Why Do I Feel So Awkward?

The hit show 'Hamilton' reminds us that “awkward” can be an opportunity

Posted Feb 01, 2016

Wikipedia, free to use
Source: Wikipedia, free to use

The other day I had the good fortune of seeing Broadway’s latest smash hit Hamilton and I can safely say, “Believe the hype!” It’s a great show! But what delighted me most was to see one of our founding fathers—Alexander Hamilton— portrayed as awkward.

Almost every day I hear someone talk about a person or moment that was “so awkward,” as if it were some great social crime. Now, like most people, I enjoy chatting with charming, socially poised individuals. They make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves. But I also know from my work as a therapist that when there is an awkward moment with a patient, we are entering into potentially life-changing territory. 

Awkwardness can result from an unexpected conflict, an odd social encounter and/or an embarrassment. But if we stop for a minute and breathe, we might realize the discomfort comes from the unexpected sincerity of the moment.

Awkwardness Can Mean We Are Sincere

In the show 'Hamilton', the title role is a statesman of significant intellect, writing ability and great ambition, but he is somewhat awkward. His friend, Burr is equally as ambitious, but smooth and socially sophisticated. Burr, as a friend, encourages Hamilton to smile and charm--he argues that if you don’t let people know what you stand for, you won’t make enemies.

Now, I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of this portrayal, but I can speak to its relevance. The conflict between Hamilton and Burr represents a choice between being true to our convictions regardless of how others might react, that is, being sincere; and opting for social ease by focusing on what we think others want to hear.

Being sincere can result in a more meaningful and satisfying life.

Awkwardness Can Mean Others Matter To Us

The birth of intimacy is often awkward. By revealing our innermost thoughts and feelings, we put ourselves on the line. We make ourselves vulnerable to painful rejection. If we are too afraid of appearing awkward, we may keep others at a distance. We may also find we attract those who would rather keep things superficial. Before we get to snuggle in the comfort of intimacy, we need to get to know each other beyond our social selves. This can feel awkward.

Liz is lonely for a relationship. But she routinely dismisses guys after the first date, especially if they are a little awkward. Liz is most comfortable with guys who are self-assured, fun and flirtatious—the kind of guy who is comfortable chatting up women in bars. She is attracted to their poise, but their composure may come from knowing they are not really invested in knowing others, that they have no skin in the game.

Awkwardness Can Mean We Have Left Our Comfort Zone

Often we avoid experiences that cause us to feel awkward. Take Mark, for example. He wants to network as a step toward getting a job in graphic design, but he feels awkward at networking events and keeps to himself.

He explains, “I can only present myself well, if I am feeling confident.” Presenting ourselves to strangers, especially ones we admire, is often uncomfortable. Wanting to be considered for a job generally puts us in a position of wanting something from a stranger—we feel vulnerable, embarrassed and yes, awkward. But if we can’t tolerate this feeling, we risk keeping ourselves stuck in our comfort zone and miss growth-enhancing experiences.

Some Tips for Managing Awkward Feelings—our own, and those of others

  • Awkward conflict – we can consider that our opponent has the integrity to speak their mind. This is an admirable quality even if it feels a little jarring at first.
  • Awkward date – we can appreciate that the other person is probably being sincere. They are trying to let us get to know them; it’s also an invitation to let them get to know us.
  • Feeling awkward – if we avoid situations for fear of feeling awkward, we can remind ourselves: this is a new experience!  We might gain something by tolerating our discomfort. Who knows how we might grow from it? If it doesn’t kill us, it only makes us stronger.
  • Fearing others will see us as awkward – if we avoid these situations, we limit ourselves to the familiar. Our world is that much smaller.

Awkward moments can draw our attention to something important. Feelings of embarrassment and discomfort may be the harbingers of discovery and change.

David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D., is a Graduate of The William Alanson White Institute. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Associate Editor of the blog Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work and written on relationships. He is in private practice in The West Village/Chelsea in Manhattan. Visit his webpage: drbraucher.com or follow him on twitter: @drbraucher.