You're Not Alone If You're Socially Awkward, And There's Hope Of Improving
This site has received its share of feedback over the years, and two fairly common responses I've gotten through email are:
- "I've literally thought some of the exact things described in your site. Sometimes I believed I was the only person who ever looked at the world that way. It's a relief to realize I'm not the only one, and that I'm not some totally messed up weirdo because of it."
- "Your site gave me hope I that I could improve my social situation and get past my awkwardness. If no one else, you did it and wrote about it, so it shows that it can be done."
Using those responses as inspiration, this article is going to go into more detail about why these two points are true - It's not strange to struggle with social awkwardness, and it is something that can be improved.
Social awkwardness is pretty common
Feeling anxious and insecure around others, not being good at conversation, being unable to make friends - However you want to define "social awkwardness", it's an issue that a ton of people struggle with. Almost everyone feels uncomfortable in at least some social situations. It's totally human. The numbers can vary a bit depending on your source, but something like half of the population reports they have some problems with shyness.
Okay, you may be thinking, but what about real, hardcore social awkwardness? Forget those types who have tons of friends and fascinating lives who call themselves "shy" because they occasionally feel reserved for the first ten minutes of a party where they don't know anyone. That doesn't really count. What about those who barely have a social life? Who are crippled by anxiety and self-doubt? Who spend every evening after work trying to distract themselves from their loneliness? Who everyone rejects and thinks is weird? Who can barely get through a two-minute conversation?
People who are very socially awkward are proportionately rarer. However in the grand scheme of things they're not exactly uncommon either. Let's say someone has a level of social difficulties that puts them among the 1% most awkward individuals. If that person lives in a city of 400,000 that means there are still 4000 people in their area alone that are going through the same thing. That's tens of millions of other people in the world. They may be spread out, but they're everywhere. They're having many of the same thoughts and worries and insecurities, and feeling confused and frustrated by similar situations. Even your thoughts and behaviors that you suspect are totally esoteric and unique to you are probably shared with many, many others.
Now that the internet is around it makes it way easier to confirm that all those other socially awkward people are out there. There are sites, YouTube channels, podcasts, and discussion forums devoted entirely to helping their audience overcome various social difficulties. If you type a problem you're having into Google it's almost guaranteed you'll find a bunch of results about the exact same thing.
By their nature social issues are isolating. They're also something where it's often fairly simple to hide the full extent of your difficulties from others (e.g., by literally staying inside most of the time and falling off the radar, by not letting on to your classmates that you never have any plans on the weekend). It's easy to feel like you're the only one experiencing what you're going through. You spend a lot of time alone, thinking about how flawed you are. You're too embarrassed to bring up your issues with the people in your life. Because they're concealing it too, you can't see it when someone else is also having a hard time socially. And of course people don't generally think in terms of, "Even if I'm in the 10% most awkward group, that means there are tons of people like me out there." Instead they go by their own experience, which seems to tell them they're really wrestling with this stuff, and everyone else seems to have no problem with it.
So it's all well and good that someone may not be alone in their social awkwardness, even if it's at a seemingly extreme level. Just knowing that may be a relief to a lot of people. However if there wasn't anything they could do about it, hearing, "You're not alone" may not provide all that much comfort. Fortunately, they have plenty of options.
Social awkwardness can be improved
Exhibit A would be the many people who will tell you they used to be really shy or awkward or isolated when they were younger, and who are now past it. I'm one of those people myself. The late bloomer path is not an unusual one to take through life. Exhibit B would be the research done by mental health professionals that show that issues such as shyness, social skills weaknesses, and Social Anxiety Disorder are quite treatable. There are some mental health concerns that don't have the best prognosis. The ones related to social awkwardness aren't in that category. That's not to say it's not sometimes a lengthy or difficult process to make improvements, but the potential is there.
The reason the outlook is so good is that social problems are often related to skills deficits or fears and anxiety. If someone has a skills deficit, probably because they missed out on a bunch of social experience when they were younger, they can consciously practice and make up for lost time. Like with picking up any new skill, it can feel ungainly at first, but it gets easier. It's not that some people have it, and others don't, and if you're not socially polished by a certain age then you should just give up. Fears and anxiety are also something where if you work at it you can take a huge bite out of them. There are some pretty established, effective ways to deal with that issue. Phobias are one of the more treatable psychological conditions.
Another big player in social awkwardness are feelings of insecurity and low self-confidence. There are ways to address those barriers as well. Also, by improving your skills and getting past your fears, you'll rack up more positive experiences, which will naturally work to increase your confidence. Some social issues are also fed by inaccurate, sabotaging beliefs about the world. That's yet another area that can be corrected. Sometimes someone will change their attitude just by being exposed to another perspective. They'll immediately recognize a mistake in their thinking they had been making. At other times their worldview is more ingrained, but by having new positive experiences it will eventually weaken and be replaced by a more constructive one.
While there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, none of this is to downplay or minimize how difficult working on their social issues may be for some people, or how discouraged they might be if they already feel like they've tried really hard with little to show for it. I'll admit some people will have a much harder time improving their social situation than others. However, for your typical person struggling with social awkwardness, I feel totally confident in saying that if they work on it things are likely to improve.