Psychology Today

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Embrace Awkwardness



What does it take to be comfortable in your own skin? At a moment when social media allow us to project whatever public face we desire, but popular culture pushes us to look ever deeper within to find happiness, it's easy to face a crisis of identity. Two new books address this dilemma from very different perspectives.

In Awkward, psychologist Ty Tashiro attempts to do for his cohort what Susan Cain did for the introverted in her 2012 bestseller, Quiet. It's a somewhat greater challenge: To begin with, people may be less willing to acknowledge that they are socially inept. Tashiro does, though, and claims to have the personality scores to prove it. He also helps ease reader resistance to identifying with the awkward by revealing embarrassing anecdotes from his own life, including a traumatizing first slow dance in junior high, when he struggled to come up with anything to say or to figure out where to look and ended up with his mouth around the girl's hair.

Awkwardness is not a formally diagnosed clinical condition. To pinpoint what it actually is, Tashiro cites research based on a standard 50-item measure of autistic traits, pointing out that in such studies, the average person claims to have 16 of them, while the generally accepted baseline for an autism diagnosis is 32. "So what do you call someone who is not autistic but has considerable difficulty with social skills, communication, and an unusually obsessive focus?" he asks. "I would call that awkward."

Tashiro uses some clever analogies to explain how awkwardness feels: When reading faces for emotions, awkward people may look first at someone's mouth, then at their eyes, and finally put them together--the way we decode a colon and a parenthesis as an old-school smile emoticon. Socially fluent people, on the other hand, read faces at a glance, just as we see a modern emoji. Further, when reading a room, awkward people may employ "localized processing," focusing a bright spotlight of attention on the area that most interests them and leaving the rest of the scene unlit, while others take it all in, if perhaps with less depth.

Tashiro zeroes in on the trait of focus to suggest that, while it may seem evolutionarily odd that people who struggle to connect with others have survived throughout human history, there is a need for what awkward people bring to the table. They may miss the bigger picture at times, but they also see details others don't. Awkward people are likely to be the ones devising better algorithms for food distribution, or bolstering cyber-security protocols. In ancient times, they may have stuck with a hunt long after others went home--or concluded it was time for a tribe to move to more productive lands.

There has been a good deal of research into people who are both socially awkward and intellectually gifted--in other words, nerds. In just one example Tashiro cites, a study of university students found that those majoring in computer science scored higher on measures of awkwardness than those in the humanities, but that the high-achieving members of the Math Olympiad team had the highest scores of all. Not all awkward people are gifted, of course, but Tashiro believes that all have "remarkable potential, regardless of their level of ability, that arises from doing what they love with an obsessive energy, sharp focus, and tireless persistence."

And there are subtler benefits of awkwardness that are less practical, and perhaps sweeter. "Being awkward can be humbling," Tashiro writes, "and I think that it can instill a particular kind of empathy for others who do not fit the traditional societal mold."

Danish philosopher and psychologist Svend Brinkmann's Stand Firm, already a bestseller in his home country, stands to find a ripe audience among America's awkward and insecure. His manifesto for "resisting the self-improvement craze" urges readers to stand and unite in Stoic opposition to "liquid modernity," our era of perpetual change in which the prime directive is to keep up. Brinkmann instead suggests deceleration: When pushed to adapt yet again, we should ask, "Why bother?"

Stability, Brinkmann observes, has been wrongfully devalued by those who whisper about people being "stuck" instead of admiring individuals who have put down roots. To keep up, we commit ourselves to endless cycles of self-development, rushing to heed the latest findings on wellness, diet, and positive psychology. In his "anti-self-help book," Brinkmann details seven steps toward a more grounded life. Anticipating criticism that this outlook is conservative, he argues that as everyone else hurtles from one trend to the next, "some form of conservatism may actually be the truly progressive approach."

The first step: Drop the navelgazing. Brinkmann quotes the late Leonard Cohen, who sang, "I don't trust my inner feelings. Inner feelings come and go," to argue for rejecting a deep focus on the self and its elevation of gut feelings. "The self does not hold the key to how to live your life," Brinkmann maintains; your inner voice is probably not even worth listening to because it's so self-centered. Rather than struggling to please the self, he writes, direct your focus on outward actions with ethical value, like apologizing to those you've wronged or donating more to charity. If doing so makes you feel good (as numerous studies say it will), that's great; even better, it fulfills your duty to the world.

And when you feel bad, Brinkmann advises, don't flush the feeling; own it. "We need to regain the right to think that things are bad--no holds barred," he writes. Life is hard, and no one should have to pretend it isn't. Forced positivity, taken to its extreme, means that when things go wrong, our attention is fixed at least as much on our internal response as on the external force that has wounded us. This, in turn, can distract us from the actions necessary to stand up for ourselves.

Brinkmann also encourages us to practice memento mori--remembering that we will die--as a way of valuing life, strengthening familial bonds, and becoming more forgiving. Citing the guidance of the Stoic Epictetus, he specifically suggests that we think about our children's mortality every time we put them to bed. Such daily reminders that life is short should bolster our will to resist giving in to emotions. It may make you less likely to blow up, for example, when a child breaks your coffee mug. This is the crux of his brief--that "if you want to stand firm, it is a precondition that you aren't easily knocked off your stride."

Newfound confidence in standing firm might make life easier for Tashiro's coterie of the awkward, concerned as they are not only with avoiding social faux pas but also with trying to fit in. A better approach may be to embrace restraint, focus on results, and know that, as Brinkmann writes, "it isn't a feeling inside of you that determines whether you are doing the right thing."