Being Awkward Is Secretly a Good Thing
By Rebecca Deczynski
Published on March 7, 2018 on Snapchat Discover
I often have difficulty falling asleep. I lie awake, in a state of perpetual cringe. I think about how my face turned hot and red as my crush held my ankles for the sit-ups portion of the Presidential Fitness Test. I think about the time a boy I’d been crushing on asked me to dance—only to realize that GS Boyz’s 2009 hit song “Stanky Legg” does not make for a romantic experience. I even think of how just last week I’d responded, “You, too”—to the box office agent who told me to enjoy the film I had just purchased a ticket to see.
Like countless others, I consider myself to be an awkward person. But awkwardness isn’t always what it seems—and sometimes, it’s not as all-defining as you might think.
What Does It Mean to Be Awkward?
“I do think that it can be a trait. There certainly are awkward people,” says Melissa Dahl, the author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness. “It’s also really interesting to me to think about awkwardness as an emotion. There’s recent research in neuroscience that suggests that the way your brain conceptualizes an emotion actually has an impact on how you feel the emotion. So if you can change the way you conceptualize the emotion, you can actually change the way you feel it.”
Simply put: you might feel awkward just because you think you’re awkward.
“There’s this idea called Anxiety Appraisal. It’s not anxiety as in anxiety disorder—it’s more like nervousness reappraisal,” says Dahl. “The idea is that nervousness and excitement feel the same in your body—that kind of blood-pumping sweating. It’s your body sensing that it’s going to need to perform.
If we interpret it as nervousness, then we think, ‘OK, this is my body getting ready to bolt.’ But if we interpret it as excitement, you can understand those feelings in your body as, ‘OK, this is my body pumping me up.’”
How to Stop Awkwardness for Good
The distinction, then, between nervousness and excitement is all in how you perceive it. And that can make a world of a difference when it comes to feeling awkward. Although awkwardness has been embraced in the pop culture lexicon as a synonym for quirkiness (or, in the worst cases, “adorkable”), it has a lot more to do with the way people approach social interactions than how they convey their personality and inner life.
That means that it’s possible to cast away awkwardness, even when you feel like it defines you. The sense of nervousness that can arise during potentially “awkward” situations can be harnessed and transformed into excitement. Or it can be avoided altogether, if you can figure out how to embrace self-indifference.
“There's something about realizing you're not that big of a deal, that is so reassuring to me,” says Dahl. “It ties into this thing called the Spotlight Effect, which is this idea in psychological science where we think people are paying more attention to us, particularly to our flaws and to our embarrassing moments, than they really are.”
In other words, it pays to realize that not everyone has noticed your embarrassing moments. (They’re definitely too busy staring at their phones.) “It’s about telling yourself, ‘Yes, you have done things that are awkward. Yes, you have done things that are embarrassing,’” says Dahl. “‘But really, no more or less so than anyone else on the planet. You’re not that special, and isn't that great?’”
Still though, even if you do make an effort to care less about how you appear to others, it is possible—likely, even—to still feel awkward. And that’s not such a bad thing after all. It can even be an admirable trait.
When Being Awkward Is a Good Thing
“There’s some research showing that people who have social anxiety—which is sort of like awkwardness to the extreme—are just really held back by this feeling of social awkwardness,” says Dahl. “But they tend to be more empathetic. They care about the people around them. It can feel torturous to feel this way, but it actually says really nice things about you.”
I think back to the days of ambling around middle school, feeling my nerves surge whenever I was confronted with a person whose opinion I valued. I cared deeply what people thought of me—whether it was a crush I struggled to charm, a contentious friend, or a teacher I was trying to impress. That pressure sometimes made my interactions with them strained, blundering, and awkward.
Even now, I have moments when it feels like my floundering 13-year-old psyche inhabits my 23-year-old body. When I struggle to sleep, though, I try to tell myself that all those moments had a purpose. Worrying about what people think has allowed me to see the world through perspectives other than my own. Years later, my own perception is all the better for it. And now, at least, I know that an awkward moment here or there isn’t the end of the world. It just means that I’m pumping myself up and hoping for the best—and if I can eventually turn those nerves into my own inner hype-person, I might not be so awkward after all.