Why Are We So Scared Of Awkwardness, And How Does Learning To Tolerate It Actually Help Us?

And, exactly how can you increase your awkwardness tolerance?

Click here if you’re curious to learn more about what awkwardness actually is.

What we’re most afraid of with awkwardness is actually the judgment of the other person. We fear that because we didn’t know what to say, looked nervous, or did something that made them feel uncomfortable, they’ll judge us, dislike us, and not want to be around us any more.

In essence, the fear of awkwardness is the fear of the other person disapproving of us.

People who experience social anxiety (i.e. lacking in social confidence), hate being disapproved of more than anything else.

When I struggled with social anxiety, I’d go to extreme lengths to make sure people didn’t have any negative feelings about me. This includes excessively smiling, nodding, agreeing, laughing at their jokes, doing things for them, and generally being nice and pleasing.

This hustle to avoid disapproval is an exhausting game to play. What’s worse, it doesn’t actually work. It’s impossible to avoid all negative feelings in the people around us, no matter how nice and friendly we’re trying to be.

Worse still, if you’re a man who tries to be nice and pleasing with women you’re interested in dating, you most likely aren’t having the success you want in this area of your life.

What we must do is learn to change how we view awkwardness. Most importantly, we must be willing to move into and through potential awkwardness to get to the other side, which contains the richness and joy of interacting with others.

How To Tolerate Awkwardness

Tolerating awkwardness begins with realizing that every social interaction is going to have some awkward moments. Moments where you or the other person feels nervous, and you don’t know what to say next.

These moments aren’t toxic kryptonite you must avoid at all costs, but are just part of the normal flow of conversation. This understanding can help you minimize excessive worry, fear, or panic during an awkward moment of a conversation. Simply follow the steps below and continue to strengthen your tolerance.

Step 1: Feel and Breathe

The silent moments in a conversation are mostly uncomfortable because we can get lost in our rapid firing thoughts:

This is horrible! I should think of something to say. Say something! Whats wrong with me? This is so awkward…

As long as we remain in this thought spiral, we’re too anxious to think of something to say, let alone enjoy the interaction.  Instead, draw attention away from your racing thoughts and into your body. Focus on feeling your feet on the floor, what your toes feel like inside of your shoes. Take a deep breath and imagine the breath is going all the way down to your feet.

Most importantly, simply notice the uncomfortable sensations in your chest, throat, and stomach. Breathing and feeling what’s happening in your body short-circuits your mental loop, which will greatly reduce your anxiety.

Step 2: Give Yourself What You Need

When we’re feeling tense, anxious, and self-critical during an interaction, we’re fearing that another will disapprove of us and therefore not want to be around us. This is an uncomfortable and frightening place to be. Often in response to this fear, we turn on ourselves and launch waves of vicious self-criticism.

As as alternative, the pathway to handing awkwardness, and to greater social confidence, is to provide ourselves with approval and acceptance.

Rather than turning on ourselves, these moments are incredibly important opportunities to practice treating ourselves with compassion and respect.

How would you do this in a situation like this? First and foremost, you can acknowledge everyone has awkward moments in conversation, even the most gregarious and socially skilled among us. Secondly, you can offer yourself reassurance by repeating self-soothing phrases in your mind.

I had one client who found conversations in which two other people were talking and he didn’t have much to contribute painfully awkward. During those moments, he would silently repeat in his own mind: I’m a good person.

Other phrases you can use include:

  • Even though I don’t know what to say right now, I love and accept myself.
  • I’m doing the best I can.
  • Whew, this is awkward city!

These phrases, and any others you can think of that denote, patience, respect, and playfulness are all incredibly valuable during those inevitable awkward moments in conversation.

To learn more about how to treat yourself with compassion, click here.

Step 3 – Carry On

The worst part about the awkward moment isn’t in the silence itself. It’s in the painful replaying of the incident after the fact. Your mind can keep that moment alive long after it has passed and you can tend to view it as more significant than it really was.

The key to this step is to relax your hyper-vigilance around always being on, never making a mistake, and the continual need to impress and awe those around you. You’re a fallible human who gets nervous, sometimes doesn’t know what to say, and sometimes makes jokes that no one else finds funny.

The more you can see this as the inevitable messiness of human interaction, rather than some personal inadequacy, the more free you are to keep moving past those awkward moments.

To get specific guidance on how to use these skills in your particular situation, click here.

Dr. Aziz