When you’re self-conscious, it’s as though you’re on stage, and the audience is scrutinizing your every step. Rationally, you know that everyone isn’t watching you, but that’s how you feel, said Aaron Karmin, MA, LCPC, a psychotherapist in Chicago, Ill.
He gave this example of how we tend to experience self-consciousness:
Imagine being out with your co-workers. Everyone is chatting among themselves. Then someone says: “You have something on your nose.” As you reach to wipe your face, your elbow bumps a glass, which shatters on the table. Now, everyone is silent and staring at you.
“It’s as if a spotlight has been turned on you and the rest of the room lights dimmed,” Karmin said.
Being self-conscious can limit our ability to enjoy the moment and express ourselves fully, according to Carmen Cool, MA, LPC, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo.
It takes us out of our personal experiences and into what we think someone else is thinking, she said. “[It] puts us in the place of self as ‘object’ rather than ‘subject.’”
When we’re self-conscious, we feel ashamed and embarrassed, Karmin said. We “take someone’s criticism and view it as literal, personal and serious.”
Here are three strategies to help you be less self-conscious and care less how others perceive you.
Remind yourself of this.
Remember that people aren’t thinking of you as much as you think they are, Cool said. For instance, when she was working at Naropa University, Cool had the opportunity to serve tea to a visiting Tibetan teacher.
He and his attendants were sitting on the floor. Cool served the tea and when she backed up (it’s a custom not to turn your back to the teacher), she stepped right into a cup of tea.
“In that moment, I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole.” When she recounted the story – and her embarrassment — to someone else, the person said: “You did? No one even noticed.”
Stop agreeing with your negative thoughts.
One of the reasons we become self-conscious is because we worry that others will only confirm our own negative thoughts. Karmin, who practices at Urban Balance, described it in this way: If someone tells you that you’re a purple elephant, you likely won’t feel insulted. That’s because “there is no agreement that you have that goes ‘I believe that I might be a purple elephant and that is a bad thing.’”
But if someone said that you’d look better if you lost 15 lbs. and got rid of your double chin, you’d probably get upset, he said. And you might agree with them. That’s because somewhere in your mind you think that you have a double chin and that having a double chin is bad.
“So when someone points that out, or you see an advertisement with a 120-lb model, your mind comes up with ‘I’m ugly’ and you agree with it.”
The key is to stop agreeing with your thoughts. This doesn’t mean arguing or resisting them, said Karmin, who also pens the Psych Central blog “Anger Management.”
“If someone said ‘You’re a purple elephant,’ you wouldn’t argue about how you really aren’t and how even purple elephants have feelings. You would just shrug and say ‘OK, whatever.’”
He suggested taking this same approach — which he called “a mental shrug” — with your brain: “OK, that’s what my mind is doing, whatever.”
Work on accepting yourself.
According to Karmin, a person “who accepts [themselves] unconditionally as a worthwhile human in spite of [their] faults and imperfections does not experience the stress of self-consciousness.”
For instance, if you accept yourself and someone calls you “stupid,” instead of internalizing their insult, you realize they’re just trying to be antagonistic, he said. Rather than engaging the person, you might say: “’I never thought of it that way. I don’t know what to tell you,’ and walk away.”
The next time you find yourself dwelling on someone’s criticism, Karmin suggested asking yourself: “What difference does it make?”
The answer is none, he said.
“Self-respecting people do not evaluate themselves on the basis of external appearances. Our homework would be to allow others to believe whatever they want and see if anyone faints.”