Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Can I Stop Being Socially Awkward?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: How can I be less awkward with friends and acquaintances?

My case is of awkwardness is an oddity in my mind. On one hand I have next to no problem doing long presentations in class ( last week I did a solo one that took 15 minutes) but on the other is the fact that I am terrible at carrying on a conversation. In many ways I fit the criteria for being socially awkward and possibly social anxious but as I said above in many other ways I do not.

Even now I am struggling to describe my case to you, overall though I just don’t know how to act in and carry on conversation. Allot of the time I am totally fine with the everyday small talk but at the times it matters most like one on one I tend to fall flat.

Off the top of my head I can think of a few things that absolutely kill me. The first being saying hi to people in the hall way, most of the time I just try not to but when I do it often comes across as awkward. Another is talking to close friends, frustratingly I even struggle to carry on or even think of a conversation with them. My last example is not knowing how to walk or carry myself on without thinking about how I should walk or look, I am the stereotypical person that wonders what to do with their arms and shoulders.

Please try to help me with this Doc, I am tired of doubting myself and feeling like I’m too socially maladjusted to build a meaningful relationship

Thanks for your time (I really appreciate it),

-Socially Confused

DEAR SOCIALLY CONFUSED: Here’s your problem: you’re overthinking things. Big time.

The reason why you don’t have any problems doing presentations and the like is that you’ve spent time practicing them. You know exactly how they’re going to go – you’ve got the cadence down, you’ve anticipated potential questions, you’ve probably read it out loud in the mirror a few times just to make sure you had everything down. Basically: you were running on autopilot because you didn’t have to worry about any confusing variables that might trip you up.

But when you’re talking with people or doing everyday things, you’re flying without a net. You don’t know what to expect. This can be ok if it’s just day-to-day chit-chatting, but when it counts? OH SHIT, WHAT NOW? What if you do the wrong thing? What is the wrong thing? It could be anything! You don’t know what they’re thinking! You might say something weird! And then your jerkbrain takes over: oh god, what if you do say something weird, and then everyone’s going to hate you because of course the first thing that people do when their friends say something weird is alienate them and then send word down the network (because you know they have to have some sort of network, right?) and then everyone else is going to hate you and then for the rest of your life, you’re going to be The Weird Guy Everyone Hates, living on the outskirts of town and haunting your little rundown house as children make up stories about the weirdo who lives there.

Sound a little familiar?

You’re spending a lot of precious brain cycles thinking of all the strange and shameful things you’ve done or worrying about the things you might do. I’m willing to bet you’ve had moments where you were drifting off to sleep and then suddenly remembered something stupid or awkward that you did and suddenly you’re wide awake and can’t stop thinking about how embarrassed you are now for what you did then.

(Can you tell I’ve done a lot of that? Because I have.)

But here’s the thing: most of that weird, awkward shit that you think is life-changing? Nobody notices it. The people who do notice? They don’t really care. I can promise you: 99.999% of the time, you are the only person who’s freaking out about all of this. Nobody’s paying nearly as much attention to how you walk or what you’re doing with your arms and shoulders as you are. The times when they do react? They’re having something of an embarrassment-by-proxy moment because you’re so very clearly uncomfortable.

Just as our fears tend to be more about experiencing fear than the thing we’re afraid of, I suspect that your biggest issue is that you’re anxious about being anxious. It becomes a vicious circle, where you’re worried about doing something “wrong”, you become hyperaware of it, and once you’re that aware, you’re suddenly unsure what to do, which makes you even more anxious. It’s the classic centipede’s dilemma – the centipede was doing just fine until someone asked it how it timed it’s footsteps. Suddenly you’re paying absurd levels of attention to something you normally do unconsciously and before you know it, you’re falling back to the conscious incompetence stage of skill development and everything you do doesn’t make sense anymore.

So what do you do about this?

Well, you take a deep breath.

No, seriously. Start with a deep breath. Breathe in through your nose for the count of five, hold it, then breathe out through your mouth for the count of seven. Repeat that a few times. Breath control is one of the keys to dealing with anxiety, even social anxiety. Our bodies are very bad at understanding why they feel the way they do; they take the physical symptoms and extrapolate from there. Two of the key symptoms of fear and anxiety are a racing heartbeat and shortness of breath; taking time to control your breathing forces you to calm down, slowing your heart rate and letting everything in your body relax for a minute. Once you’ve relaxed, you’ll find that your brain isn’t racing quite as much and you’re not quite so worried about all those personal faux-pas that you’re convinced the rest of the world has noticed.

Next, you’re going to learn some mind control… except you’re going to control your own mind. Yoga and mindfulness meditation are like getting into the command console of your brain; they help you gain more control by making you more aware of your thoughts, feelings and muscles in the right way. Rather than having moments of sheer panic over what you should or shouldn’t be doing, you’re calm and in control, with the calm awareness that disperses panic and anxiety. It doesn’t take much – even just 15 minutes of meditation a day can have incredible results – and they’re easy to do in the privacy of your own room. There’re any number of yoga exercises for beginners online, and many, many meditation apps available for your computer or smartphone that will walk you through some basic techniques.

Getting your brain under control and becoming more intimate and familiar with your body, your posture and the way you carry yourself will help calm you down and let you relax. Once you’ve relaxed a little, you can realize that things aren’t quite as bad as you thought. By relaxing, you’re able to just be, to go with the flow instead of trying to fight upstream against your own anxieties. You’ll realize that all of this isn’t a big deal – you can just say “hi” without worrying about how you’re coming off because all you’re doing is greeting someone. If you mess up, you’ll be in a better place, where it’ll be easier to laugh or call out the awkward moment – and there’s no better way of destroying awkward moments than saying “huh, that was awkward” and just moving on like it’s no big deal.

And that’s the great secret: people will take their cues from you. If you treat the occasional awkward moment – ones we all have – as though they’re no big deal, then your friends and classmates will treat it like it’s no big deal. If they give you shit for it… well, they’re assholes. And what do we say to assholes?

Now, once you’ve gotten a better handle on your anxiety and you want to work on your physicality – that pesky “what do I do with my arms” issue – you may want to look and see if there’s anyone in your area teaching Alexander Technique. Many actors study it as a way of gaining finer control and awareness of their bodies, so to better physically inhabit their roles. It’s primarily a series of guided stretches and relaxation exercises – rather like yoga, in fact – that helps you be more well-aligned and physically relaxed. It may well be worth your time.

And don’t forget: if your anxiousness about being or feeling awkward is really causing you misery, it’s worth talking to a counselor or therapist. Sometimes just having someone to talk to about these issues can help relax you and calm you down.

But it’s like I said: you’re wound up and overthinking things and this is making you trip over your own metaphorical feet. Once you relax, you’ll find that things will come much easier to you and you won’t feel as awkward.

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com)