How to Cure Self-Consciousness

file6461281015948You step into the party feeling reasonably confident. True, your favorite little black dress feels somewhat tight, but it’s still elegant, and the wind outside only tousled your hair a little. Then, just as you’re preparing to mingle, it happens: You pass a mirror and glimpse your reflection—your horrifying, horrifying reflection. The dress isn’t just tight; it fits like Luciano Pavarotti’s diving suit. Your hair looks as though a crazed weasel nested, bore young, and died there. Aghast, you wobble off your high heels and sprain an ankle. All eyes are glued on you. All conversation focuses on your disgrace. Everyone begins texting hilarious descriptions of you from their cell phones.

In your dreams, baby.

I mean this both literally and figuratively. Most of us occasionally dream about being embarrassed in social settings. But even in waking life, many of us operate as if Simon Cowell is doing a play-by-play of our work, wardrobe and snack choices. One team of researchers has dubbed this phenomenon the “spotlight effect.” In the beam of imaginary spotlights, many of us suffer untold shame and create smaller, weaker, less zestful lives than we deserve. Terrified that the neighbors might gossip, the critics might sneer, the love letter might fall into the hands of evil bloggers, we never even allow our minds to explore what our hearts may be calling us to do. These efforts to avoid embarrassment often keep us from imagining, let alone fulfilling, the measure of our destiny. To claim it, we need to develop a mental dimmer switch.

Turning the Lights Down Low

Thomas Gilovich, PhD, Victoria Husted Medvec, PhD, and Kenneth Savitsky, PhD, the psychologists who coined the term spotlight effect, also devised numerous ways to measure it. In one experiment, they had college students enter a room with other students while wearing an “embarrassing” T-shirt. (The shirt bore the likeness of a certain singer, whom I won’t identify here. I will say that for days after reading this study, I was medically unable to stop humming “Copacabana.”) When the mortified students were asked to guess how many people in the room would remember the face on their T-shirt, they gave a number about twice as high as the number of students who actually remembered the shirt.

Other studies support what this one suggested: The spotlight effect makes most of us assume we’re getting about twice as much attention as we actually are. When Lincoln said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” he was wrong—but only because he was president of the United States. If you are currently president, rest assured that millions will note and long remember if, say, you barf on the prime minister of Japan. However, if you are not president, you’re probably pointlessly blinded by the glare of imaginary social judgments.

These judgments aren’t limited just to times when we mess up. Our distorted perceptions mean we not only exaggerate the impact of our errors but also undersell our inspirations and contributions. For example:

  • You modestly mumble an idea in a meeting, assuming that co-workers will be awestruck if they like it, appalled if they don’t. Net effect: Nobody really hears the idea—until the annoying extrovert across the table repeats it more loudly, and gets all the glory.
  • You wear clothes a bit duller and more concealing than the ones you love, only to look back years later and wish you’d bared and dared more in your youth. (As one of my friends sighed about her self-conscious daughter, “If she only realized that at her age, you’re beautiful even if you’re not beautiful.”)
  • You sing, swing, and mamba only in the privacy of your home, never with other people. Repressing the urge to sing “Copacabana,” you miss the joy of sharing silly or sultry abandon with the people you love—and the people you may never get to love because inhibition robs you of the confidence needed to form a bond.

These self-limiting behaviors have no positive side; contrary to what many assume, they rarely save us from doing things we’ll later regret. In fact, Gilovich and Medvec have found in other studies that, in the long run, people most often regret the things they failed to try, rather than the things they bombed at. Trying yields either success or an opportunity to learn; not trying has no positive result besides avoiding mockery or envy that (research shows) wouldn’t be nearly as big or bad as we fear.

How to Free Yourself from the Glare

1. Double everything.

Just knowing that the spotlight effect is real and ubiquitous can begin to liberate us from its inhibiting clutches. I find it very comforting to have an actual number associated with my shame-based illusions: Spotlight effect studies suggest that people typically pay about 50 percent as much attention to me as I think they are. The first time I actually stood under a spotlight, in a high school play, the director told me, “Small gestures look embarrassed, so they’re embarrassing. If you’re going to do something, and you don’t want to look foolish, do it BIG.” Now, thanks to Gilovich, Medvec and Savitsky, I know how big to make my actions—about twice as big as I think they should be.

I’ve been experimenting with this in many different circumstances: raising both my hands, instead of one, to ask a question of a lecturer I much admire; pausing twice as long for dramatic effect while telling a story to some friends; eating two servings of a fabulous dessert at a literary club luncheon. The result? I do seem to have attracted more attention, but rather than the disapproving judgment I expected, most people seem to feel pleased and liberated, made safer in their own skin by my willingness to live large in mine.

I believe this reaction is a major reason a lovely lady from Hawaii named Brook Lee once won the Miss Universe pageant. When asked what she’d do if she had no rules to follow, she replied, “I would eat everything in the whole world—twice!” That one word—”twice!”—struck a chord with me, the audience and the judges, landing Ms. Lee squarely beneath the spotlight she actually wanted. Why not join her by doubling the social behaviors you usually limit: the energy with which you communicate, the intensity of the colors you wear, the number of times you laugh, the clarity of the opinions you voice. You may think this will attract massive disapproval from others. Actually, you’ll be lucky to attract more than a passing glance, and my experience (not to mention Ms. Lee’s) suggests it will be more approving than not.

2. Think through your limits—not to them.

“You can’t break that board by hitting it,” my karate teacher told me. “Hit something 10 inches behind it. As far as you’re concerned, the board doesn’t even exist.”

“But,” I pointed out, “it does exist.” (I am a trained observer.)

My sensei shrugged. “That’s what you think.”

Mentally noting that this man had been hit in the head many, many times, I proceeded to batter my hands to smithereens, trying to break that unbreakable board. When every knuckle was swollen, tender and bleeding, I said, “My hands hurt.”

“Yes,” said my sensei. “Your mind is really damaging them.”

You get the metaphor: We smash into barriers of shame, embarrassment, and regret because we pull our punches in myriad social situations. Stopping at what we think is the limit of embarrassing behavior, we let others claim the credit, the opportunity, the job, the person we love from afar.

The next time you feel performance anxiety in any form, remember that the negative attention you fear does not exist except in your mind—if this works with the hard, cold reality of my ice block, I guarantee it will work with something as vaporous as other people’s opinions. Act as if there is no spotlight on you, even if there is one. Say, do, and be what you would if no one else were looking. It will be scary at first, but if you persist, there will come that liberating moment when you’ll feel yourself sailing straight through your life’s most inhibiting barriers without even feeling a bump.

3. Ask yourself the Universal Question.

Once, I had an intense, emotional cell phone discussion with a friend while riding in a taxi. At a certain point I fell into a strangled silence.

“What’s wrong with you?” my friend asked. “Why aren’t you talking?”

Covering my mouth with one hand, I whispered, “The driver can hear me.”

At this point, my friend said something so lucid, so mind expanding, so simultaneously Socratic and Zenlike, that I memorized it on the spot. I’ve gained comfort by repeating it to myself in many other situations. I encourage you, too, to memorize this question and use it when you find yourself shrinking back from an imaginary spotlight. My friend said—and I quote:

“So?”

This brilliant interrogatory challenged me to consider the long-term consequences of being embarrassed (really, who cares?). It reminded me that failing to act almost always leaves me with more regret than taking embarrassing action. Here are a few instances where the Universal Question might help a person break through imprisoning inhibitions:

“If I say what I really think, people might disagree with me.”

So?

“If I leave my drunken abusive husband, his crazy family will call me a bitch.”

So?

“If I go windsurfing, I’ll look like a klutz. Plus, people will see my cellulite.”

So?

There are endless applications for the Universal Question. I suggest using it every time you feel yourself hesitating to do something that might deepen or broaden your life. The answer to the question “So?” is almost always “Well, when you put it that way…” It pushes us into the spotlight, showing us we can survive there and freeing us to act on our best instincts.

Today, remember that what you perceive as prudent social caution is probably limiting your life to about half its natural capacity; that if you did everything you long to do twice as often, twice as boldly, twice as openly, you wouldn’t attract a shred more social pressure than you already think you’re getting. Consider that vaulting well past the limits of your inhibitions will probably earn you more positive attention than negative judgment. More often than not, this will work out well. If it doesn’t, remember the most enlightening of questions: “So?” Little by little, you’ll feel and see that the worst consequences of living in the light are less oppressive than the best advantages of hiding in the shadows. And you’ll have little to fear from the rest of us, who will only be inspired by your daring as we sit, blinking and bedazzled, in the private spotlights of our own attention.

41 replies
    • Eduard
      Eduard says:

      Thank you, Martha!

      As Tanya said, your blog post could not have been read by me at a more opportune moment.

      Thank you!Again! 😀

      Reply
  1. Sheila Bergquist
    Sheila Bergquist says:

    I love the Universal Question! We all get so concerned about how we will “look”, what people will think of us and afraid of being embarrassed that we really do limit ourselves. SO? is going to become a much used word in my life! Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Alison
    Alison says:

    I had it on my list of things to do to look up this article this week sometime. I remember it so well! This is a big problem for me in Japan, often feeling like the only one who does things the way that I do. I feel like the lunatic fringe sometimes. But my word for 2014 is Expand, so I was needing to read this advice again. You always know exactly what I need Martha Beck. Your timing is impeccable. (This month’s Oprah about 3 steps to getting out of my own way – no more self-sabotage! – was perfect as well.) It amazes me how many times I need to hear the same thing…

    Reply
  3. judy
    judy says:

    Hi Martha,
    I love your insightful article on self consciousness and I want to give it to my husband to read. He is a wonderful guy until we go out socially. He’s highly educated but needs to own “so”!!

    However, for some reason I am unable to print the entire article. It comes piece meal. Would you be able to email me this article? I would so very much appreciate it.

    Thanks for your time and your insight.
    Judy

    Reply
  4. Marsha from YesYesMarsha.com
    Marsha from YesYesMarsha.com says:

    I was JUST speaking a client about this this other day – and now I have SCIENCE to back up what I was saying!

    I always tell my clients a (tweaked) quote from Helen Fielding’s book, “Olivia Joules..”, from her list of life rules. This one is how she deals at a party when alone:

    “No one is thinking about me. Everyone is thinking about themselves, just like I am RIGHT NOW”

    Reply
  5. Alan
    Alan says:

    Happy to see a new blog with more than twice our boldness.
    To which I say SO? It makes you even a better coach.

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Ani Bell
    Ani Bell says:

    I love knowing that I think 50% more folks are focusing on me than actually are. When I write updates for my BellaWorld site, I do so because I’m inspired & joyful or I’ve just had a flash of insight I want to record. Still, because I don’t want to inundate folks’ email inboxes with ‘too much’, I’ve found myself squelching the desire to share something. After reading this, Martha, I’m sayin’ a big fat, SO!? to my fear of putting ‘too much’ out there!!!!! THANKS!

    Reply
  7. Tisha
    Tisha says:

    I love this. It’s all SO true (pun intended). Over the past year I’ve found myself saying, “I need to live bigger than this,” and Iv’e noticed that when I do some of the things you mentioned above, life actually gets easier, ya know? A little like wearing the right size of jeans…Thanks so much for this lovely post 🙂

    Reply
  8. Kara Sorensen
    Kara Sorensen says:

    I love this post, it was just what I needed to read today. As an introvert who generally avoids the spotlight, I also miss out on a lot of my bliss by staying small. This is great encouragement for pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone and thinking through my limits. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Arwen
    Arwen says:

    Thank you Martha! This was just the right message at just the right time. I was reeling from a double whammy of scary medical news and less than glowing feedback on my work. I came here because Martha often inspires me. This article felt like it was written just for me! How does she do that?

    Reply
  10. Robin M.
    Robin M. says:

    SO on target. My spouse and I were JUST having a discussion of how we can get past worrying about what everyone thinks of us and just start coming out to everyone. The “SO?” question is a great reminder to get past the silly fears. If they can’t handle knowing about us being gay, then we certainly won’t want to waste time trying to please them. SO then we would move on to folks who will like us for who we really are.

    Reply
  11. Renee T
    Renee T says:

    I love the simplicity of the universal question. It is so easy to apply and it sure puts into perspective the fears I may have that are based on worry and “what if” thinking. Very liberating. Thanks

    Reply
  12. Lynn Whitaker
    Lynn Whitaker says:

    I love your insight and your books. Could you address problems related to people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

    Anxiety and depression due to isolation needed to pace activities, especially when living alone. “If I do this today, can I do that which I must do tomorrow”, “If I drive that far will I have the energy to drive home?”, etc. I was successful in business and very active in my community before this hit 20 years ago. Now aging adds to the mix. The positives are more time to commune with nature and feeling no guilt about saying no (well, not too often).

    Thank you.

    Reply
  13. christy
    christy says:

    this was so mind opening!!! thankyou and i plan to share this with a coupke of familky members who struggle with this too!!! Blessings!!!

    Reply
  14. Dagny
    Dagny says:

    This resonated with me so well Martha. I have a student at present and we are reading your book- Finding Your Own North Star. She will surely love this post too. I will also share it on my blog, I hope you won’t mind.

    Thank you for being the light. Bless you.

    Reply
  15. Marta
    Marta says:

    I just had a really hard time saying no to doing something. I was afraid of disappointing a group of people and in my imagination, I instantly became a pariah in the group the minute I hit send on the email when I finally had the nerve to send it. I need to go big with my ability to say no and keep the Universal Question in mind. In the end, they will just get someone else to do it, and if I do end up leaving this group, it will be because it’s a bad fit. So?

    Thanks, Martha. Exactly what I needed to be reminded of this morning.

    P.S. I totally thought of you when I saw this interview of Meryl Streep on Ellen. Meryl doing an elephant imitation! Priceless! (And she went big!)

    Reply
  16. Katy
    Katy says:

    I had polio as a baby and my legs are skinny somewhat twisted. Some people started at them when I wore shorts. So? At least I was cool. Now later in life I still using crutches and doi what I want and can do. Many people ask me one the 2nd or 3rd time of seeing me, when I got the crutches. They evidently didn’t see them the first or second time around. Funny isn’t it?

    Reply
  17. Victoria Reynolds
    Victoria Reynolds says:

    For me, self-consciousness has taken on an entirely new meaning. It means being conscious of ones- self. It means making conscious choices, having conscious conversations, developing conscious relationships and moving through life with consciousness. When we are truly self-conscious we are fully aware how our actions and choices affect not only ourselves, we are conscious about how our choices and actions affect everyone and everything around us. Being fully self-conscious completely eliminates any fear of how we are perceived by others.

    Reply
  18. sue
    sue says:

    Absolutely love this whole post Martha. Very informative, amusing, disarming and encouraging. The halving and doubling concepts are amazing in their simplicity…and as for SO…..just perfect. Thanks so much for this post.

    Reply
  19. Jaime Larsen
    Jaime Larsen says:

    Wonderful article thank you for sharing! Caring too much what others will think is a definite path to self-sabotage. It’s hard not to do as a sensitive, more introverted personality type, but we have one life to live. The universal question is so simple, but it can be a game changer, and so freeing.

    Reply
  20. Rhonda
    Rhonda says:

    OK. Double my actions & statements, act without fear by not over-thinking it….OK! Are you ready world for the likes of me!?

    Thanks for giving me permission, to be myself!

    Reply
  21. Kay Fudala
    Kay Fudala says:

    Well said! I love how your humorous self deprecation gets the point across in a memorable way!

    One way to turn the spotlight effort on its head is to actually seek out the spotlight, preferably on the stage. As I wrote a while back, acting is one way to overcome self consciousness. As I re-read my post I realized that I referenced one of your other articles on this subject.

    http://redgramliving.com/2013/06/30/entrepreneurship-lessons-from-drama-class-part-1/

    Living in the light, always!

    Reply
  22. Marilyn
    Marilyn says:

    Hi Martha, your last couple of blogs have been exactly what I needed to hear. To continue your metaphor a little, and to be less self-conscious, to display my love of dance, and to enlighten you about important ways to shine on the dance floor–if you want to attract attention on the dance floor, you can do the sizzling SAMBA, or mind-boggling MAMBO–but there is no such dance as the mamba!

    I can hear you saying–rightly–“So?”

    But I encourage you and other readers to get out there on the floor and enjoy both utterly wild, awesome, and utterly satisfying Latin dances!

    Reply
  23. Stefanie
    Stefanie says:

    Martha you are so liberating and I adore you. There is a saying my mother gave me,that parallels the awesome So? It is, What’s the worst thing that could happen? The trick is remembering to ask yourself!

    Reply
  24. Renee
    Renee says:

    That was a boost to my fears and hanging back. Yes I have used the So ? Before but often forget it. I think that it does offer a cold clear spotlight of reality.

    Reply
  25. Janet
    Janet says:

    Almost exactly a year after this was published, it is still having an effect on people’s lives!
    I echo a previous poster with, I love you Martha Beck. 🙂 The message I got in my inbox today was exactly what I needed to ‘hear’ right now.

    Reply
  26. Elaine Fereday
    Elaine Fereday says:

    Have spent way too long being small. Thankyou Martha, gunna try and be ME in technicolour and stereo from now on….enough of the mono/chrome

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] You step into the party feeling reasonably confident. True, your favorite little black dress feels somewhat tight, but it’s still elegant, and the wind outside only tousled your hair a little. Then, just as you’re preparing to mingle, it happens: You pass a mirror and glimpse your reflection—your horrifying, horrifying reflection. The dress isn’t just tight; it fits like Luciano Pavarotti’s diving suit. Your hair looks as though a crazed weasel nested, bore young, and died there. Aghast, you wobble off your high heels and sprain an ankle. All eyes are glued on you. All conversation focuses on your disgrace. Everyone begins texting hilarious descriptions of you from their cell phones. Read more at: How to lose self- consciousness […]

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