Advice: "I've been told I'm awkward. How can I relax around people?"
Social anxiety is getting in the way of the relationships this person wants to have.
What can I do to improve my self esteem and relax around people? I’ve realized some painful aspects of my social anxiety through a recent breakup. She knew about my social anxiety and refused to let me blame the lack of physical chemistry on that, but I know that plays a big role in it. I realized it’s difficult for me to speak with not just strangers but anyone I want to impress such as coworkers or my partners’ parents. My mind completely goes blank and I can’t think of how to engage in a conversation other than answering their questions with a “yes” or “good”, making it hard to form any kind of relationship with my partners’ parents. My ex would also point out how I looked stiff and uncomfortable while just laying down in bed, and friends often sincerely think that I’m pretending to look awkward as a joke. Sometimes I’ll overthink about how I’m standing in public, but most of the time I don’t even notice that I look uncomfortable or can even be more comfortable. I’ve been seeing a therapist but it’s hard to work on something that I can’t even notice on my own. It’s now affecting my relationships and I just want to feel like I can be taken seriously. It feels like it’s just a question of self esteem and a mental barrier I’ve created for myself. How do I loosen up around people?
There’s nothing like caring about how someone sees you to make you look at yourself. It’s also very painful to consider that qualities elemental to you may be blocking you from the life you want.
It speaks to your maturity that your focus is on your own behavior and its impact. To distill that into a question towards your self improvement says a lot about how well adjusted and self aware you really are. You’ve even arrived at a constructive framework for asking that question, you recognize it may be a question of self esteem and a mental barrier you can overcome. As you reflect on yourself I hope you recognize all the traits you should value.
If you rarely even notice that you look uncomfortable, I wonder how much of the overthinking has been prompted by being told you look uncomfortable. It sounds like the issue occurs when you feel obligated to perform ease you don’t feel.
Social anxiety is often triggered by the distance between our inner worlds and the world everyone else is in. People who’ve sought safety and peace by retreating into themselves can unknowingly develop external affects that alienate others. They may look bored or far away. They may fail to make eye contact, or speak in vague circles. Most of the time they’d prefer to go unnoticed. Ironically, the resulting furtiveness can make them even more conspicuous. The ways we indicate being present to others is often through gestures that aren’t second nature if you don’t feel confident, or they appear inelegant when attempted by someone unpracticed in them. Confidence comes out of a feeling of belonging. I wonder how often, if ever, you’ve felt a sense of belonging. When the only place we experience welcome or care is our own minds it can be difficult to nurture the ability to feel at home anywhere else.
The fear of being noticed, of somehow being caught and kicked out—punished for who you are the same way you might’ve been earlier in life informs what we commonly call social anxiety. It can be the expectation of rejection or the very real wariness of how other people can cause harm. The stress of failing the tests of casual conversation, or being on edge around people you should be relaxed with—like your partner or friends—may be rooted in the idea you could be found to be lacking and subsequently rejected. Anxiety over whose, and how much, attention you’re drawing as the only person like you in your workplace or school, or as a woman walking home alone at night, are also types of social anxiety—albeit different than the kind you’ve asked me about. All are connected to how available to us we feel the rights that come from belonging are.
It’s no wonder that the people who are often anxious or awkward are also perceptively different in other ways; marked by race, gender presentation, ability, family background, a personality that wasn’t popular, tastes that weren’t shared, experiences that aren’t visible to others but were so formative to them they feel marked—truly any number of factors. And those with the most confidence are those who’ve rarely had to question their place, who can take for granted their welcome. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but generally speaking you’ll notice that pattern to be true.
Some of the confidence you need can be accessed by identifying where and when you learned you didn’t totally belong. Find that moment (or moments) and reject what it taught you. We all belong, some of us may have to insist on that ourselves. But I promise you there are people who’ll agree.
The awkwardness you describe also sounds like the strain of someone waiting on a permission to be that hasn’t yet been offered. A lot of us are raised in environments that demand we suppress ourselves and exist in increments with permission. All of us were born children in a world of adults, raised not with our autonomy affirmed but with our inherent smallness told to be smaller—more receptive to authority. It creates a society populated by people who don’t know how to be themselves once they have the agency to be. Some reach adulthood with a streak of cruelty in rebellion of that initial imposition. And then there are those who reach adulthood with a practiced timidity, just as wounded, but still waiting on permission. We may not see it that way as adults, but if you’re living as if people’s acceptance of you is conditional—upon how you talk, what clothes you wear, who you associate with, what struggles you face or don’t face—then you’re living in fear of your permission to exist as yourself being revoked. Of course it’s stressful, if not ourselves, who can we be?
To feel known and appreciated is a fundamental human need. Rather than risk the shame of rejection, people try to grow used to their own loneliness. There is only one way to be lonely. There are many ways to be known. And that’s what requires our attention and practice—not our capacity for becoming used to a loneliness we assume we can’t change—but our ability to make ourselves known.
I’ve often been told I come across as a lot colder than I actually am, not as much recently, but it was a theme for the majority of my life. A reserved nature is often misinterpreted as arrogance, especially in American culture and especially from certain types of women. For a long time I shrugged that off as the problem of others’ perception, not my reality. But eventually it benefitted me and my relationships to learn how to put others at ease. It didn’t require me to present inauthentically, just to grow more aware of my default affect and how it impacted others. I had to field a lot of confusing hostility from people while growing up before I realized it could be mitigated by just smiling more and first, by amending the very formal way I spoke with more colloquialisms. By not using the word “colloquialism” with other kids.
There’s a massive discernible difference between prioritizing the comfort of others by compromising ourselves and simply adjusting ourselves to improve others’ ability to connect with us. Acquiring self knowledge is fraught. Who we feel ourselves to be competes with how others experience us. I’m confident in social settings because I find other people interesting, I tend to notice a lot about them. But I had to learn how to express that in a way that makes others feel welcome, not self conscious.
I wish the people telling you you’re awkward were the ones who wrote in for advice. I would tell them not to take other peoples’ affect personally. I would tell them not to be so self conscious that they need others to change so that they don’t feel uncomfortable. I would tell them to embrace their friend who can come across as a little stiff because that doesn’t seem like a barrier to knowing you and enjoying what you have to offer. At most, it sounds like it requires a little patience and understanding. Isn’t that what any of us need? It’s a bit ridiculous to demand the same disposition from everyone. Surely we should have evolved past considering deviations from the norm as bad. It might have been relevant to cavemen stalking easily-spooked game, but cocktail parties are a little less high stakes.
It’s not too much to ask that people see through whatever idiosyncrasies you may have. That's the love and acceptance we should all practice towards each other. It allows us to offer ourselves the same. But people don’t know we’re allowed to accept ourselves so they usually withhold the same from others. We can’t depend on their patience. We have to do as much as we can to not require it.
Patterns of how people respond to us can sometimes have nothing to do with us and everything to do with their bias or insecurities. Or those patterns can have everything to do with us and our behavior. Isn’t that frustrating? But we have more control than we realize. Any given interaction is the product of a mutual dynamic. You’re in charge of what you contribute to it.
My recommendation to you is not to analyze yourself more than you already must be. Instead, I suggest you survey how others around you are experiencing a situation. I’ve found making sure others feel accepted and welcome not only allows me to remain present rather than aloof, it encourages everyone (myself included) to relax too.
Is someone being left out of the conversation? Does someone else require the subject to be changed? Who looks nervous and could use a smile and show of interest? Treat others with a curiosity and openness that allows, and even welcomes, whatever quirks or awkwardness they may possess. People may not know how to respond to everything about you, but they know the safety of sincere warmth when they feel it. Offering it to others brings it to every space you’re in.
You know how rare such treatment is. It can change the entire temperature of a space. When you don’t know how to respond more fully to people’s questions, ask them some of your own. You know what a lot of people like more than listening to someone talk? Talking. Especially about themselves. It may sound counterintuitive to ask someone who feels socially awkward to play host, but this will give you a guidance system and specific tasks that will pull you out of yourself. It also deflects the pressure you may feel when you sense others are focused on you.
That stiffness you mention will dissolve once you bridge the gap between your inner experience and external reality. Show up as a good listener. Show up period. Ground yourself by focusing on the details of the space you’re in. Don’t wonder if the way you’re holding your body looks awkward to others. Describe the space to yourself. What colors dominate, can you smell people’s perfumes? Food? How does the ground feel to walk on? If you were to describe the occasion to someone what would you say? This will force you to be more present in a way that’ll take care of 90% of the issue here, it will distract your body from the assumptions causing it to tense up by connecting you more deeply to how little there is to be tense about.
I want you to feel empowered to navigate social interactions. I want you to increase your ability to make a good impression and reduce anxiety over how you’re coming across. I also want you to know that you don’t have to impress anyone. But if you’d like to, paying attention will. Do that and you’ll find yourself feeling ease through creating it, and be relieved of the impossible task of performing it.