How often does the idea of talking to somebody – especially someone you like – send you into a total panic? If you do manage to open your mouth, do you obsess about every single thing you say? Do you end up in a spiral of being unable to stop talking once you realize you’ve made a mistake? Are you afraid of social settings because you’re never entirely sure what the rules are? Do you feel that you can’t quite grasp the social rules that everyone else seems to get instinctively? Then you know the pain of being socially awkward.
We all have moments of awkwardness, but many people deal with it on a daily basis. Life for someone who’s socially awkward is a constant minefield of terror, self-recrimination and perceived faux pas. Going to parties is a nightmare because what if you don’t know anyone there? You feel as though you never know the “right” thing to say and when you do manage to open your mouth, you’re disjointed and stuttery, losing your train of thought before it departs the station. Worse, you may end up saying the absolutely worst possible thing you could… and now everybody’s just looking at you.
Being socially awkward can feel like a permanent handicap, the anchor on your social life dragging you down… but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, social awkwardness can be managed, even overcome. I’ve done it, I’ve helped other people overcome it and you can as well. This two part series will help you develop the tools and social skills you need to help overcome being socially awkward. This week, we’ll deal with some of the every-day issues and mindsets that make socializing a painful experience. Next week, we’ll look into some practical skills you can start using immediately.
Important to note: social anxiety and social awkwardness aren’t exclusively issues of socialization or mental cognition. In many cases there may be physical, neurological or neurochemical issues involved as well. These articles shouldn’t be interpreted as a one-size-fits all miracle cure but a way of addressing some of the most common issues. Remember: Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor.
So with that in mind: this is gonna be a long one, so strap in and let’s do this thing.
The Key To Not Being Socially Awkward: Not Being The Center of the Universe
One of the hardest things to realize about being socially awkward is how much of it is strictly internal. In many ways, it’s a form of extreme self-awareness – you are so hyper–aware of yourself, from what you’re saying, to the cadence of your speech, to the way you’re standing and holding your shoulders that you barely have room for anything else. In many ways, social awkwardness is a form of egocentrism – you are absolutely and utterly convinced that you are the center of attention and that everyone is just as aware of you as you are. It feels like not only is every eye in the room focused on you, but they’re all acutely aware of what’s going on in your head. Everybody can see just how uncomfortable you are; they’re all picking up on every nervous tick, stutter, and drop of sweat, the tightness of your shoulders, the weird way you’re just letting your hands dangle and they are totally judging you on it.
Except… they’re not. In fact, most of the time they don’t notice those awkward moments. That’s the big secret: most people are so caught up in their own bullshit that they are barely able to notice yours. It only feels significant to you because you’re far more aware of yourself. It’s known as the spotlight effect – the feeling that we’re the center of everybody else’s attention. In reality, studies have found that we overestimate the amount of attention that other people are paying to us. In situations that were actually designed to be attention-getting, people only noticed around 25% of the time at best. Socially awkward people have a hard time because they believe they’re easier to read – also known as the illusion of transparency – but in reality, it’s really that they’re so self-conscious that they can’t get any perspective on the matter.
Let’s illustrate the example some. This rooster represents your self-perception of your socially awkward faux pas:
To you, it’s incredibly visible – look at that plumage! Look at the eye-catching color! It’s the only thing to focus on! How can anyone miss the chicken in the room that is whatever weird thing you just did? It is literally the only thing you can think about right now.
Now this is the same scene to the average observer:
Those chicks represent everything going on in that person’s mind. There’s the conversation they’re having with you, there’s what they’re planning on saying next, the thing that they do that they’re focusing on, the fact that the Thai food they had isn’t sitting as well as they’d hoped… now where in this picture is your faux-pas? It’s in there somewhere, maybe, but it’s barely going to register. The problem is that your subjective experience is so powerful that you have a hard time seeing past it.
And so does everyone else.
This realization – that people don’t notice as much as you think – is important. When you’re so focused on yourself, you end up in a vicious cycle of reinforcement; you feel tense because you’ve fucked up once so now you’re trying to make up for that fuck up and now you’re panicking and more prone to screw up again, which will only make you even more tense and afraid so…
Cold hard truth: you’re the only person who noticed your fuck-up. People can’t read your mind or your face and tell that you’re panicking inside trying to think of the right words to say. So rather than getting mortified, take a deep breath and just plow on ahead like it’s no big deal. The less you make a fuss over it, the less everyone else will too.
And the mistakes you do make? They’re not nearly as disastrous as you might think…
Stopping The Worst Case Scenarios
As anyone who’s dealt with approach anxiety can tell you: there’s no suckier super-power than the ability to see the worst case scenario. Socially awkward people have this power in spades – they can game out the most disastrous result of any social interaction. To most of us, approaching someone we’re attracted to makes us nervous; we’re afraid of being rejected and hurt. When you’re socially awkward, talking to anyone has the potential for catastrophe. Going to the gym means possibly getting caught doing something wrong and getting kicked out. Going to parties means that you’ll offend someone and end up losing your entire social circle. Approaching that cutie you’ve had a crush means that you’ll end up doing something creepy and then word will spread until suddenly nobody anywhere will talk to you.
In reality, the worst case scenario is that we’ll be embarrassed. It sucks, sure, but it hardly merits the level of literal fear that we feel or the over-the-top scenarios that we invent for ourselves. More often than not, what’s happening is that fear of rejection is triggering a more primal fear. Humans are pack-animals; socialization is a critical part of how we survive as a species. Back when we were hunter-gatherer tribes in the savannah, being rejected from the group meant literal death. Ostracization, exile and shunning were once reserved for some of the worst crimes against society. It’s an understandable fear. But fear is not reality.
Just as with our tendency to overestimate how much people notice, we also drastically overestimate the potential fallout from making a mistake. That fear you’re feeling is your brain overreacting, not reality. A social faux-pas is, at worst, an embarrassing footnote to the interaction… it just feels like life-or-death.
So how can someone who’s socially awkward overcome this fear? By not making the mistake that many people do when confronted with uncomfortable thoughts or fears: trying to shut them down. Resisting these thoughts doesn’t make them go away; instead, it only makes them even more present in your consciousness. The more you try to not think of something, the more you will. Want me to prove it? Don’t think about Steve Buschemi in a string bikini.
Now you can’t get that image out of your head, can you?
Rather than resisting these fears, defang them. Change the narrative by visualizing them differently. When you’re imagining going to that party and being humiliated, don’t resist it, let it play out. And then play it through again – only this time, when you’re imagining getting laughed at, picture it in black and white. That layer of abstraction makes the fear less immediate, with less power to hurt you. Now imagine it again… except everybody’s voices are higher and squeakier, like they’ve just sucked down a tank of helium. How is something that absurd supposed to hurt you? Add another layer of abstraction – everyone’s flipped upside down. Or their heads have started to shrink, leaving their bodies the same size. Or they’re all wearing neck ruffs and wigs. Changing the imagined catastrophe into something that absurd, that separated from reality makes it almost impossible to be afraid of. You’re breaking the associations between the event (going to the party) and the expected result (you will be humiliated or ostracized).
Will you still be nervous? Possibly – meeting new people can be intimidating. But it’s a managable fear, mild nervousness and excitement rather than the pants-shitting terror and dread you were expecting before.
Remember: the fear you’re experiencing is just fear. It’s not real. Change the narrative and remind yourself that you’re not actually in danger.
End The 3 AM Post Mortem
If there’s one ability that every socially awkward person has, it’s the ability to remember the worst, most awkward moments in their lives in vivid detail at completely random moments. There’s nothing more frustrating than the moment at 3 AM when your brain has suddenly decided that you need to be reminded of how you screwed up or made a fool of yourself. It doesn’t matter that it was last year; as far as your brain is concerned, it’s time to go over it like it just happened. Hell, I still have nights where I remember the absurdly awkward shit I did 20 years ago.
When you’re socially awkward, your brain is a constant blooper-reel of every mistake you ever made. It becomes the equivalent of the Warren Commission, wanting to dissect every humiliating moment like it was the Zapruder film, examining every possible angle in the most minute detail. You look back on conversations or interactions with people and pick apart every way you screwed up, annoyed people or how it all went wrong. It’s a humiliation conga line of memories and you’re the main feature.
How could you possibly think you were a fully-functioning adult? Look at all the ways you ruined even a basic conversation!
Or… did you?
The problem with these elaborate, soul-destroying post-mortems of your awkwardness is that they’re all based on the recall of the most unreliable witness possible: yourself. Just because you remember something doesn’t mean that’s what actually happened. There’s a common misconception that memory is like a perfect recording of everything that we see and experienced, where every single detail is captured in perfect clarity like a high-def camera. In reality, our memories are filled to the brim with bullshit. We only have so much mental bandwidth to go around and so we rarely experience or remember everything; our brains simply fill in the blanks based on what we expect, reality be damned. When you’re shy and socially awkward, you’re so inwardly focused that you’re not noticing as much of what’s going on around you. Your own concerns are sucking up your mental bandwidth like a Supernatural marathon on Netflix. As a result, your brain realizes that there are details missing and simply colors in what you expect to be there. And since you’re feeling awkward and uncomfortable, your brain shrugs and says “Seems legit” and adjusts your memories accordingly. You end up mistaking your emotions for objective reality. Worse, the more you actively recall that memory, the more you change it. The act of remembering something actually rewrites the memory, making it increasingly less accurate the more you bring it to mind.
Yes, you remember how you screwed up and embarrassed yourself and this is why nobody could possibly like you, but that’s no guarantee that’s how it looked to the outside world. Maybe Ginny turned and walked off while you were talking because you said something incredibly awkward and stupid… or maybe she had to run to the bathroom. Maybe Mark was silent and withdrawn because you were making an ass out of yourself… or maybe he was just shy! Maybe Carmen didn’t acknowledge when you said hi because she was caught up in her own drama, rather than because you accidentally insulted her!
What makes these post-mortems so pernicious is that they become self-perpetuating cycles of awkwardness, reinforcing our self-limiting beliefs and making us even more socially awkward because we become so afraid of the next possible screw-up, leading to the next mis-remembered event…
So how do you break this cycle? To start with: be willing to doubt yourself. Yes, it might have happened… but it might not have either. Instead of starting with an assumption of what happened and looking for proof that to back up your belief, examine the event dispassionately and look for other possible explanations. Top-down reasoning doesn’t work when you’re starting from a faulty premise. Don’t just rely on what feels obvious or blatant – you’re not a rational judge here. Is it possible that they weren’t put off by you but needed to talk to someone else? How did they act later on? Is it a consistent pattern of behavior with them when you’re around, or was this a one-off?
Which leads to he other thing that helps end the post-mortems: accept that it happened. Part of what makes those 3 AM memories so painful is how we want to deny that it happened out of shame. That moment of “how could I have done this” is a cry for evidence that you didn’t, a way of trying to retcon it out of existence. Instead: embrace it, own it and make it part of your history. Yes, you did something embarrassing… big deal. Instead of blaming yourself or asking how you could have been so stupid, apply some distance: “this is a thing that happened.” Will reliving it over and over again fix things? Will it help you not screw up next time? No? Then you’re wasting your time thinking about it. Let the fact that it happened wash over you and pass you by. Don’t try to block it out or blame yourself – just acknowledge it and move on. It’s in the past, and that’s where you should leave it.
Break Out of the Confirmation Bias Cycle
One of the hallmarks of being socially awkward is believing the worst about yourself. You believe that every social interaction you have goes badly, that it’s all your fault because you’re perpetually making other people uncomfortable with your awkwardness and everyone is perpetually judging you for being such an awkward, sweaty mess.
Now, is this true? No. In fact, if someone were to follow you around with a video camera, you’d see the dozens, even hundreds of social interactions you have every day that go smoothly. If this theoretical documentarian were to interview the people you talked to, you’d also find that most of their decision making processes don’t involve you at all. Shirley didn’t call you back because she’s eyeball deep in work, not because you left a weird voice mail. David dropped off your Facebook Chat conversation because he had to get groceries and traffic was going to be a nightmare if he put it off any longer, not because you were dragging the conversation past its natural length.
But none of these will register to you the way that the one awkward moment will – and that single moment will drop kick your self-esteem in the nuts and give you the wrong ideas about who you are and what people actually think about you.
The problem is that humans have what’s known as a negativity bias; negative thoughts and opinions feel stronger and more valid because they carry more emotional “weight” than positive ones do. Much like our fear of exile, this is an evolutionary hold-over to the times when day-to-day survival was a constant struggle. It used to be important to pay more attention to potential negatives because it literally meant life-or-death. Paying more attention to negative feelings meant that we could react more quickly to potential danger. But now that we’re no longer having to keep a wary eye out for saber-tooth tigers, we’re left with this vestigial instinct that blinds us to objective reality. That one negative experience will catch all our attention, leading us to ignore the times when nothing went wrong. Worse, confirmation bias means that we discount those positive and neutral experiences as “flukes” that don’t actually mean anything. As a result: we draw all the wrong conclusions about our lives and how people feel about us.
So how do we break out of this cognitive blindspot? By engaging a different part of the brain.
I’m a fan of journaling, especially when it comes to trying to improve your life. Writing things down helps you gain perspective and emotional distance, allowing you to be more rational in your thinking. Taking time to write out your experiences and re-examine them can help you identify patterns of behavior you might never otherwise notice and identify sticking points that you didn’t realize you had. Writing, especially writing by hand rather than typing, engages different points of your brain, and this forces you to examine your thoughts and experiences from a different, less immediate perspective. This, in turn, makes it harder to instinctively dismiss events that don’t line up with what you already expect to happen.
So if you want to work at overcoming social awkwardness, you want to start a journal examining your interactions with other people. Each day, think about the encounters you had with other people – you’ve had more than you realize – and choose a couple that stand out to you. Don’t just focus on the ones where you worry that you screwed up but pick a spectrum – ones that went well, ones where you felt awkward and ones that were just the day-to-day business of your life. Maybe you had an awkward moment with a co-worker, then ate lunch with a friend, then ordered a pizza that evening… you have three events to examine. Write them out in as much detail as you can manage and try to answer these questions as you do so:
- Was there a point when you felt anxious? If so, why? If not, why not?
- What happened? Did you have an awkward moment, or did it flow smoothly?
- If you had an awkward moment, how did the other person react?
- If you feel like you screwed up, how much objective evidence do you have that your belief that you screwed up is correct? What other possible explanations could there be for the other person’s reaction? Be honest; don’t give sarcastic answers like “they were aliens in skin suits.”
- What went right? Don’t just get lazy and say “nothing” or “I didn’t choke to death on my own tongue”. You have to be honest with yourself here.
- If you had an awkward moment, what could you do to not repeat it next time? What could you have done to recover?
At the end of each week, review your notes. You’ll be surprised at how few of your awkward moments were as bad as you imagined and how many of your daily interactions were perfectly fine and utterly unremarkable. Yes, the negative ones feel more significant, but it’s an illusion, a mirage. The ultimate impact of those awkward moments is less in your life and far more in your head. Understanding that your fear makes things seem worse than they are is a key towards learning how to control it and ultimately not fear social engagement.
Let Yourself Be Imperfect
Much of social awkwardness and anxiety is based on being afraid of doing something wrong, of not handling social interactions absolutely perfectly. You’re afraid that you are going to break some unwritten rule of socializing that everybody knows but you. You worry that you’re not going to socialize in the right way – that since you’re not as outgoing or funny or fascinating as other people, they will see you as a burden on the conversation. You worry that one screw-up will ruin everything and leave everyone staring at you, wondering who let the freak into the party.
Worse, if these are people you’re meeting for the first time, then you live in mortal terror of screwing up your first impression and making everyone think you’re a weirdo and a creep. As a result, you end up pretending to be absorbed with an incredibly important text conversation on your phone or standing in the corner at the party, trying to make friends with the host’s cats.
While it’s understandable that you’re afraid of not knowing the social rules, the fact of the matter is: they’re a lot more flexible than you’d think. There’s not just one way to take part in a conversation or to contribute to a group. Nobody is expecting you to be a social director, making sure that everybody is as entertained as possible at all times. You are allowed to simply stand around and listen – in fact, many people value and appreciate people who listen more than someone who’s good at running off at the mouth. Just because you don’t have something to say doesn’t mean you’re a burden or the odd one out – it just means that you have nothing to contribute at that moment. Instead of forcing yourself to be outgoing if you’re not, simply let yourself relax and just be present. Focus on the people around you instead of worrying about being absolutely perfect; the more you focus outward rather than inward, the easier it is to go with the flow of the interaction. Obsessing about saying or doing the wrong thing paradoxically makes it more likely that you’re going to do the very thing you’re afraid of.
Straight talk: people don’t judge you on one incident and the people who do tend to be judgmental pricks you’re better off not knowing. Let’s say you do do something awkward and embarrassing the first time you meet someone . Are you doomed to social exile? The problem isn’t the fact that someone made a mistake, it’s in how they handle it. Don’t dwell on it, don’t apologize to the point of obsequiousness. Yeah, it’s embarrassing to have made a mistake, but it’s not the end of the world and most people will forget it in the span of time it takes to drink a beer. First impressions are important, but consistency counts, too and first impressions can be repaired over time. That single awkward moment you’re obsessing over means far less than how you behave on a regular basis.
Don’t beat yourself up over an awkward moment that most people will never remember; spend your effort on the long-term instead. Momentary blips can be forgiven, everyone has them and most of them are unremarkable. Who you are, day in and day out counts for more and will form a more accurate and longer-lasting impression. When you’re focused on genuinely being a good, respectful person, people will forgive the occasional bout of being socially awkward – if they even notice – and recognize you for the awesome person you are.
Now sure, this is all helpful… but what do you do when you’re in the middle of an awkward moment? Come back next week to learn how to develop the skills that will help in sure you won’t be socially awkward again…