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On the Right Foot: Breaking Out of Your Shell


On the Right Foot: Breaking Out of Your Shell

College might be kind of intimidating at first. Your high school friends aren’t around anymore. There are new faces, new people to get to know and new situations. With these come new challenges, such as speaking up in a classroom full of strangers and developing new social networks. It’s totally natural to feel nervous at first, but with a little work you can build confidence and increase your assertiveness. Initially, Michael Jordan’s comfort level on the baseball field probably wasn’t quite the same as it was on the basketball court, but over time he broke out of his old shell and his comfort zone expanded.

Confidence: Context and Comfort Zone

It’s common to feel varying degrees of confidence depending on where you find yourself. Concert pianists in training probably feel more at home sitting on a piano bench, while they may not be as comfortable seated center stage in a concert hall filled with music lovers.

Confidence comes from preparation and practice. Good basketball players spend hours shooting free throws, strong actors rehearse lines over and over and compelling public speakers practice their speeches in front of a mirror. Sure, there’s some “natural” ability involved, but enough practice can allow many people to play or perform or speak with seemingly effortless confidence. This self-confidence leads to positive experiences, serving as reinforcement for the next time they may be in a similar situation.

Speaking in class, asking for a date or simply making a favorable impression can all be accomplished through preparation. Try to:

  • Record your strengths and goals related to specific situations
  • Write down an ideal scenario and visualize making it happen
  • Role play with a friend
  • Practice out loud and record your words if possible

Keep in mind that it’s impossible to be perfect all the time, especially at first—messing up or saying something silly can often be part of the process. Don’t beat yourself up when you make mistakes. Rejection and embarrassment, while painful, provide valuable life experiences and show you how to do better next time.

Here are some more strategies for developing confidence:

  • Give yourself credit for everything you try. Focus on utilizing your strengths, and applaud yourself for trying something difficult. New experiences are opportunities to learn new skills.
  • Be optimistic. Think to yourself, “This may be hard, but I can do it.” A positive attitude increases your chances of success. And learn to laugh at yourself!
  • Be realistic. Don’t expect to be perfect when you’re trying something new. Be patient, don’t take yourself too seriously and do the best you can—you’ll get better.
  • Learn to evaluate yourself independently and internally. Don’t shape your self-image based on the opinions of others. How do you feel about your own behavior, work, social life, etc? A strong sense of self will lead to increased confidence.

Assertiveness Melts Anxiety

Feeling anxious around new people is natural, especially if some of those people are professors—the people responsible for evaluating your performance. Being able to ask for what you want and express yourself openly and honestly may help eliminate some of the anxiety.

Assertiveness is the ability to express your feelings, opinions, beliefs and needs directly and honestly, even when you feel uncomfortable doing so. However, assertiveness is not the same as aggressiveness, which is self-advancing behavior at the expense of others while not considering their rights or feelings. Asserting yourself means being able to speak your mind openly and honestly at the right moment.

One can act assertively while maintaining self-control, care and respect. This, in turn, earns the respect of others and helps form honest, meaningful relationships.

Here are some ways to practice assertiveness:

  • Be direct and sincere. Use specific and clear phrases about what you want, think and feel, such as, “I think that…;” “I have a different opinion, which is…;” “I would like…” and “I have a specific question about…”
  • Own your message. This involves using “I” statements and recognizing that your message comes from your frame of reference, your values and your perceptions. Remember: Your opinions are as valid as the opinions of others.
  • Be aware of your voice and body language. Be conscious of your posture and any nervous habits. If you tend to slouch, sit up straight at your desk. Try to convey your interest through positive gestures, such as nodding your head and leaning forward. Maintain eye contact with your professors and speak clearly. The same usually applies to casual situations with new friends.
  • Ask for feedback. Comments such as “Am I being clear?” and “How do you see this situation?” will keep communication open and honest, free of misunderstandings.
  • Listen: Part of commanding respect is showing that you honor the views of others. Wait for someone to finish speaking. Above all, don’t yell or interrupt. Offer comments like “I see your point.” This way, you validate both yourself and your listener.