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You’re Not as Awkward as You Think

These eight mantras can help tame your negative inner critic.

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Social anxiety is on the rise. For some, it’s a full-fledged clinical condition, but in today’s Insta-ready culture, many of us walk around feeling awkward and weird, given the airbrushed images flooding our feeds that bait us to think we have to be perfect to be acceptable.

As a therapist and educator, I’ve seen far too much of this—the endless obsession with what people think rents far too much space in our heads. Social comparison and self-criticism are huge time and energy drains that keep us from enjoying our interactions and relationships—which are known to be protective factors for our minds and souls.

I recently finished a study based on my work with high achieving students-and came up with an acronym to describe what was fueling their negative inner critics: ASSIEs=Asinine Societal and Self-Imposed Expectations. It’s not the most scientific term, but it captures the collective mood of today—that you’ve got to have the Kardashian bottom, be a goal-setting machine and never let anyone see you sweat—unless it’s to show off the insanely hot yoga class you managed to sneak in.

Self-talk can either fuel awkwardness or help us rethink it. Here are some mantras to tame your negative inner critic:

1. No one is paying as close attention to me as I am. Most people are so consumed by the chatter of their own critic, they don’t have the bandwidth to dissect your every move. One of the biggest lies that social anxiety sells us is that everyone is paying attention as intently as we are to our perceived shortcomings. It’s never as bad to someone else as it is in our own mind’s eye.

2. Don’t trade real for cool. Quirks are what make people fun, they bring us together. If you force yourself to be meat and potatoes for the sake of fitting in, people will miss out on knowing the real you, the one that is probably a lot more fun than your carefully curated personality. “In” is arbitrary. Think fashion—those mom jeans of yesterday are the big hit of today. Define your own cool by showing up as the real you.

3. Everyone else feels awkward, too. There are a lot of unknowns in social interactions, and it takes a lot of practice to develop confidence. Even those of us with a lot of finesse can have off moments. Life itself is awkward—the small talk, the scripted roles and banter, and all the rules of the game that tell us we have to be a certain way to fit in are what’s weird, not us. People often put up fronts and act comfortable even when they’re feeling awkward too. Be the first one to say it—you’ll probably find some interesting friends that way.

4. Shoulding is a waste. When we hit replay on our social interactions, we often "should" ourselves to death after all the hindsight 20/20 clever zingers start coming to mind. Despite what we’re told, there’s always a second chance to make a first impression. Every day is a do-over. Resist the urge to keep a running log of all your mishaps. Wipe your slate clean and stop beating yourself up.

5. I’ll be able to laugh at this later. Human behavior has a lot of entertainment value. Every blunder has the potential to be a funny story. Humor is a vital component of resilience. We’ve all done weird things, and we can turn it into comedic material, it does us a lot more good than when we obsess over it. Learning to laugh at yourself can be like a soul Xanax.

6. My feed isn’t real. Resist the bait to believe that everyone’s life or appearance is as good as their filtered pictures are suggesting. And stop trading likes for likes. Spending time off your social media can help you build better social skills that can help you find meaningful, authentic connections.

7. I don’t have to run from uncomfortable. One of the major points of cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidence-based way to dial down the noisy inner critic, is that exposure to discomfort helps us learn to tolerate it better. Even when social anxiety seems unbearable, with repeated exposure and the right supports, we can learn to navigate the distress of social engagement and even eventually learn to enjoy it.

8. Even if the worst happens, it’s not the end of the world. Everything is learning; learning is everything. Most of what we worry about never actually happens, but if it does, it is still unlikely to be an eternal damnation. Instead, we can find lessons in our messes and move on to kick our ASSIEs out.

Feeling awkward is human. But ironically, when we give into the way it makes us feel, we miss the chance to do the very socializing that can help break through it and get on our way to being more comfortable with our imperfections. We can quiet our inner critics by saying no to ASSIEs that keep us thinking we—not life itself—is awkward. What will your anti-awkward mantra be?

This post is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice for clinically significant anxiety. If you or someone you love is affected by social anxiety, evidenced-based treatment can provide tailored strategies for your own unique situation. The information here is based on the scientific literature, along with my research and clinical and teaching practice, but should never be overgeneralized given the complexities of our responses to our social worlds and our own personal variables.

References

Etkin, A., & Wager, T. D. (2007). Functional neuroimaging of anxiety: a meta-analysis of emotional processing in PTSD, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobia. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(10), 1476-1488.

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