How to stop feeling self-conscious
Have you ever felt during a conversation that seemed to be going well that you suddenly became self-conscious?
Everything seemed fine until you became aware that you were talking, and you started wondering if you were saying and doing the right things, if the person you’re talking to is judging you or: What are they thinking about me, anyway? Is my hair messed up? Oh I just said something weird. I should find a way to leave now.
I call this the ‘Cat Mentality’–where we become so aware of ourselves and so self-conscious that we’ll do anything to run away and hide like a skittish cat.
Because while it DOES sound nice to “not feel self-conscious ever again”, the truth is, it’s going to happen. The bad news, is that it happens unexpectedly, unannounced, and usually in the moments where it’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to us.
Of course, there are a LOT of things you can do to ‘pre-game’ before social situations so that you stay present and don’t get distracted, nervous, or caught up in your head with the Mean Inner Coach who’s constantly telling you what to do, and that somehow, you’re messing up.
But for today, I felt it would be helpful to talk about what to do WHEN it actually happens, in real-time. Because sometimes even the best preparation doesn’t allow us to predict when self-doubt is going to come in and mess with our game.
The Recalibration Strategy
There’s a fantastic story in The Art of Learning (are you sick of me talking about this book yet?) about a woman who’s walking on a street in NYC with her headphones in, and because she’s distracted, steps in front of oncoming traffic and a biker just nearly hits her and knocks her over. The biker scared her, so she rips out her headphones and starts yelling at him because she’s so caught off guard. But what happened was, because she was yelling and had her back turned to the oncoming traffic, a taxi ended up hitting her. She was seriously injured.
Why this story is so powerful is because it shows the importance of paying attention to the moment and learning how to ‘recalibrate’ even after you’ve become distracted, mired in self-doubt, or can’t seem to think clearly.
Think about how often this happens in social situations:
You’re talking to someone and you realize that maybe you’ve just made a social faux pas, or said something that got a weird reaction from the other person. It never feels comfortable to see a strange or confused look on someone’s face, so we immediately try to make up for it by racking our brains for the right way to ‘fix’ what just happened.
But what ACTUALLY ends up happening is that the thinking distracts us, and now we’re not paying attention to the other person at all. We might say something, but it still feels ‘off’ somehow, or not quite right. And then we keep berating ourselves–Ugh, what a dumb thing to say–and the cycle continues until we’re dying for an exit strategy.
So here’s how the RECALIBRATION strategy works:
Let’s say you’re like me, and sometimes, you forget people’s names. As much as you try to remember, you find your mind going blank right at the moment when it matters most: Making that person feel amazing by remembering their name.
And then let’s say, like me, you call them the WRONG NAME. And you say it with confidence and conviction, but you see the other person has a confused look on their face. They tell you that their name is actually ‘X”. And now you start thinking, “Oh, damn. I messed this up and the conversation hasn’t even started yet!”
This is the moment that could begin the downward spiral of intense self-doubt and self-consciousness. But this is the exact moment to recalibrate.
You can say something like:
“How could I forget a name like that? I’m so sorry. [Repeat their name back to them]” and smile.
At this point, it would be rare for the other person to hold anything against you or feel like you offended them. People forget names all the time, and most likely it’s happened to them at one point, too.
But the point here is to first become AWARE of when you start criticizing yourself for something–whether you’ve said something or even spilled a glass of wine on your dinner party host’s chair (true story, happened just the other day)–and then you can:
- Deliver a simple and sincere apology with a playful smile–it will always do the trick
- Instead of thinking for a way to ‘fix’ the problem…do nothing! And by do nothing, I mean if you feel like you’ve said something that was ‘off’, just let it be. It’s doubtful that the other person noticed, or even cares as much as you do. A client of mine has the strategy of going to the bathroom and taking a few deep breaths and splashing cold water on their face to get themselves back to feeling grounded and present when they need to press the ‘reset’ button.
The best part? You get to decide which ‘Recalibration’ strategy works for you. As another example, if I’m in a situation where I’m feeling nervous or want to remind myself to be present, I’ll gently tap my foot because it feels like the rhythm of music to me. It calms me down and gets my mind out of “Must fix this and be perfect!” mode.
The Art of Unself-Consciousness
Usually people think that in order to stop feeling self-conscious, that they need to block out all of their feelings so that their mind is ‘clear’. This is a mistake people also make when they start learning how to meditate–they think that the goal is to completely clear the mind of all thoughts. Imagine how frustrating it is when they see that thoughts come as fast as they want, as often as they want, and can be as ridiculous, bizarre, or disturbing as they want?
I have a different approach to dealing with emotions and ‘feelings’–unfortunately, elements of being human that are swept under the rug with books like “Fuck Feelings”. Because guess what? Feelings and emotions can be uncomfortable–VERY uncomfortable. How surprised can we be that we do everything we can to not acknowledge them? It can be painful.
But when it comes to self-consciousness and self-doubt, feelings and emotions are very useful teachers. So a part of my philosophy is instead of trying to ‘push them away’ and ‘not feel them’–we let them in.
‘Let them in’ can be misinterpreted very easily. Because sometimes, not all emotions are helpful and useful. As an example, we might feel jealous in a situation. We don’t necessarily want to ACT on the jealousy. But what we DO want to do is let the jealousy ‘in’, rather than fighting it so we don’t feel it at all.
Case in point:
I received an email the other day from a family member that I felt angry about. At that point in the day, I didn’t necessarily want to feel angry. But, I did. My immediate reaction was to reply back to this person and call them out, telling them that how they were speaking to me wasn’t okay.
Instead, I knew that if I replied in that emotional state, things would just escalate. So I told myself I’d respond tomorrow, but in the meantime, explore the anger. This was exactly how the process went, and the solution that came with it:
Step 1: Let myself feel the anger, and admit I feel it. So instead of saying “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” I said “I feel angry, and it’s okay.” Accepting it.
Step 2: Ask: Why do I feel angry? Let the answers come. I felt the person was being defensive for no reason. I felt that the email was immature. I felt annoyed that this couldn’t be handled a better way.
Step 3: Ask: Why’d the other person act that way? Ah…they made a mistake and they felt guilty about it. They don’t want to admit it, so their defensiveness is actually masking their guilt or insecurity. Felicia feels relief: I see the light.
Step 4: Ask: How to handle? Answer tomorrow with a clear mind. Understand that the other person’s reaction was literally not a direct attack on you. Handle with grace, ask for what I’d like to do better next time.
A part of the reason why I believe it’s critical to let emotions come IN–regardless of how uncomfortable they are–is because when you push them away, they become louder, stronger, and have more power over you. But when you’re willing to feel that initial discomfort of a feeling and learn how to talk with it, you’ll be surprised at the SOLUTIONS that come to mind that you can actually act on. Acting, being the key word. You certainly don’t want to stew in anger. But ignore feelings at your peril–they’re children who desperately need your attention.
And this method can be applied at any moment in your day. As I’m writing this, early in the morning, I don’t necessarily feel I’m ‘in the groove’ so self-doubt likes to creep in. Write it later. You don’t know what to say. My response? Hello, doubt. Welcome. We’re going to write together. And I let that discomfort hang around while I write until I’m done–the act itself proving to my own doubt that it can come whenever it wants, but I’ll continue to do what I’m doing anyway. Eventually it dissipates, and I can re-enter a flow–or ‘unself-conscious’–zone and let my best writing come through.
What YOU can do today
What ‘Recalibration’ strategy can you come up with, and try to test in real-time? Let me know in the comments below what you’re going to try to do. I’ll reply to every single one.
PS: Because I hate forgetting people’s names, I have a small tip that’s helped quite a bit: When someone tells you their name for the first time, repeat it OUT LOUD back to them as if you were learning a new word for the first time. Saying it out loud vs. in your head, makes a gigantic difference in how well you remember it. People will start telling you: “You’re so good at remembering names”, and will love you for it.