Social anxiety is real, but not all discomfort around people is social anxiety. According to the DSM-5, an essential element of social anxiety is fear of being judged by others. But-- please understand-- socializing can be super-awkward whether or not it’s anyone’s fault. Stop (always) blaming yourself for awkward social situations!
Now, it could be your fault, and that’s why self-critical analysis is a virtue… unless it’s running rampant, always focusing blame entirely on just you. Instead, let’s take a look at how much social discomfort/awkwardness/weirdness is often built into the dynamics of social interactions.
There are a lot of open questions involved in any conversation, whether with a friend or a stranger, 1-on-1 or in a group:
How does one initiate?
If the other asks “How’s it going?” then what answer do I want to give? Especially since a “too personal” or “too vague” (or in my case, “too abstract”) answer can fail to set the other up for an easy response which would give momentum to the conversation.
What do I/we do when we run out of steam/topics?
If I’m talking to a person at a group gathering, how do I know when they want to move on? How do I know when I’m ready to move on? And, of course, how do we smoothly move on?
If it’s a group conversation at a gathering, what do I/we do when the conversation loses steam for everyone? (If we’re at a meal, please don’t make a comment about how everyone must be enjoying their food-- so awkward!)
All of the above can cause painful “This is awkward!” feeling, but it’s important not to always translate it into “I’m so awkward!” As a therapist explained to me once, blaming oneself implies that responsibility for social smoothness is entirely yours, which is unrealistic and unfair-- conversational chemistry (or lack thereof) reflects on all participants.
For handling or preventing social awkwardness, specifically in a group environment, here’s what I figured out so far:
Have a game plan! For me, this means deciding before a party whether I will work up the energy to approach strangers. It means considering what I’d like to share/discuss, so that I’m ready for the “What’s up?” question, knowing what I want out of my time with others. Similarly, I sometimes think about what I hope to ask others, in order to be friendly, to initiate rather than making them do it, and to get into a conversation I might find rewarding. The key factor here is that I’m focused on what I want and whom I’ll like, rather than whether I’m performing well enough for others.
Blaming the other at least some of the time. If the conversation lacks momentum and isn’t rewarding, maybe it’s because the other person isn’t that interesting to me! Instead of thinking “I don’t know what to do with myself, so I must be the awkward one,” I try “This conversation isn’t really drawing me in, so I guess it’s generally awkward to be here.”
Letting the sensations of social discomfort wash over and past me. The sensations of social awkwardness are very similar to those of embarrassment, which makes it very easy to blame myself. If I treat the sensations as sensations, then I won’t get too caught up in the blame-game.
It’s not just you-- socializing is weird! So don’t be too hard on yourself.