I’m trying to find the best way to write this article without divulging too much.
As a writer you are encouraged to bare your soul, engage with your readers with raw and uncensored honesty. This is all fine when you are talking about something that makes you look cool – how you got sacked but now run a business, gave up cream cakes for kale or changed your questionable views.
Well, this is about feeling awkward…awkward AF.
Hot faced, sweaty hands, pumping heart, darting eyes. It’s about that cringey feeling you get when you THINK you have said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing or worn the wrong thing and it has been witnessed by somebody else. It often happens when you meet new people – for a meeting, presentation or socially – and it can be a downward spiral. Some people claim to never feel this way (they say they have a thick skin or too much ‘swagger’), they are liars. We have ALL been there. That said, it’s worse for some than it is for others.
Feeling awkward or suffering from anxiety?
Throughout my career I have avoided situations that threaten to make me feel ‘the cringe’. I have avoided numerous public speaking opportunities, meetings, presentations, networking events and more. It sounds silly when I say it loud, but it’s actually pretty common. In fact, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge and Westminster City Council, women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety. But am I feeling awkward or suffering from anxiety or both?
Many women put their career development on hold because they can’t face their fear of speaking
In an interview with Refinery29, Psychotherapist Matt Lundquist, LCSW, outlined the difference: “Some people just don’t feel good at social situations, but [those situations] don’t necessarily produce anxiety,” says Lundquist. “That’s the difference between social anxiety and social awkwardness.” So social anxiety is being fearful of social situations AND avoiding them? Lundquist says: “If people are avoiding certain kinds of social situations, that speaks to an underlying anxiety.”
One of the most obvious anxiety inducing situations is public speaking. Standing up in front of even the smallest group of people can leave many in a state of stress. Unfortunately, public speaking in meetings and presentations is often an integral part of any job role.
Public speaker and psychologist Justine Armstrong says that fear of public speaking (FOPS) can be career damaging; especially for women: “I know of women who haven’t gone for promotions because it means they will need to do some public speaking in their work life.” She says. “Many women put their career development on hold because they can’t face their fear of speaking.”
Ugh, that’s me.
I have not done the work to explore the reasons why I find some situations cringe worthy – I am pretty sure they are multifaceted and will take a lot of unpacking. Instead, I have been trying not to overthink it (after all, the reasons why you cringe can be pretty cringe worthy in themselves). Am I secretly hoping the cringe will wear off? Hoping I’ll just wake up one day eager to do a presentation or hand out my business card at the next Women in Business event? Yes, yes I am.
One woman who no longer worries about the cringe is Author Melissa Dahl. Melisa Dahl’s book ‘Cringeworthy’ is a book she calls ‘an argument for embracing awkwardness’. Dahl claims you can use awkwardness like a superpower to get what you want. She says: ‘I discovered awkwardness can be such a freeing feeling. It breaks you free of social conventions and sometimes it makes you wonder why those conventions were there in the first place.’
She gives an example of being at an interview and asking for a ridiculous salary, then having to sit through an excruciatingly awkward silence with the interviewer who went ‘cold’ on her – she came away feeling empowered. Dahl also experimented by talking to strangers on public transport, which she says resulted in some ‘rewarding interactions’.
The idea that you should feel the fear and do it anyway seems like the logical next step, but what if that fear is debilitating? When you have a lot on the line and dependent on the situation you are in, it can feel impossible to ‘just do it’.
I have to admit to self diagnosing my own reluctance to network or take on public speaking opportunities as social anxiety. In truth, it’s probably not that bad. I’ve never had a panic attack, I’ve just chosen to side step difficult situations when I have had the choice and grudgingly got on with it when I haven’t.
What do you do if you HAVE to do that difficult presentation or give a speech at your best friends wedding? Answers on a postcard please.
I will leave you with a word from Melissa Dahl: “Be grateful for this odd little emotion and the power it has to connect us”…”There will always be awkwardness, and the only way to keep it from isolating us is if we start cringing together.”
If you think you might be suffering from anxiety visit: www.anxietyuk.org.uk for advice.