Awkwardness has always followed me wherever I’ve gone. Awkwardness follows me in my shadows and reaches out to you in my hand shakes and introductions. I used to harshly judge my lapses in “being normal”. Now, I embrace it. I find awkwardness endearing. Awkwardness is proof of being human.
Awkward is defined by “lacking social grace” and causing oneself “embarrassment” during an awkward moment, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. These words feel very condemning, as they come with negative connotations that evoke shame. I enjoy challenging negative connotations of words (like the word “fat”) because as the creators and speakers of language, we breathe life into these words; we give these words power, so why not take back our power when needed?
Feeling and being awkward, so I’ve experienced, are two very different things. Feeling awkward can involve discomfort, low self esteem, harsh judgments, assumptions and projections. In some instances we feel awkward, the feeling may present as pressing and shameful. Meanwhile, no one else in that same situation may feel your amount of awkwardness — as much or at all. It is important to challenge our assumptions and projections when we have awkward moments as other people may not put as much weight on it as we do.
Being awkward is when other people notice our awkwardness or learn about it if we acknowledge it. Being awkward involves letting people into our feelings — intentionally or by mistake. It is when other people sense it or we bring it to light ourselves. When people enter our awkward moment, they can be indifferent, laugh at us or with us, sit with us in it, hold it against us, repeat it to others and/or leave it alone. It can leave us feeling incredibly shameful, stir up trust issues and cause us to keep to ourselves more if negative, guilt-ridden attention is drawn to our awkward moments. Most awkward moments are harmless lapses in “normalcy” (a societal expectation that gives little room for being human). Being human deserves grace and compassion. Not to mention, those who have awkward moments often have the purest intentions and hearts. It’d be pretty cruel to not forgive an honest mistake or to hold it against the person.
Feeling and being awkward aren’t the worst things in the world. I’d argue that they are part of the human experience. Awkwardness can be the root of self-discovery, learning how to effectively communicate and seeking connection — all wonderful things. Awkwardness naturally comes about as we are navigating the world around us. We all have our awkward moments.
I find awkwardness endearing now. It may come up more when we are practicing vulnerability and making new connections. None of that is easy. It’s not in every person’s repertoire to be able to socialize and express themselves with ease. For people with anxiety or trauma, communication can feel daunting. So when myself or others have awkward moments, I see us working hard to communicate as a worthy human being; I see someone bravely expressing themselves.
Awkwardness can be further defined when we made a mistake or where we fear we made a mistake. This mistake could be misspeaking, mispronouncing something, putting your foot in your mouth, being too honest, etc. There are endless “mistakes” we make in being human. In moments we worry we were incredibly awkward and therefore embarrassed ourselves, we must remind ourselves that many people are so focused on themselves that they did not even notice a mistake in our words, tone or presence. There is also the outcome of other people noticing the “mistake” (the awkward moment) and they simply ignore it and carry on the conversation or they acknowledge it in a playful way. (God bless these people!)
When I was a child, I flourished in settings with close, trusted friends. However, when I was thrown into new situations where I had to meet new people, I hid in my shell. What was once, “She’s just shy” became diagnosable anxiety and PTSD. I believe I’ll always have awkward moments in life. My timid face that hid from the light was no stranger to mistakes and missteps that she feared defined her.
I was always amazed by how some of my friends, therapists and teachers still held space for me when I could not verbalize a thing at times. I felt so embarrassed when I could not put words to what I was feeling; I felt absolutely worthless. I would cope with the lack of speech through showing my pain on my body by self harming or losing weight in my eating disorder struggles. My silence took control of my world and my identity. I’m very grateful for the people who saw me through during those years. Them giving me space and time allowed me to give myself space and time later on in my process. When we show up for others, we encourage them to one day show up for themselves.
I’ve mostly made peace with my past and work to take back my power now. However, I spent years of my life hiding and feeling so ashamed in social settings where I was awkward or could not speak. It appeared more difficult for me to communicate than for many of my classmates who already had years of experience socializing. I’ve had classmates become agitated because I wasn’t speaking and wasn’t answering their questions because I felt immensely overwhelmed and anxious. I’ve had teachers look at me as if I had little worth (or assume I was trying to cause trouble) because I couldn’t verbalize the answer or do a presentation due to anxiety. If my story could be a lesson for anyone, it would be to show more compassion for the awkward and the quiet. Even showing up physically was incredibly scary for me, so showing up with social skills was not something I possessed yet.
As an adult, I can speak with ease now. I quiet myself or shame myself at times, but I’m always unlearning and relearning. I see this as a process; I’ll always be learning and growing as time goes on. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. We all start somewhere. Some people are at different places in the process and for others, change and growth take time, patience and practice. I’ve been comforted to learn there is no perfect roadmap to life and that I get to do things in my own time.
In the past, I had a coworker note that they felt the silence at work was awkward one day after we were each working on our individual tasks in silence for a few minutes. I disagreed, but also validated their feelings. I thought it was an interesting remark because I feel that our reactions in this world can say a lot about who we are and what we need. In a moment they felt words needed to fill the space, the silence felt comforting to me as I could focus on what I was doing.
When there are moments of silence at work and with friends, I value that space because to me, it means that there is trust there. There is trust that I don’t need to speak every single moment and that they are still there to listen to me and validate me, but that it is not pressing to always have to fill the space. To me, it also means that we can have moments of silence and I know that they have not left and will not leave me even if we are not directly interacting. As an introvert and empath, I appreciate my space and quiet moments. Being left alone for unkind reasons is not the same as allowing silence to naturally occur. Silence does not automatically equate to “awkward” and can, in fact, instill trust in one another.
I’ve also been on the other side of this where I felt I was immensely awkward in a moment or felt the moment was awkward and I acknowledged it out loud. The other person felt completely opposite and reassured me they didn’t even notice had I not said a word. In most instances in life, I’ve felt validated by the other person that it was ok to be myself or to make mistakes.
Some moments I find it empowering to acknowledge my awkwardness and bring it to the front and center. I may do this with people I find safe as they can hold space for me and forgive me. I may also do this with people I don’t know well yet or people I don’t feel safe with at times out of sheer anxiety and fear. I believe it’s noticeable to outsiders which is which, as I have an air of confidence and ease with those I feel safe with.
As an empath, I sense when things are off with people. I feel other people’s energy deeply through words spoken, things left unsaid, body language, tone and expressions. This gift — truly a blessing and a curse — comes easy to me, but I have to be mindful that not everyone feels or thinks the way I do. Understanding this reminds me that it can be a positive thing to realize not everyone feels so deeply as I do. This can be good in terms of recognizing that not everyone is going to care so much if I make a mistake or misspeak. In places I care and worry so deeply, many people around me let it go.
These days, having found healthy doses of confidence, I do my best to embrace the awkward moments, potentially allowing my cheeks to redden, my words to stumble and the moment to pass and then carry on. I find power in simply embracing awkward moments and not feeling pressured to apologize or shift the conversation in a “seamless” direction. There are ways to come back from awkward moments. For me, I’ve found that acknowledging it in a silly way like exclaiming, “Oh gosh, I meant to say x instead!” or laughing it off and then continuing on is best for me.
We never have to apologize for being awkward, unless of course, we caused harm. I’m naturally a silly person who loves laughing and joking around, so what works for me may not work for you. It is a valuable life skill to know what works best for you. It is also very admirable to know what works best for the people in your life.
Perhaps your friend feels uncomfortable when you acknowledge their awkward moment, so instead, you are lighthearted and laugh it off with them instead of drawing negative attention to it or relaying it to your group of friends later. Perhaps your coworker profusely apologizes for saying something they deemed awkward and you feel it’s best to let them know that you make mistakes, too, and you reassure them that it’s ok. Many people believe the energy we put out into this world is the energy we will receive, so let us be forgiving of ourselves and others when awkward moments come up.
With my bosses and some of my close friends, I hold a lot of trust with them as we are similar, so we may draw attention to each other’s mistakes playfully. I certainly would not feel comfortable doing this with every relationship I have as there are different levels of trust and comfort with each person. Finding safety with people is very important to me. Where I laugh freely with my safe people when they playfully draw attention to my mistakes or awkwardness, I could very well feel ashamed and uncomfortable if unsafe people did the same thing. It’s important to have boundaries and know what feels safe to us, and with which people.
I invite you to let the awkwardness in the next time it comes up for you. There is nothing wrong with being awkward; it never makes you bad or worthless. We are human; we feel, make mistakes and slip up. We can do what is best for us, try again and continue on. We can be kind to ourselves and forgive the mistakes.
I also invite us to even challenge awkwardness being labeled as a “mistake”. I call it a mistake because that is what it feels like, but perhaps we can work on calling it a more neutral term, like a “human moment”. At work we will sometimes exclaim, “Ah, my brain! My brain is just not working right now. This is what I meant…” Mistakes are simply part of being human.
At the same time, I find great strength in reclaiming the word “awkward”. It has its negative connotations, of course, but we can challenge it, too. Embarrassment and shame serve their purposes at times, but I also see that they have become so defining in our lives. Where we may experience embarrassment, we allow those labels to stick to us. They do not define us. It has taken a lot of time and practice in therapy and my introspections, but I work hard to let those labels roll off my shoulders now. I allow myself to feel shame as it comes, but I no longer see myself as a shameful person.
In moments I cannot seem to shake the shame of being or feeling awkward, I remind myself how relatable and endearing I find my friends who have awkward moments as well. How boring would life be if we were all the same and if we made no mistakes?
Let “awkward” guide you to being a better, more whole person. Also know that being awkward can be a superpower. Kindness and compassion are superpowers. Empathy is a superpower. There is certainly enough room for “weirdness” and “awkwardness” to join!
Let awkward be synonymous with bravely working hard to communicate, self express and find a place in this world.
As Brené Brown beautifully sums it up, “Stay awkward, brave and kind!”