Socially awkward moments happen to everyone; it's how you recover and move beyond such moments that makes the difference between wanting to sink into the floorboards or simply brushing it off as a passing glitch. Social awkwardness comes from a sense of not appearing "normal" or "socially clued in" under the glare of others. Partly generated by our own fears and worries of what others think of us, partly generated by social expectations and how we interpret these, social awkwardness can prevent us from fully interacting with others out of fear of being ridiculed or even ostracized by our peers.
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If you're afraid of being caught in awkward situations or of coming across as socially awkward to others, there are some good reasons not to be. Everyone has to learn how to deal with social embarrassment at times and even if you're more socially awkward than the average person, there are tried and tested ways to overcome feeling socially awkward. Some of these ways are explored in this article.
1. Realize that you're not alone.
The reality is that most of us worry about exactly the same things when in public, especially about whether other people like us, whether we're making a good impression or whether others are bored by us. In fact, many of our worries probably cancel each other out given we're on similar wavelengths! At one time or other, most people experience moments of shyness, embarrassment at slips of the tongue, awkward bodily noises, messing up a conversation or struggling to connect with another person. However, if you're feeling like this all of the time, it could be because you're over-analyzing any social situation, which can make it seem much worse than it actually is.
Try to source your feelings of social awkwardness.
For many people who experience intense social awkwardness, the feelings stem from anxiety, fear, insecurity or low self-confidence. Each of these sources can be tackled if you're willing to push your boundaries a little at a time and to find ways to build your confidence. But there may be other reasons for feeling self-conscious, such as having had a bad past experience, feeling that you're not with people who are enough like yourself or who understand you, being an introvert (which is different from feeling shy), feeling compelled to interact in situations because of work, peer or parental pressure, etc. that you would not ordinarily subject yourself to, or feeling confused about the motivations and actions of those around you. In each case, try to identify the root cause of what's making you feel awkward so that you can address it directly.
Being an introvert is considered to be different from being shy, although both traits can be found in the same person. Introverts prefer to shun the spotlight, to keep out of many social situations because they're draining and because the introvert is fulfilled through more internal interaction than an extrovert would enjoy. A shy person, on the other hand, wants to participate in many social events but is afraid of being embarrassed or left out.
Social anxiety is a severely limiting condition or anxiety-based disorder in which a person is not able to function in daily life, including at school, work or social events. A person suffering from social anxiety tends to keep close to family and trusted friends and avoid all public interpersonal relationships. Social anxiety stems from a constant fear that other people are scrutinizing the sufferer in order to humiliate or embarrass them. If you suffer from social anxiety, it is important to get proper professional help, as it's not likely that you'll be able to overcome this alone. As with shyness, social anxiety has an excellent prognosis for treatment.
Once you've identified the feelings that lead to awkwardness in social situations for you, start trying to acknowledge these feelings whenever they arise.
By being more aware of your own bodily sensations when you're feeling awkward and anxious, you can consciously recognize that your adrenalin is flooding you and causing you to want to run or hide. When this happens, learn to tell yourself: "I am having an anxiety reaction, I am going to be okay. I will act calmly." The more self talk that recognizes the anxiety, the more you will start to get it under control.
Important! If you suffer from some form of social anxiety that is above and beyond the normal first time jitters almost everyone experiences, realize that your biological makeup has some influence in your over-reaction but also that you can learn to control this aspect. Do not put it down to your being a bad or unsociable person! While your anxiety is irrational, your bodily reactions are real and you must learn to separate the two when learning how to calm your anxiety, so that you don't blame yourself but do change the behavioral response.
Increase your confidence.
Even if you don't feel confident, you can either fake it until it grows on you or you can remind yourself to be friendly as much as possible. It is definitely hard to find confidence in situations that bring up fears, anxiety, panic and a desire to hide or run away. However, asking yourself "what's the worst that could happen?" and trying to do at least one thing to engage with others around you is a good start.
Read How to build your self confidence for suggestions on improving your personal confidence. Don't rush it; building confidence takes times and involves backward steps as well as forward ones, as you find your own comfortable social niche. Take your time to grow into a more confident self.
Read How to calm your nerves. Dealing with your nerves around others is important because nervousness affects our demeanor (body language) and even if we don't open our mouths, other people can read "socially awkward" into our features. Since it can be hard work dealing with a perceived "socially awkward person", vibes to this effect may discourage many people from hanging around to find out. It's important not to misinterpret this as dislike; it's an equal sense of awkwardness on their behalf and one where you can learn to use body language skills to set people at ease. See also How to look approachable.
Assuming that someone else wants to connect with you and assuming the best about them from the start allows you to be more open and friendly toward other people. While it's true that no matter how friendly you are, some people will respond as if their mouth and mind are perpetually soured, this isn't a reason to scuttle off or blame yourself. By being friendly you will put others at ease, find ways to break the ice and give others less friendly the freedom to be more open and vulnerable around you. If you're not used to being friendly, try it. It will grow on you as you realize that it's a lot easier than maintaining a wary, cautious and non-trusting front all the time.
A friendly demeanor can help to put others at ease in your presence. Smile, make eye contact without staring, appear relaxed and use open gestures (for example, keep your arms unfolded rather than crossed).
When meeting someone for the first time, be friendly and rely on asking open-ended questions. Avoid asking anything too personal to avoid appearing nosy or having them be nosy back.
Being friendly doesn't mean being gullible. Maintain your sense of awareness about people who display worrying behavior, such as aggression, lewdness or bullying and look after yourself above all.
Be less concerned about what other people think of you.
Most people are worrying what others think of them, which is something worth reminding yourself when you start to worry about what other people think of you. Moreover, some people will be nasty, petty and sarcastic as a matter of fact, regardless of who you are or your achievements; for such people, such negative behavior is often a defense mechanism they use to get over their own feelings of insecurity, awkwardness and discomfort. As such, it's not actually personally directed at you but is an outward sign of inward turmoil. Don't take it to heart; do continue to share the best of yourself without worrying what others think.
Some people have negative thoughts about other people as a means for never having to question their own shortcomings. You will never change the way this kind of person thinks; instead, realize that they're too hooked on blaming others to see how their negative comments probably reveal most about their own weaknesses.
Random unpleasant and downright embarrassing things happen. In our imperfect world, the odds of some things making us look or feel foolish are just as much in existence as those things we choose to see as showing ourselves in a more dignified, graceful or appropriate light. Often we don't have control over awkward situations, such as the long silent gap in a conversation that just goes on interminably, the inelegant and noisy passing of wind when we least expect it and the trip over the edge of the rug as we walk up to accept an award from our peers. These things happen but they are not a reason to find ourselves wanting. They are a reason to accept your humanness and the fact that life is random and at times imperfect. To deal with this fact, lighten up and see the funnier side of awkward moments. Not only will doing so help you to place such occurrences into better perspective but humor will often break tension among all present, allowing people to laugh with you, not at you, and to pass the awkward moment without further ado.
Laughing at your own behavior when something daft happens shows people that the situation isn't really that serious and taps into common consciousness. And look at people who really know how to make fun of the shortcomings in life, namely comedians. The likes of Rowan Atkinson, Charlie Chaplin and your favorite local comedian will help you to realize that feeling awkward can be turned into an amusing asset.
Focus on the positives.
While socially awkward moments can tend to make us focus on everything that is going wrong at that time, it is helpful to deliberately make yourself focus on the positives. What is good about things around you right now, even though you might be wanting the ground to swallow you up? Pinpointing some positives can help restore your perspective about how minimal the awkward occurrence is in the greater scheme of things.
For example: Jenny has just tripped over a carpet edging the dance floor after finishing her dance with Brad. She falls flat on her face. Jenny could decide to burst into tears at the imperfect end to a perfect dance. Instead, she realizes that the carpet edge was impossible to see and that she has at least made it obvious to everyone else to be careful. Moreover, she has just finished a wonderful dance with Brad and he is already kneeling by her side offering to help her stand up. She accepts his hand graciously (he is such a gentleman!), she beams a big smile at the worried on-lookers and says with a wry look, "Wow, that's some trippy finale to an amazing dance––watch the floor folks!" Everyone else breathes a sigh of relief because they didn't know whether to laugh or look away, and she has just let them choose the tension-relieving option. Jenny realizes it'll all be forgotten within five minutes and gets on with her night. (After note: Brad is so smitten by Jenny's graceful attitude in the face of adversity that he realizes he wants to spend his whole life with this resilient person and proposes to her the next day.)
Use self talk to move through feeling socially awkward.
Self talk will help you to shift the focus from worrying about what others are thinking of you and back onto calming yourself so that you can project a sense of ease with yourself. Some of the things that can be helpful in overcoming moments of social anxiety include:
- My anxiety is distorting my thinking.
- I am paying too much attention to my bad feelings in my body.
- It's only my anxiety chemicals making me feel this way; the reality is that everything is fine.
- I can get on top of my anxiety.
Positive words can help a great deal too. Say positive things to yourself such as: "I'm fine" "People are nice and I'm having fun being around them", "People seem to like what I am saying or doing", "I am here to enjoy myself".
Learn to relax.
Relaxation is not a one-off; it's a lifelong practice. As such, learning to relax should begin at home, where you're most comfortable. Practice deep (diaphragmatic) breathing to overcome moments of anxiety, do relaxing exercises, stretches and even daily meditation to strengthen your ability to tap into a relaxed state whenever it's needed. Then start taking your relaxation knowledge and applying it to your public life as well. In particular, breathing deeply and slowly can help to keep you calm whenever you feel assaulted by too much social input and anxiety. Being mindful about situations will eventually help you to feel more socially at ease.
Give yourself recovery space.
Not all socially awkward situations will be resolved with a laugh and some deep breathing. There may be times when the embarrassment, pain or fraught emotions are just too much to deal with in the public sphere and for your own sake and possibly that of others, it is best to simply exit. By giving yourself space to recover, you can cool down and get over being flooded by anxiety.
Try very hard to stop yourself from simply running off in tears or yelling. Apologize quickly and say that you need a moment/need the bathroom/need fresh air, etc. and leave at an even, normal pace. If you can, it is also a good idea to say that you will return shortly to finish any incomplete conversation or discussion.
If the socially awkward moment has involved getting into a heated argument, it is perfectly acceptable to break it off and say that you're going off to cool down briefly. Promise the person that you will resume an amicable discussion when you feel less charged up. This is not cowardly; indeed, it takes great courage to recognize when you need to back out temporarily and gather your thoughts and rein in your anger or anxiety.