx talk from 2016, Abigail Smith, an undergraduate at St Lawrence University, describes what she calls her ‘introvert’s challenge’ – finding ways to act more extraverted and make her voice heard.

In another TEDx talk, from 2018, the personality change researcher Nathan Hudson at Southern Methodist University in Dallas describes his findings, including the need to adopt specific new habitual behaviours in order to achieve lasting trait changes.

That same year, I gave an in-depth lecture (recently made available on YouTube) for the Weekend University in London, on the science of personality change, expanding upon some of the key principles and theory underlying this Guide.

I’ve appeared on many podcasts to discuss the science of personality change, including ways to become more extraverted, such as The Next Big Idea, The Psychology Podcast and the Instant Genius Podcast.

Mirjam Stieger’s personality change app is not yet available for public use, but you can read more about it and follow its development via the project website.

Jessica Pan’s book Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come (2020) tells the story of her year-long self-experiment at living as an extravert. The book also features useful advice that she received from experts along the way.

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8 September 2021