Remember back in school that one kid who was a social pariah?
You’d cringe just looking at him because he seemed so shy and uncomfortable.
Maybe he was a little overweight, had a bad complexion, and just seemed a bit dorky. He was sometimes the target for teasing or behind-the-back cruel comments — comments that didn’t go unnoticed by him.
He sat alone at lunch. He walked the halls alone. He never attended social events. Even the teachers stopped calling on him in class because he so loathed having the spotlight on him for just a few seconds.
It was clear he just wanted to disappear into the woodwork — but at the same time you could tell how much he longed for acceptance and companionship.
School is the first place where we develop (or fail to develop) social confidence, learn social cues, and figure out how to behave in various settings. It’s also the place to discover where we fall in the social pecking order, at least for those years we are in school.
These early experiences, combined with our own natural personality traits and our parental influences, can impact our social abilities as we grow into adults. Naturally extraverted and confident kids, even if they weren’t the most popular in school, can overcome early social problems and mature into socially poised adults.
Even introverted or shy children can eventually learn the skills of confidence and effective interpersonal skills so they feel comfortable in personal and professional social settings.
But there are some people who remain shy and socially awkward well into adulthood. There are many possible reasons why this happens. Some of the causes include:
- Having more sensitive, inhibited, and anxious personality.
- Having a lower built-in need to socialize.
- Being intellectually gifted and unable to relate well to peers.
- Having non-typical personality traits.
- Having different interests than most of your gender.
- Having many solitary interests.
- Having poor social role models growing up.
- Being very sheltered or restricted as a child.
- Moving to different cities a lot as a child.
- Immigrating to a new country.
- Being bullied as a child.
- Having a physical difference or disability or feeling unattractive.
- Experiencing tragedy or abuse in childhood.
- Having mental health or developmental issues.
This is not a conclusive list, and certainly not all socially awkward people have experienced these causes. And not all people who experience one or more of these situations will be socially awkward.
However, this list does offer a window of understanding about why you or someone you know might be dealing with social problems and feelings of awkwardness.
The more important question isn’t, “Why am so socially awkward?” but rather, “What can I do to improve my situation?” Difficult circumstances from the past can’t be altered, but you do have the power to change the trajectory of the future.
We all have the desire to feel loved and accepted, but when you always feel like the misfit in group conversation, it’s hard not to feel rejected and dejected.
If you’ve been socially awkward and shy for many years, you have some ingrained beliefs and habits that reinforce your fears and discomfort. You also may be lacking in some basic skills that can alleviate some of your suffering if you learn them.
Let’s take a look at ten ways you can stop being socially awkward and feel more comfortable in your own skin:
1. Commit to the effort.
There’s no question that being socially awkward is uncomfortable and scary. You have real anxiety around social situations. In fact, you might even feel panicky just thinking about them.
Because there’s so much fear associated with this issue, it’s easy to declare yourself as socially inept and leave it at that. If you define yourself with this label, then you have an excellent excuse for avoiding taking action.
However, science has proven that it is indeed possible to change your thoughts and behaviors through practice and repetition. The science of neuroplasticity reveals that the brain is malleable and can embrace new behaviors by rewiring neural pathways.
If you are socially awkward and truly want to improve your situation, you can. But you need to commit to practicing new skills, stretching past your comfort zone, and doing the work long enough that you develop new habits.
2. Challenge your thinking.
One of the first new habits you need to learn is something that is taught in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It involves noticing your thoughts and challenging those that reinforce your beliefs about yourself and your social abilities.
Yes, you may have social difficulties now, but that doesn’t mean you are a bad person or that you are undeserving of a happy social life. Nor does it mean you are weak, unattractive, weird, or any other negative label you may apply to yourself.
Your job is to start noticing all of these negative thoughts you have about yourself related to your social anxiety. You may notice you ruminate frequently, looping the same unpleasant thoughts over and over again. Sadly, this just reinforces your negative feelings about yourself.
When you notice yourself ruminating this way, you need to stop the cycle and reframe the thoughts into something more positive. Use your rational mind to create a more realistic attitude around your social concerns so that you don’t react in ways that trigger anxiety. Create more positive statements to replace the negative, disparaging thoughts.
You don’t have to say things you don’t really believe, but there’s always a more positive way to frame your thoughts. For example, you might say, “It feels like everyone thinks I’m a loser, but I don’t know for sure that this is true. I know not everyone believes this about me.”
3. Learn basic manners and etiquette rules.
If you didn’t learn basic manners and etiquette growing up, you might feel uncomfortable and incompetent in social settings. No one wants to look foolish or rude or feel they are out of place in a particular social situation.
Many of these rules have fallen by the wayside in recent years, but there are social situations when they are not only necessary, but they set you apart from the crowd and reveal your true character.
Good manners are a sign of integrity, self-respect, and respect for others. You can never go wrong with them, and having them handy in your arsenal of social tools will definitely boost your confidence.
If you need a brush-up on good manners, check out this list of 97 manners.
Etiquette is more of a code of conduct specific to certain social situations and cultures. For example, knowing what fork to use at a formal dinner is related to etiquette. You don’t necessarily need to learn etiquette to feel socially confident, but it doesn’t hurt to know what’s expected in certain situations.
Check out the book Emily Post’s Etiquette to learn more about etiquette in common social settings.
Between the two, having good manners trumps knowing proper etiquette. Showing respect, compassion, and kindness for others will carry you a long way with anyone in any situation.
4. Understand the art of small talk.
One of the most difficult situations for people who have social anxiety is meeting new people. Having to put yourself out there and come up with things to say can feel overwhelming and intimidating.
It’s especially daunting to walk into a room full of strangers and try to make a connection. But if you come prepared with some basic tools, small talk doesn’t need to make you hyperventilate.
Small talk is more than just idle chit-chat. It’s the necessary appetizer before the full conversational meal. It’s a way of breaking the ice so that you can establish a connection and move into deeper conversation.
So how do you initiate small talk with a stranger or little-known acquaintance? Start with a smile and an introduction. Find someone in the room who is standing alone, walk up and introduce yourself.
This is the most difficult step if you are nervous, but act “as if” you are confident, take a deep breath, and initiate. You’ll find things flow more smoothly than you expected once you take this first step.
It’s important that you practice initiating conversation (rather than waiting for someone else to do it) in order to strengthen your self-assurance and social skills.
According to communications expert, Dr. Carol Fleming, there are three parts to initiating conversation: anchor, reveal, and encourage (ARE).
When you anchor, you remark on a “mutual shared reality” that you and the other person are experiencing. For example, if you’re at a party, you might say something like, “I didn’t know Jim had so many friends. This party is really crowded.” This anchor comment is the initial ice breaker that moves the conversation forward.
Next you want to reveal something about yourself related to the anchor you just tossed forward. You might say something like, “I’ve known Jim a long time, but I don’t know half the people here.” This comment offers the other person something personal about you and gives them the opportunity to respond.
Finally, you want to encourage the other person to share something by asking them a benign question. Following up on the previous examples, you might ask, “So how do you know Jim?”
Just remember the ARE tools for small talk, and prepare yourself with some ideas for each of the three steps before you initiate a conversation.
5. Show interest and ask questions.
Once you get past the initial steps of small talk, make an effort to get to know the other person better. One of the best ways to do this is by showing true interest in the other person.
Think about how it feels when someone is legitimately interested in getting to know who you are and what interests you. When someone is fully present with you and asks you questions about yourself, you feel flattered and validated. You naturally want to get closer to this person.
Says Dale Carnegie, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
As you are talking with someone new, focus your attention on them by looking them in the eye, nodding to show you hear them, and showing interest in what they have to say.
Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by your phone, the person across the room, or even the butterflies in your stomach. The butterflies will diminish as you spark a real conversation with this person.
Now is the time to ask more in-depth questions to draw the other person out. Open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer invite deeper conversation and create closeness and mutual interest.
6. Pay attention to body language.
Your body language not only speaks volumes to others about your self-confidence and approachability, but it also sends signals to your brain impacting how you feel about yourself.
If you stand with your arms crossed defensively in front of you, with your head down and shoulders slumped, you’re sending a message loud and clear: “Don’t talk to me.”
You are also making yourself feel less confident and sociable when you use this type of body language. The emerging field in psychology of “embodied cognition” suggests that our bodies and the world around us can have a profound impact on our thoughts.
For example, slouching can make you feel sad and depleted of energy, but changing your posture to a more upright position will improve your mood and levels of energy.
If you practice the body language of a confident person, you will feel more confident and others will view you that way. Here are a few of the changes you can make to improve your social confidence:
- Smile more. Smiling actually makes you feel happier and less stressed. Smiling is also contagious and will light up the other person.
- Mirror the other person. You don’t have to mimic their every move, but try to copy some of the actions and expressions of the other person. Mirroring fosters empathy and rapport.
- Use power poses. These are poses that open you up rather than contract your body inward. They also take up more space. For example, stand with your hands on your hips and your feet slightly apart. Standing this way makes you feel and appear more self-assured.
- Talk with your hands. Gesturing while talking improves your thinking and your verbal communication.
- Avoid fidgeting. Playing with your hair, clearing your throat, or tapping your fingers makes you appear insecure and less credible.
7. Make a list of conversation topics.
As Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” His sentiments are especially true when it comes to improving your social skills.
When you are uncomfortable and nervous, it’s difficult to come up with conversation topics spontaneously. If you’re unprepared with ideas, your nerves will make it impossible to appear casual and confident. This is the time when might you blurt out something awkward, laugh nervously, or say nothing at all.
When you’re prepared with some ideas for conversation, your nerves won’t get the best of you. These pre-planned topics will be your life raft when you feel ill at ease.
Before you leave to go to a social event, consider who might be there and the interests they might have. Tailor your questions to the occasion and the guests. Write down a list of questions you can keep in your pocket or purse, and refer to them before you walk in the door.
Here’s a great list of thirty conversation topics to get you started.
8. Avoid assuming what others are thinking.
People who feel socially insecure and awkward spent a lot of time worrying about what other people think of them. They feel self-conscious and shy, sure that others are judging them harshly.
The more you worry about what others think of you, the more anxious and uncomfortable you feel. You may interpret other people’s comments or expressions as judgmental or critical when they really aren’t.
The truth is, there is no way to know what another person is thinking. You can’t get inside their heads and read their minds. But the odds are high that they are not thinking negatively about you.
Rather than assuming the worst, train yourself to make no assumptions about what others are thinking. Catch yourself every time you get into this worry cycle, and remind yourself that you are making up stories that don’t serve you.
Most people are generally kind and warm-hearted. Those who aren’t don’t need to be in your circle of friends anyway. Give others the benefit of the doubt, just as you’d want them to give that to you.
9. Start small and build on successes.
Developing these skills takes time, patience, and practice. If you have been suffering with social difficulties for a long time, it make take several months of practice before you begin to feel more comfortable with your skills.
You don’t have to become the life of the party overnight. Start by challenging yourself to take small actions that stretch your comfort zone. Practice with people you feel safe around before you test your skills with complete strangers.
With every small success, you’ll feel stronger, less awkward, and more confident to tackle difficult social challenges.
10. Embrace your uniqueness.
What you perceive as awkwardness or a personality quirk could be exactly what makes you interesting and unique.
One of the most attractive qualities anyone can have is a healthy sense of self-love. Embrace your personality and unique qualities. Allow others to see the real you, even if the real you is not a cookie cutter model of everyone around you.
When you feel good about yourself, you will naturally attract other people who share your interests and values.
Being socially skilled doesn’t mean that everyone will be your best friend. It simply means you can comfortably walk into a social setting and carry on a conversation with ease. You don’t have to relinquish your essential self in order to do this.
Remember, every effort you make to improve your social skills, even if you flub or falter, will help you become more self-aware and confident. Be sure to treat yourself kindly through the process.
As Wilfred Peterson says, “The art of being yourself at your best is the art of unfolding your personality into the man you want to be. Be gentle with yourself, learn to love yourself, to forgive yourself, for only as we have the right attitude toward ourselves can we have the right attitude toward others.”