Mini-Experiments to Help Overcome Awkwardness

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"Social awkwardness" refers to all those times when we become self-conscious and anxious about saying or doing the wrong thing. For some people it's an issue that affects them greatly. In these situations it’s common to find that safety behaviors are used as a means of personal protection and to deflect attention. Typical examples of safety behaviors include:

  • Looking down in order to avoid eye contact.
  • Focusing on your smart phone or wrist watch, or pretending to answer texts or calls.
  • Smoking.
  • Looking at objects in a room (pictures, CD collections, etc.) rather than engaging with people.
  • Leaving meetings quickly in order to avoid conversations.
  • Thinking very carefully about what is said in case it is "wrong" or might be interpreted as, "stupid."

Why safety behaviors don't workThe problem with safety behaviors is that they can actually** decrease** confidence because they reinforce a message that protection is needed. In fact, being overly reserved in your opinions, or speaking in a very quiet voice in the hope you won't draw attention, can often have the opposite effect: namely, such behaviors may generate curiosity. People may ask more questions and want you to speak up, all of which can draw more attention to you. Wouldn't it be easier on yourself to find a way of giving up safety behaviors and replacing them with something more positive? Here's how.

Using a 'mini-experiment'

Cognitive Behavior Therapists use mini-experiments for a variety of reasons. In the case of social awkwardness, social anxiety or shyness, four steps are involved:

1. Becoming aware of your safety behaviors.

2. Identifying the connection between safety behaviors and your predictions as to what might happen without them.

3. Finding out what happens if you do things differently.

4. Coming to some conclusions over whether your previous assumptions were valid.

Unpacking the step. Becoming aware of your own safety behaviors might not be easy.

You may be very conscious of some, yet others may be so ingrained you don't even notice them anymore. They can involve things you do, like rehearsing comments in advance or choosing clothing that blends in, and they may be things you avoid, like disclosing personal information. What do you do if you feel at risk? How do you hide your anxiety from others? Try thinking about previous awkward situations. Ask a trusted friend or your partner about their observations.

2. Now try to articulate your predictions so they are testable.

Predictions about yourself are often the easiest to test: "I will faint." "I will shake." "I will not be able to speak." It is often far too difficult to predict the reactions of others, so don't try. How, for example, could you test that someone thought your ideas were unworkable?

3. This step requires you to behave a little differently.

Think of an event or situation where you'd like things to be different. What could you do differently? Think it through and be quite specific about it. The aim is to test whether the danger is any more or less as a result of changing what you do. This is the hardest step of them all, but this is what you've been leading up to. Does leaving your smartphone in your pocket make any difference? Does making eye contact rather than averting your gaze make anything worse? Does brushing your hair back from your face actually change anything? Do these things by comfortable degrees.

4. The final step in the mini-experiment is to evaluate what actually happened.

Stick with the objectives you set for yourself and try to avoid jumping to untested conclusions like, "I could see what they were thinking." None of us can see what another person thinks. We may make inferences based on facial expression, or even lack of facial expression, but we can't actually see thoughts.

Did your predictions come true? Does your anxiety lead you to unhelpful places?** What's the worst that can happen?**

When it comes down to it, the worst that can happen very rarely happens, and even if it does it won't shift the earth on its axis. Because you feel socially anxious it's likely you'll take things personally, but the insensitivity of others doesn't make you, your views or emotions any less meaningful. People often don't respond in ways we might like or expect, but maybe this says more about them than it does about you.

See More Helpful Articles:

Benefits and Limitations of CBT for Treating Anxiety

8 Common Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety and Vision Problems

Hypervigilance in Anxiety


Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.