How to Manage Social Awkwardness

Three ways to feel more comfortable with feeling awkward.

Posted Nov 30, 2020

While pretty much the entire population has given up on manners and runs around in pajamas much of the time, there is one cardinal sin no young person wants to commit: social awkwardness (see also post: When Kids Head for Disaster). It seems as if appearing glib under all circumstances proves one’s worthiness while the lack of thereof might be a sign of being a loser, forever. Even the word "awkward" is awkward.

The pressure to make it in the rat race, which ordinary life has become, is tremendous for everybody. This is even more true for young adults. When I grew up, I had no idea how to behave around strange adults. Neither did I have comebacks for the bully or the class clown. I was shy when put on the spot and it felt bad. But that was all. Now, many young and older people think of awkwardness as a disorder of sorts, an insurmountable obstacle to success and happinessHappiness, as in “being fully present and engaged in life,” seems unimaginable without perfect speech and reaction time. It is as if everybody expects to spit out responses like a robot. Are we unconsciously competing with artificial intelligence?

A notable shift has occurred from understanding awkwardness as a benign, temporary condition to malignant, lingering disease. Or shall I say a fatal design error?

I work with a lot of young adults in both my private practice and a residential treatment center. Kids come in for all kinds of symptoms and suffer from a variety of problems, including mood disorders, defiant and aggressive behavior, drug addictions, and trauma. Anxiety is often extremely high. Many are terrified of their awkwardness and absolutely hate to be shy. They instinctively panic in response to their sense of not knowing who they are and what to do in a group of peers. Teenage angst is replaced by self-hatred, and self-hatred is rampant in all age groups. Even the more confident, cool kids are excessively afraid of feeling awkward in social situations.

Given the slow pace of the maturation process, the pressure to be confident as if the galaxy depended on it seems too high. What drives everybody to be so afraid of not knowing what to say? And how can we reduce this fear?

It must first be noted that the entire world seems to be more anxious than ever before. While we tend to be physically safer and more comfortable—apart from the current pandemic—we feel more driven, enjoy fewer peaceful moments, and lack meaningful social connections. Loneliness is a real killer (see post 10 Tips that Can Help You Past Loneliness). Everybody rushes. When we compete for jobs and colleges, we seem to compete globally. Suicide and addictions are on the rise. In Japan, for example, the suicide rate of 2020 is so high, it exceeds the deaths due to COVID-19.Something has gone utterly wrong, so the authors Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who wrote the book Deaths of Despair. They have examined why self-inflicted deaths, such as by “suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholic liver diseases,” have increased so dramatically.2 The system has failed many; the modern climate robs us of our ability to keep perspective.

In addition, we are subjecting ourselves to movies and social media where the loud and confident person gets the most amount of attention. Teens and children are the superstars of shows. While in reality young people’s brains are exhausted due to neurological changes, the fantasy is that they can and indeed should dominate the classroom or save the universe. Anybody who wants to be somebody on the internet can market himself or herself and summon a massive amount of attention. You are nobody, so it seems, if you stumble over your words or find yourself speechless. And, apparently, a nobody can neither find success nor happiness. What is there to do?

1. Become Conscious. To reduce the fear and hatred of awkwardness, all these qualities of our Zeitgeist need to become conscious. Make sure you understand that you do not merely suffer from your personal anxiety, but that you share a cultural anxiety. Just knowing what drives you creates healthy doubts about the meaning of your awkwardness. 

2. Define Success and Happiness. Instead of accepting other people’s understanding of success and happiness, think of what both these terms mean to you. Are they one and the same? Is happiness tied to perfection? Nowadays, it is important to ask oneself if computers can be happy. If perfection does not make us happy, what does? How can we feel at home in the “here and now,” given that the present moment is one of flesh and blood, imperfect by definition? Adults, please read about happiness!

3. Embrace Your Awkwardness. Life can only be lived fully when we dare to be who we are. When we run away from our authentic experiences and pretend to be more confident than we are, true happiness escapes us. It is possible to feel confidently insecure. Next time you feel awkward, do not rush to conclusions about yourself; instead, dare to just feel the feeling. Let the experience come over you like a wave. You will notice that it will not harm you if you are brave and open to it. It will wash over you just as all experiences do. Awkwardness does not feel good; you are perfectly capable of feeling this imperfection. You can handle it and will be stronger for it, too. 

© 2020 Andrea F. Polard, Psy.D. All rights reserved.

References

1) Selina Wang, Rebecca Wright, and Yoko Wakatsuki (2020). In Japan, more people died from suicide last month than from Covid in all of 2000. And women have been impacted most. CNN. Sunday, November 29, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/28/asia/japan-suicide-women-covid-dst-intl-hnk/index.html

2) Anne Case and Angus Deaton (2020). Deaths of Despair: And the Future of Capitalism. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.