For people who define themselves as socially awkward, the perceived risk of being seen in endlessly negative ways—inadequate, ugly, boring, stupid, anxious, depressed, empty, arrogant, fat, pathetic, etc.—is always present. When I think about people in therapy who see themselves as socially awkward, I find little correlation between how I experience each individual as a social person and how they think of themselves. Every one of them seems to have characteristics that I enjoy and admire, and they are often (but not always) in occupations of respectable social status. However, for the “socially awkward” person who supposedly “knows” how little they have to offer to the world, the facts of their occupational status or character are irrelevant.
What I have come to recognize about many people in therapy who feel severely socially awkward is that they share the belief that when they were growing up they missed out on learning the rules of social discourse. As a consequence, they are intensely anxious about how they will be responded to if they are socially off the mark. For example, Robert, an attorney, worries about phone calls and what to do after you say hello. Paula, an information technology manager, panics about being in a social situation and not knowing how to approach someone. Tanya, a college graduate, unemployed for the past year, keeps asking “what are the rules, how long do you talk with someone at a party and how do you get yourself out of a conversation?” Everyone worries about silence and eye contact.
While many of us might experience similar social concerns, a “socially awkward” person believes that their anxiety and inability to navigate these situations will be blatantly evident, and they expect to be responded to with rejection and disgust. Even when there are no evident responses that confirm their fears, such people continue to experience bad feelings about how they behaved and consequently justify their continued self-attacks and self-hate.
A major source of the feelings of social inadequacy and the consequent self-hate that people often express is related to parental expectations. Both Tanya and Robert had parents with very high expectations. Robert talked about his parents pushing him to work harder at all the extracurricular activities they insisted he engage in: “They thought I was a virtuoso and kept pushing me to do more with the violin. My mother kept telling me what a wonderful writer I was and that I should try and get published. But she also insisted on critiquing any creative writing I tried.”
Tanya described how her parents pushed her to succeed in high school so she could get into an Ivy League school: “They would compare me to their best friends’ son and list all his achievements. On the surface, they seemed to be saying they thought I had what it took to be superior. But I never felt I could really be good enough, no matter how well I did. I upset them when I didn’t apply to Harvard, but I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing them by not getting in.”
Paula also was negatively affected by her parents’ expectations. They wanted her to “be good.” The worst thing she could do was make anyone outside the family think any negative thoughts about her. This would shame and humiliate her parents and result in physical or verbal abuse. The most Paula could hope for from her parents was to avoid anger and criticism. She recalled: “My mother would scream and berate me if I didn’t smile the right way at a neighbor. I remember, when I was about 9, she dragged me from the Thanksgiving table at my aunt’s house because I didn’t say ‘please’ when I asked for the turkey. I was a very scared kid and never knew when I was going to get hit or criticized. I never knew what the right thing to do was. I still don’t know.”
The Importance of the Audience
Robert and Tanya needed to be high achievers so the parents could feel pleasure and ego satisfaction about their parenting. By pushing achievement on their children, the message, consciously and unconsciously, was that you must do more, be better, and shine or you will hurt and disappoint me. For all three people in therapy, the ultimate authority on how they were doing as children was the social audience their parents looked to and empowered. Most important, the incredible power of the “audience out there” cast the final judgment on how the parents were doing.
Without audience approval, the parents felt inadequate and humiliated and put the responsibility for these bad feelings onto their child. The parents held the child responsible for their own feelings of inadequacy, which were then attributed (projected) to the child who was designated as inadequate. The child not only felt the shame of insufficiency, but experienced the badness of having socially hurt, disappointed, and shamed the parents. It is no surprise, then, that for the humiliated, “inadequate” child, the social world would feel like a constant source of scrutiny with the mission of detecting and identifying the guilty party.
Developing Feelings of Social Adequacy
These three individuals have great certainty and strong emotional attachments to their belief that they are socially inadequate people. While they typically begin therapy with some hope that they can do something to improve their experiences, feelings of hopelessness often outweigh the hope. The journey to feeling more socially able begins with people becoming aware of the ways in which their social awkwardness has been shaped and confirmed by their early and continuing life experiences. While this provides a rational understanding of how their feelings of social inadequacy developed, it does not alter the strong emotions that arise when they find themselves in social situations.
I often hear about their intense anxiety in social situations and how they become panicked. With intense agitation, they scan faces of others to detect the expected negative reactions. If I wonder how it would be if I helped them to strategize for a social situation, the response is usually negative: “It won’t work; I’m too anxious; it’s useless.” I believe this is an expression not only of hopelessness but of the self-hate that the person feels. If I can help the person reflect about this and put his self-hate into words, it can help break through the paralysis and allow the person to agree to try and practice some new behaviors before a social situation.
Even when a person may bravely go to the party and try out a strategy, it is unusual for the person to feel that he or she has had success. As Robert told me: “It was horrible. I saw a woman standing alone near the bar and I went over to her and introduced myself and asked her name and how she came to be at the party (like we planned). I couldn’t make eye contact very well, but I tried. She did answer my questions, but then this other girl came over and started talking to the first girl and I panicked. I couldn’t say anything and left.”
The example above illustrates how, even with a strategy, it is difficult to succeed with the plan. What is even more difficult is to change the negative feelings about one’s self that influence our social behaviors. With considerable work, repeated experiences of small successes can lead to incremental but steady changes in behavior and self-perceptions.
I am going to list some steps that represent what happens in the therapy process that can help in altering self-defeating behaviors and feelings of self-hate and social inadequacy. To undertake these steps, with or without the help of a therapist, requires commitment to tolerate frustration and painful unwanted and intolerable feelings. There must be a willingness to fail and try again repeatedly.
Steps to Changing Feelings of Social Inadequacy
- Gain knowledge through self-reflection to hypothesize how your “social awkwardness” has been shaped and confirmed by your life experiences.
- Self-talk to remind yourself of (1) positive qualities, (2) feelings that seem intolerable, and especially (3) your resilience, i.e., ability to withstand those intolerable feelings. (After all, you are still standing and functioning, and have had many encounters with those feelings, and you’re still here.)
- Develop strategies to help manage behavior in social situations, e.g., what to say when approaching a stranger at a party or subjects to talk about on a date. (Google your questions if you can’t come up with your own strategies.)
- Try out behaviors and be prepared to fail.
- Learn to see failed attempts as success. This means overriding old patterns of self-attack and bad feelings and allowing yourself to feel courageous for trying.
- Try out behaviors again and be prepared to fail again.
- Keep trying to feel successful for trying.
- Repeat steps 1 through 7 as long as necessary until you begin to feel more positively about yourself and more able to tolerate your unwanted feelings.
- Come up with a new thought which reflects positive feelings about yourself.
- Come up with a new thought about yourself as someone who is feeling a little more socially adequate.
- Allow yourself to consider that you can change and be aware of your anxiety about change.
- Keep repeating steps 1 through 11.
- Never stop working on developing positive feelings about yourself.
- Never stop working on your ability to tolerate unwanted feelings, change your behavior, and feel positive about yourself.
Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.
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