Too Close For Comfort: What To Do When You Feel Awkward Around People

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Imogen, a transwoman in her early 30s, came to me for help with what she called her “social awkwardness”.

At first, she was easily irritable with me because “everyone I’ve talked to about my problem keeps telling me it’s social anxiety.” She expected that I would do the same.

“I’m not anxious around people and I’m not scared that they would judge me or anything,” she insisted.

I understood her annoyance because most people would mistake social awkwardness for social anxiety. While the latter is about fearing people’s judgment and rejection, social awkwardness is broader and more complex. It usually does not include fearing people’s negative judgment.

Together with her, we fleshed out Imogen’s social awkwardness. She shared with me that she tended to feel awkward when people asked her about herself, and really took an interest in her.

“It’s like I can’t hide behind anything. Not my role as a business coach, nor any other script. It’s that raw and open feeling when I’m looked at for just myself, that really makes me uncomfortable.”

I wondered if part of it had to do with her status as a transwoman. She agreed that this was true, as she had to hide her true self all her life. The feeling of coming out trans to people was like peeling back the layers and showing your true self, she revealed, adding, “It makes me feel incredibly vulnerable! Like standing naked under a spotlight.” Being out now meant that she was in an almost constant position of vulnerability.

Having your raw humanity open for all to see, and for people to connect with can be an extremely intense experience. For LGBTIQ+ people who are so used to hiding themselves (for good reason too!), it can go against all their instincts to be this open.

However, another part of Imogen’s social awkwardness–a feature she shared with many I’ve interviewed–is her sense of discomfort in her own skin. She made it clear that she was very comfortable with her transgender status. “However, beneath that, or rather larger than that, is the overall feeling that I’m just… awkward.”

When we explored further, it turned out that she felt a huge sense of lacking in overall sense of herself–“like I’m not good enough in some way.”

I reminded her that this is also a common theme amongst some LGBTIQ+ people. Seen in this way, social awkwardness can be understood as the vulnerable experience of having one’s (perceived) lacking self laid wide open.

Has this been your experience also? Here are some things I worked with Imogen to help her become more comfortable (and secure) in herself and in her vulnerability:

Practice being yourself
In therapy, I guided Imogen to take small risks of opening her emotions up to me (describing them, exploring them and expressing them). I also guided her to take small risks to do the same with people around her when they took an interest in her. I worked with her to identify suitable people–an appreciative audience who would really respect and take her as she was–to be open with. I wanted her to get used to the process and experience of being open.

What about you?  Whom in your life do you know can listen to you, appreciate you as you are without conditions or judgment, consider your point of view and is curious about your experiences? What are some small risks you can take to be open with these people?  What emotions and experiences can you share?

Develop a taste for it
I also encouraged Imogen to savor the experience of being just herself with her appreciative audience. This involved her taking a moment after she had shared her experiences with someone, to pause and take in the sense of vulnerability and how it felt in her body.

I also had her really recognize in these moments the fact that there was nothing in between this person and herself, and to fully experience how this kind of connection felt like.

I encourage you to do the same. With repeated application of these two practices, you would eventually develop a sense of comfort in your own skin.

Dr Eric Wee Chong Tan is a Senior Clinical Psychologist at the Centre for Human Potential. Visit the CFHP website here. Dr Tan has also co-authored 3 books that can be purchased online here.

Eric Wee Chong Tan

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