Feeling awkward is usually something we shy away from… which makes us feel even more awkward! This article is an attempt to cover a little bit of ground around awkwardness, and suggest why it may even be one of our most valuable social signals.
A SIGN THAT SOMETHING DOESN’T FIT
Feeling awkward in a social situation is, perhaps first and foremost, a sign of dissonance between our state of being, and what surrounds us.
For example, at a social gathering, we might initially feel as though we want to quit the room and escape.
What is the message behind the feeling? There are several possible things that your response might be telling you:
there is danger in numbers – you cannot possibly control your relationship with everyone in the room
there is cognitive danger to you – the wall of sound and fury facing you is disrupting your ability to focus
your self-esteem may be under threat – a large number of watchers means a large number of potential judges
These are all useful warnings, if the dangers are real.
However, many people find that social phobia can take all this a step too far. In these cases, our own response to a social situation can ‘shoot ourselves in the foot’. We withdraw completely, and therefore lose the possibility of anything happening at all. What began as a warning system, has turned into a sense of fear so pronounced that it freezes us up.
A MORE POSITIVE USE OF THE SIGNALS
Instead of allowing ourselves to be overcome by fear, there are other ways to interpret the physical symptoms of awkwardness.
These are perhaps better expressed as self-questions rather than alarms:
Faced with so many people, how can I focus my relationships?
Faced with so much noise, how can I focus my attention?
Faced with so much potential judgement, how can I protect my sense of peace?
In work with counselling clients with social phobias, I have often found that the conversation comes down to the above three questions.
Some good results are possible, based on this kind of disciplined thinking. The questions can spawn helpful personal solutions. For example:
One client found it useful, when faced with a crowded room, to choose one person and settle into a conversation with them. This reduced the generalised fear of the whole room. Sometimes they even took along a friend, with the agreement that they would talk with each other until they felt comfortable circulating.
Another client invented a game to focus their attention. They would give themsleves a point for every fact they discovered about a person in the room. This enabled them to focus on asking questions, and listening to the answers, without getting too distracted by the general noise.
Yet another client would deliberately dress averagely rather than attractively, in order to reduce the pressure on themselves. Once they had decided to be pleasantly average, they were less reliant on positive feedback for self-assurance.
Sometimes, a feeling of awkwardness can be your best friend in telling you to change your environment. If you persistently feel awkward in a particular environment, or with a particular person, then it may be you have something to learn. Often, you are picking up something incongruent, something that doesn’t quite feel natural. If you can spot what it is, then it can enable you to develop your choices and responses accordingly.
You might discover something surprising at the root of your awkwardness. Does the situation remind you of a time in your past when you felt at a disadvantage? If you feel awkward with a person, is it because they have a behaviour against which you have no defences? By working with the feeling, and tracing it to its roots, you might be able to pinpoint something you can do to help yourself be more comfortable and self-assured.
Sometimes it’s good to work with a trusted friend, or someone in a counselling role, to help with the analysis.
We all dislike feeling awkward. But it can offer us vital social signs.
If we can get over our initial fear in social situations, then we can begin to consider how to regain our ability to gain focused relationships, focused attention, and a sense of personal peace.
Focusing techniques include selecting or arranging a conversation with one person; getting interested in learning facts about others; and lowering your expectations, so that you are less reliant on positive feedback.
Above all, we can learn to listen to our own response, and calmly see what would help. Not everyone has the ability to analyse what is at the root of unease. If you can learn it, it is a very valuable skill. It enables you to diagnose yourself, and offer yourself empathetic solutions. If this is hard, then you can consider sharing the issue with a trusted friend or counsellor.