Making friends as a grownup can be an exercise in awkward. Where do you meet people? How do you make a connection? And it’s especially difficult for those of us who are naturally reserved.

“Shy and socially awkward people may be wired as introverts, so it’s more natural for them to stay alone or find solace with their own thoughts,” says Caroline Adams Miller, a life coach and author of "Creating Your Best Life." “While there is nothing wrong with that, the happiest among us have a judicious mixture of being among others and being alone, so we must create it if we’re not naturally that way.”

In other words, you may need to fake it ‘til you make it. How? Try our tips for easing social anxieties and building relationships.

Set goals 

You may feel anxious if you’re pressuring yourself to “meet people” — that’s such a vague, nebulous goal. Hazel Walker, contributing author of the New York Times bestselling "Masters of Networking," suggests focusing on a specific wish, like, “I’d like to talk to two new people today.” Make that your goal, and then once it is reached, you can relax.

Use social media

Looking at Facebook and LinkedIn doesn’t count as stalking. Use the sites as a way of helping you get to know people better. If you meet a potential friend, connecting with them online is an informal way of staying in touch and possibly pursuing more of a relationship. “Facebook allows us to get to know what people are interested in,” says Walker. “Leave comments for them, congratulate them or just ‘like’ an update.”

Be helpful

Once you’re connected to potential friends online, Walker suggests thinking of the things that you can do for others, like forwarding articles of interest, tweeting useful information or posting comments on peoples’ blogs, like when the heck “Mad Men” is coming back on? People who have shared interests will be organically drawn to you.

Practice visualization

Seeing yourself in the third person — such as imagining that you’re watching a movie of yourself — can actually alter your behavior, according to Miller. “Imagine yourself behaving in extroverted, comfortable and relaxed ways with others,” she says. “It can make a huge difference in a social situation because it has been mentally rehearsed.” You may want to rent a few Julia Roberts movies for inspiration — that woman is always making friends.

Put others first 

When you focus on other people in a social situation, you’ll feel less nervous (think about being at a performance — you’re not nervous in the audience because you’re not focused on yourself). “If you’re out at a party or gathering, look for others in the room who are standing alone or looking lost and introduce yourself,” suggests Walker. “You are never the only person in the room who is shy, timid or uncomfortable.” Reach out and both of you will feel less alone.

Ask thoughtful questions

People love to talk about themselves, so ask them questions. Remember to keep the questions open-ended, almost like you’re interviewing them and hoping for a great quote or anecdote. For example, instead of asking what they do, ask what they love most about their work. Then pay attention to the answer — this one only works if you’re a good listener, too.

Hold a warm drink

Sounds kooky, but Miller notes research shows that when people hold a warm drink as opposed to something cold, they believe that others are more approachable and kind (briefly holding a cold drink results in the opposite reaction). So grab a cappuccino or a hot toddy when you walk into the party.

Prepare for awkward situations

If there’s a specific scenario that makes you nervous — say, a party where you only know the host or a work lunch with someone you’ve never met — you can set yourself up for a positive interaction by practicing “if-then” scenarios. “If you decide ahead of time how you’ll react to something, you have more control,” says Miller. For example, you might think, “When I run into someone who intimidates me, instead of looking away I will look directly at them and smile.”

By making this contract with yourself ahead of time, you’re visualizing an outcome and dictating how you’ll automatically behave. That confident smile will become a habit in no time.

Eat something salty

Good news, chip lovers! Research suggests that elevated sodium levels can inhibit stress hormones. The researchers call this “the watering hole effect,” because if you’re thirsty, you have to overcome fear of approaching a public drinking spot. And — no lie — the salt-consuming rats in this experiment were more interactive and less anxious around each other than the control group.

Find your mood-lifter

People who are in a positive frame of mind and who are more emotionally “flourishing” tend to become more curious and outgoing than people who are in a defensive or depressed mood. Some common ways to improve your emotional state include exercise, meditation, journaling or listening to music you love. Miller suggests finding what works for you and practicing that shortly before you head into a social situation. You know that person who walks into the room bubbling with confidence and good vibes? You can be her.

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Melissa Walker originally wrote this story for It is reprinted with permission here.

MNN tease photo: Shutterstock

10 tips for overcoming shyness
Shy and socially awkward people may be wired as introverts, so it’s more natural for them to stay alone or find solace with their own thoughts,” says Caroli