My experiences with social anxiety disorder have often resulted in a fair number of awkward moments. Social anxiety, for me, arises in almost every social context, although there are some exceptions. Nevertheless, in an attempt to grasp onto the unreachable heights of social acceptability, during conversation I often begin to overcompensate. I become the “Awkward Black Boy.” While I have become fully accustomed to the inevitable branding of the label “awkward,” I have also been forced to reckon with its tethered connotations.
Finding the inner strength to traverse my personal journey of social anxiety has been somewhat of a process, by which I mean I have learned to accept this facet of my identity in piecemeal. First, I have reclaimed the disorder as “my anxiety,” a rhetorical method that has enabled me to exert control over the disorder. I have learned to embrace the moments in which my anxiety does not commandeer my life, and I have found ways to effectively deal with, and cope, during the moments, days and even weeks when I am suppressed by the disorder. Just as the experiences of individuals with anxiety are not uniform, the individual experience one has with his or her anxiety on a day-to-day basis is often variable. The people who I meet, whether they be acquaintances, co-workers or friends, are unable to see the breadth and complexities of my anxiety. On a good day, in any social context, I am lively, effervescent and slightly neurotic. These overenthusiastic attempts at being social are grounded in a belief that social situations function as reward systems; positive engagements, or situations where I am able to perform as a non-anxious extrovert, prove to be socially rewarding. On the other hand, a bad day, or one in which I am unable to be socially gracious, can be self-punishing and awkward.
At the start of the academic year, interacting with old friends and acquaintances proved to be slightly overwhelming. Social events such as the annual lobster bake are anxiety triggers. In these contexts, I want to be social and welcoming, but I don’t want to be perceived as being awkward. In the midst of a social situation, irrationality and anxiety can take over. Suddenly, the thoughts of being negatively judged become obsessive and may sometimes be paralyzing. The behaviors of some individuals with social anxiety can sometimes manifest as awkwardness. Awkwardness is therefore an outward manifestation of these debilitating internal thoughts.
Moreover, awkwardness is a universal experience that appears in many forms, some of which can be endearing while other forms are considered to be repulsive and embarrassing. That is to say that although we all have awkward moments, there is a way to be awkward—to be endearingly awkward—and even this form of awkwardness conveys some semblance of charm and desirability.
Social anxiety can cause an individual to experience social awkwardness, but the latter can exist without the former. The issue arises when we conflate the two or use both terms somewhat interchangeably. While there is nothing wrong with being awkward, the term can often undermine the complexities of social anxiety disorder. To reiterate, we all have awkward moments; therefore, we have the ability to be awkward. ‘Awkward,’ thus, functions as a safe word, by which we use to describe individuals who are not able to perform in a socially acceptable way. However, the term ostensibly puts some degree of blame upon an individual’s inability to adequately perform in a social context and does little to address a possible underlying social disorder. The attentiveness of the effect, awkward-like behavior and the lack of consideration given to the possible cause, is a disservice done to those with social anxiety disorder.
Maurice Asare is a member of the class of 2019.