Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim explains the difference between social anxiety, being socially awkward, and being introverted or shy. She gives some tips for becoming less socially awkward.
For years I have said that I am socially awkward, as I can struggle in groups to feel comfortable. Is that something others experience, and how is it different from anxiety or just being an introvert? Do you have any tips for becoming more confident and less awkward with people?
You might be socially awkward, introverted or just shy. You could also have social anxiety. Do you know the difference? If you sometimes struggle in social situations it might help to understand these different experiences and see which sounds more like you.
Social anxiety is actually a mental health condition that means you struggle with significant and sometimes debilitating nervousness and fear in social situations. You may get anxious just thinking about being social, and you could get fixated on the possibility of embarrassment or rejection. People with social anxiety may avoid interacting with others at all and shut themselves off from relationships.
If you have an intense fear of being judged, embarrassing yourself, talking with strangers, or speaking to people, it might be worth talking to a mental health professional about it. Fifteen million adults in the U.S. have social anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. You are not alone in this and it is treatable.
Social awkwardness is about fear of discomfort and not knowing how to interact the right way in social situations. Socially awkward people are afraid of judgment or being disliked and often find their conversations don't flow well. They aren't sure the right things to say and do. For example, they might tell jokes that others don't find funny or tell them at the wrong time.
These people might also be too loud, too quiet, or ramble without realizing it. They sometimes sit back and listen more than they join in the conversation, or they jump in at an awkward time or place. People who are socially awkward can have so much self-monitoring and over-thinking going on during social interactions that they miss things. These people just don't come by social skills naturally; they have to work at it.
Introverted people aren't necessarily nervous or anxious; they just get their energy from being alone. They can handle social situations without anxiety, but being around other people too much is exhausting and can leave them feeling depleted. Introverts are quieter than extroverts, but they aren't necessarily shy, anxious or awkward. They tend to be good listeners, are thoughtful and dislike confrontation. Approximately half of us fall into this category.
Shy people feel uncomfortable and hesitant around new people or in new social situations. They may also hold back in conversations and listen for quite a while before saying anything. Most shy people are introverts, but they don't necessarily have social anxiety or awkwardness. These people just like familiar people and places, and they don't like speaking in public or being in the spotlight.
How to be less socially awkward
Most of us can find some characteristics in each of these five examples that they can relate to. People skills are something many of us have to work at and practice. Here are some tips for lessening social awkwardness:
- Practice — Social skills can be learned and improved upon, and you will get better at interacting with people the more you do it. Don't decide to avoid social situations, as that will only make the problem worse. You have to get out of your comfort zone if you ever want to get comfortable somewhere new.
- Use your phone for a quick break — If you get overly anxious or unsure how to handle a situation, stop and check your messages. Taking a break for a minute to look at your phone can give you an excuse to step back and calm down. But, don't stay here and use to phone to avoid interaction altogether. You'll never improve if you don't do it.
- Breathe — Diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful way to calm your nervous system down when feeling anxiety or panic. Take slow deep breaths making your stomach as fat as you can on the in-breaths, then skinny on the out breaths. This works your diaphragm and tells your body to calm down.
- Come to your senses — Stop what you are doing and pay attention to what you smell right now. What can you hear? What can you see around you? What can you feel? When you get in touch with your senses, you get out of your head, and this really helps you quiet the overthinking.
- Exercise —Research shows that regular physical exercise helps lower anxiety and improve your ability to stay mindful and not overthink.
- Meditation —Allowing your brain to have some quiet time every day helps you find peace and calm even after meditating is over. It has also been shown to decrease anxiety and give you a sense of calm, peace and balance. People who meditate regularly know how to calm themselves at any time.
- Ask more questions and be a better listener — The most powerful communication technique I could give you is to become a master question asker. It does a couple of amazing things. First, it quiets your anxiety because listening is less stressful than talking. Second, it makes other people feel valued and cared about, which strengthens your relationships. Asking lots of questions and getting other people talking is the best way to interact when you are nervous or unsure. Before you go into an event, think about some questions you could ask people you meet to get to know them better. Being prepared with questions will boost your confidence.
- Don't try humor — If you aren't sure that something is funny or appropriate, don't say it. Humor requires confidence and being able to read the room. If you aren't sure about the story or how people will take it, it might be better to keep asking questions instead.
- Get a wingman — Find a friend with great social skills that you can take with you. Follow their lead and ask them to include you in conversation when it makes sense. Even if you take a friend who is also shy or introverted, it can make you feel safer and more confident. Find a friend who is also working on social skills and practice together, then make sure you celebrate your wins.
- Choose open body language — Watch other people's body language to see if they are open or closed. A closed person often has their arms folded and is turned slightly away. People who are confident take an open stance and even have their arms out. As you start to see this body language watching others, you can then start working on staying more open and friendly yourself. Make eye contact and smile at others, too. It makes a big difference in how other people respond to you.
- Know your value doesn't change — You can be open, vulnerable, and take chances socially. No matter the outcome, you will still have the same value as every other human on the planet. No matter how awkward a situation is, no matter what you end up doing or saying, it doesn't change your value. You have the power to choose to see all people's values as the same and unchangeable. If you do this, you will quickly become more comfortable and at ease around people. If no situation can change or diminish your value, there is no reason to be nervous.
- Refute your negative thoughts — It's really helpful to do this on paper. Write down all the negative thoughts you had during and after a social interaction. You might have thought things like, "No one likes me," "I am such a dork," or "I don't belong or fit in here." Take each thought and write about why it's not true or is a faulty belief or idea. Change them to things like: "Some people like me. And for most other people, I don't really know what they think so I can't assume it's negative. Most people are not thinking about me at all"; "I am not a dork. I'm just a human being battling fear just like everyone else"; "I don't need to fit or belong here. I just need to be friendly and kind and remember that we all have the same value no matter what."
- A social situation isn't a performance — You might feel like everyone is watching you, taking in everything you say, judging you, or deciding whether they like you, but the truth is they are probably too focused on themselves to be paying that much attention to you. Most of the things you are worried about weren't even noticed by others. You don't have to perform, entertain anyone, join every conversation, or even try to impress anyone. So, take the pressure off yourself and focus on asking questions and listening instead. Rest assured that you are more normal than you think.
If you think you are experiencing social anxiety (not just awkwardness), talk to a mental health professional and get some help. If you are just socially awkward at times because of fear and insecurity, you might want to find a coach or counselor that specializes in overcoming fear and can offer you some skills and tools for improving your communication.
You can do this.