Harris O’Malley’s very do-able action plan for becoming more comfortable in social situations.
Being socially awkward can make every day life feel like a constant trial. Basic socialization starts to feel like a video game of neverending quicktime events where you have microseconds to figure out the appropriate response and you have absolutely no idea what to do.
But you can learn to overcome social awkwardness. Last time, we talked about how certain mindsets and beliefs contributed to feeling awkward and uneasy in social situations and how you can deal with them. But when you’re in the thick of things and your heart is racing and you feel all the eyes in the room focusing on you, you don’t want long-term solutions, you want to know what to do right now. So I’m going to teach you some practical skills that you can start using today to help cope with those socially awkward moments.
Beat Being Socially Awkward By Preparing Yourself In Advance
Part of the stress of being socially awkward is the fear of getting caught in an awkward moment and the panic that comes from having no idea how to get out of it. In fact, much of social awkwardness is the fear of feeling that fear – living in anticipation of that moment when it all goes to shit and you’re stuck with your metaphorical dick in your hand.
Many socially awkward people try to pre-empt those situations by loading yourself down by trying to memorize all the social rules and contingency plans like a social Batman.
But rather than trying to plan for every worst-case scenario, what you should do is prepare yourself to do well. Rather than occupying your brain with everything that can go wrong, you want to help set yourself at ease before you out yourself into an anxiety-provoking situation.
Now while the exercises I’ve taught you will help you with long-term anxiety issues, sometimes you need something you can do quickly, before you even leave the house. And one of the fastest and most reliable ways to make yourself more socially successful and feeling at ease is to simply dress up sharp.
Dressing well does more for you than simply making you look good. Clothes carry social and cultural associations with them – associations that directly affect how you feel and behave. Psychologists have found that wearing a doctor’s coat, for example, improves people’s ability to concentrate and respond to intellectual challenges. However, when people are told that that same coat is a painter’s smock, however, the intellectual improvement disappears.
This is known as enclothed cognition – the idea that the clothes we wear directly affect the way we think and feel. When you wear clothes with a specific symbolic meaning, you begin to act and think in response to that meaning. Thus, when you wear glasses, you feel and act smarter, while dressing like a slob doesn’t just make you feel worse, it makes you act like a slob. Dressing well with clothes that fit and match your archetype doesn’t just make you feel better – it makes you act more confidently. So before you leave the house, put together an outfit that makes you feel like a million bucks and watch how much easier it is to interact with people.
While you’re at it, you also want to get yourself ready emotionally by warming up before the main event. You wouldn’t leap into a race without stretching out and getting warmed up before hand; that’s a sure-fire way to pull a muscle. So it is with social events as well – much of the anxiety from social awkwardness comes from getting dropped into a social situation feeling unprepared. Wandering into a party cold makes it harder to make the mental shift to being in “social” mode… so make that shift before you even get there. What you want to do is get into a social headspace before you put yourself in the position of interacting with other people. If you’re going to a party with friends, then it can help to start off grabbing dinner with them before you arrive. Alternately, if you’re rolling solo, call a friend or a family member and have a brief conversation before you head over to limber up those emotional muscles.
Even simple low-investment approaches to strangers – asking the time or for directions or even a brief conversation with the barrista when you’re getting your morning caffeine fix can help shift you from “solo” mode to “social,” and put you more at ease in social situations. Moreover, those brief conversations with strangers help you improve your social skills – making you feel more confident and self-assured when you are talking to people you want to impress.
Teach Your Body To Lie To You
One of the cruel ironies of being socially awkward is that it’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle. Telling yourself that you’re socially awkward makes you more uncomfortable in social situations. Being uncomfortable in social situations makes you more self-conscious, which in turn increases the anxiety. The anxiety you feel causes you to withdraw and reinforces the idea that you’re socially awkward, which makes you ore uncomfortable and self-conscious…
So rather than letting the cycle perpetuate itself, you need to break out of the loop. And the way you do this is by changing the story that you’re telling yourself. You are, literally, going to lie about being more comfortable in social situations. And you’ll believe it.
To start with, you’re going to change your body language. Just as clothes affect how you act, think and feel, your body affects your attitude and emotions. The simple act of forcing yourself to smile actually makes you feel happier. Standing up straight and opening up your chest makes you feel more confident. And when your heart is racing and your palms are sweating, you feel terrified.
Controlling your body literally means controlling your mind. So to start with, you’re going to control your breathing. When you’re nervous or anxious, you breathe faster, hyper-oxygenating your blood in preparation for your fight-or-flight response. Your heart begins to race, speeding this oxygen and adrenaline-rich blood to your muscles and your brain, making you feel even more anxious. But by controlling your breath, you force your heart rate to slow down, which calms you down in turn. You literally can’t be afraid when your heart beat is strong, slow and steady.
So when you feel the anxiety mount, start taking slow, deep breaths. Breathe in slowly and hold it for the count of three, then breathe out slowly to the count of four. Repeat this over and over again, breathing in, holding it and then slowly breathing out again. You’ll have to fight against your urge to breathe faster – that’s the panic response trying to take over. Just focus on your breath and keeping it under control and you’ll notice that your heart rate is returning to normal. As your heart rate slows, you’ll feel the anxiety and panic starting to drain away. Don’t worry that you’re not perfectly at ease immediately. The goal is to ease your anxiety, not to become a zen monk.
While you’re controlling your breathing, adjust your posture. When you inhale, imagine an invisible string at the crown of your skull gently pulling you upwards, straightening your spine. Let your spine elongate and your shoulders open. As you exhale, imagine the tension leaving your body in a wave flowing down to the floor, letting your muscles relax as it passes. Let your arms dangle loosely at your sides; if you don’t know what to do with your hands, simply hook your thumbs into your pants pockets and let your arms relax.
Next: take a couple of minutes to adopt a power pose. Find some place where you can be alone for a few moments – a bathroom, for example – and simply stand with your feet spread hip-width apart, with your chest puffed out and your hands on your waist, and your chin tilted slightly up. Alternately, plant your feet wide and hold your hands over your head in a “V”. Hold these poses for two minutes, then rejoin the party. Yes, it may feel absurd… but adopting these power-poses actually causes your testosterone levels to shoot up while cortisol levels – the hormones generated by stress – drop. As a result, your confidence skyrockets and your feelings of anxiety and panic drop, leaving you feeling prepared to take on the world.
Change The Story You’re Telling Yourself
Now that you’re controlling your body, it’s time to control your mind. Just as you are teaching your body to lie to you and change your emotional state, you’re going to force your brain to change by lying to yourself.
One of the mistakes that socially awkward people make is constantly thinking about all the ways things can go wrong. Even as they are trying to calm themselves down, they focus on the potential mistakes, making themselves more anxious. Instead, you’re going to transform that anxiety into potential that will help make you a social dynamo.
You see, humans are very bad at understanding why we feel the way we feel; we feel the physical effects and assign meaning to them afterwards. This is known as the misattribution of arousal – mistaking the emotional causes of physical sensations. Even as you are bringing yourself down from panic-mode by controlling your breathing and adjusting your posture, you’re still going to be keyed up. But rather than fighting against against that physical arousal, you’re going to make it work for you by changing the context. And it’s very simple: you’re literally going to tell yourself why you’re so aroused. When you’re feeling anxious, tell yourself “I’m excited” out loud. Yes, out loud. Saying it out loud is like a magic trigger phrase, the psychological equivalent how of shouting “Shazam!” turns Billy Batson into Captain Marvel. By speaking the words, you’re adjusting how your brain responds to the stimulus you’re feeling.
Telling yourself that you’re excited changes the context of your physical feelings and affects your mind accordingly. Saying “I’m excited” will actually make you feel excited, rather than anxious. And by being excited, you start to think of all the way things can go well instead of all of the disasters you’ve been imagining.
Like I said in part one of this series, being socially awkward is a form of ego-centrism; you become so self-conscious that you don’t have the mental bandwidth to spare for other people. As a result, you are barely able to pay attention to others. So, to help combat those social awkward moments, turn your attention away from yourself and towards others. And the easiest way to do this is simply try to get to know the people around us.
Straight talk: we all love to talk about ourselves – it literally activates the pleasure centers of the brain the way that drugs, money and food do. But when everyone wants to talk about their favorite subject – themselves – it’s hard to find an opportunity to do so.
This is one reason why we so appreciate it when someone shows genuine interest in us: it’s a chance to do something emotionally rewarding. And by showing interest in others, it makes them like us in return. If you’re socially awkward and afraid of flubbing a moment in social situations, spend less time paying attention to your own behavior and focus on the people around you. Get to know them – what’s their story, what makes them tick?
By being an active listener – asking questions, rephrasing what they’ve said to make sure you understand and then asking questions based on their answers – you’re forced to pay more attention to them instead of obsessing about any potential mistakes you might or might not be making. It also means that you’ll never have to worry about what to say or running out of things to talk about; simply use questions as conversational springboards.
There Are Many Ways To Contribute To Conversations. You’ll Find Yours.
Socially awkward people often feel anxious when interacting with others because they’re never sure how to join in… or what to say if they do. They worry that because they’re not the funniest, smartest or whatever-ist person in the room, they won’t be liked. They worry that people will notice that they’re not saying enough – or anything – and are just hovering around the conversation like a ghost. They worry that when they do try to join in, they’ll be stilted and awkward. They worry that nobody could possibly care about their stupid interests, or that what they like isn’t “cool”, so everybody will assume they are boring and stupid too. They worry that they’ll blurt out the wrong thing and then everyone will hate them forever.
The problem is that by convincing themselves that there is only one way to interact with people or to take part in a conversation, they’ve functionally set themselves up for failure – they become so afraid of breaking these imagined rules that they can’t actually take part. You don’t need to be the center of attention or the coolest person in the room to join a conversation – you simply have to have something to contribute. If you don’t have anything to say, then you don’t need to say anything; listening and appreciating what other people have to say is a valid and valuable way of taking part in a conversation.
When you’re socially awkward, you tend to make things much more complicated than they have to be. Joining a conversation is, in many ways like making a cold approach – the only motivation you need to take part is that you want to meet people or join in. It’s understandable that you don’t want to blunder into a conversation like a rogue bull; you don’t want to be rude by accident. Simply listen for a little while and try to get a grasp of the group’s dynamics. If it seems like a closed conversation – one that’s exclusively for the people involved – then walk away. If it’s more open, wait for a pause where you might have an opportunity to contribute. Just don’t talk over other people or force your way in. Similarly, don’t cut others off by physically blocking them or getting between them and the others in the group; it’s incredibly rude. At the same time, don’t stress yourself about making people like you right off the bat; the easiest short-cut to getting other people to like you is to simply assume rapport. When you expect to be accepted, you instinctively act warmer and friendlier to the people you’re approaching and they are much more likely to respond in kind. When you assume you’re going to be rejected, you tend to be colder and more defensive… turning people off.
You also don’t need to worry about being the quippiest or fastest to respond – in fact, if you’re worried about having an awkward moment, it’s better to take your time. Take a moment or two to gather your thoughts rather than trying to rush them out and letting your mouth get ahead of your brain. Giving yourself a few moments to think before you speak isn’t awkward; it simply lets others know that you’re a considerate, deliberate person rather than someone who’s waiting for their turn to talk.
Don’t Be Afraid of Mistakes
The most important thing to remember when you’re trying to avoid being socially awkward is not to let your fear of mistakes paralyze you. It’s understandable that you’re worried about being a creeper or shoving your foot in your mouth, but one mistake or awkward moment – or even several – isn’t going to turn you into a social pariah. It’s not the individual mistakes that are the problem but in the way that you respond to them. Everybody, whether they’re George Clooney or the awkward introvert, has moments where they’ve shoved their foot so far into their mouths that they fart shoe polish. It’s behavior over time that affects how people see you, not your one fuck-up in the moment.
Similarly, everyone gets nervous when meeting new people. Even people who seem completely confident on the outside may be freaking out inside or may have tics that they’re absolutely convinced are the worst thing ever. I’m fairly socially experienced, but I have a tendency to do what I call “chasing my thoughts around the room” – letting my eyes flick all over the place as I’m trying to organize my thoughts while I’m talking. It’s a minor thing, but I’m incredibly self-conscious about it.
The key to handling these awkward moments is simply to learn to manage them and move on. Let’s take a cringe-inducingly familiar instance: the conversational panic spiral. You say something awkward, realize you said something awkward and now you’re desperately trying to control the damage, only to make things worse.
The problem isn’t the initial mistake; it’s the attempts to dig yourself out of the hole that make things worse. Instead of trying to explain or mitigate the damage, stop talking. Take a deep breath, slow your heart rate and say “Ok, that was awkward. Sorry, I got a little nervous.” Once you’ve apologized, then let it go. Don’t dwell on it, don’t explain further – that’s how you end up right back in the spiral.
Did you trip and take a header into the floor? Stand up, make a quick joke – “Damn, if this isn’t just like the Olympics in ’08” and just let it roll off you. Did you spill your drink on someone? Apologize, offer some napkins or a towel to help mop up the mess1 and offer to get them another drink or to pay for the cleaning, then move on. Treat it like a learning experience and resolve not to make the same mistake twice.
Handling an awkward moment with grace is how you defuse it. By taking ownership of the situation – you’ve called out the awkward – and apologizing for the mistake, you’ve transformed a potentially cringe-inducing moment into a blip that is easily understood and forgotten. A simple, sincere apology is all it takes to make up for an awkward fuck-up. Even if you’ve said something mortifyingly inappropriate, a sincere apology helps smooth things over.
Be Kind To Yourself
One of the things you need to remember: your willpower and emotional endurance is a finite resource. You don’t want to force yourself constantly into anxiety-provoking situations non-stop in order to be a social or likable person. Part of not being socially awkward means learning to give yourself space to recover and relax. If you exhaust yourself trying to conform to some mistaken idea of how to be sociable, you’re going to end up undoing all the hard work you’ve put in.
Give yourself some quiet time to recoup your emotional reserves. Even if you’re at a party, you can take time to yourself. Excuse yourself from the scene – you need to get some fresh air or grab a smoke or take a phone-call – and find some solitude. Enjoy the quiet for a moment. Let it all sink in and help you relax.
Then, when you’re ready, take some slow deep breaths and adopt that power pose to build your confidence back up and head back out there.
Originally appeared at Paging Dr NerdLove