There are times when we all feel a little self-conscious. Self-consciousness is that uncomfortable feeling that what we’re doing or saying doesn't fit well with the situation at hand. As a result, we may feel embarrassed or anxious.
Benefits of self-consciousness
To be socially competent, we have to know what presses other people’s buttons. We learn to put ourselves in their shoes. We understand that certain comments or actions may make people embarrassed or uncomfortable, so we largely choose to avoid those in order to prevent discomfort or anger. This is using self-consciousness in a way that benefits others and ourselves.
Problems with self-consciousness
Self-consciousness is largely about focus of attention. Do you recall those moments when a teacher specifically wanted you to answer a question and everyone turned around to stare at you? Or maybe you were once asked to kick off the dancing at a party? You get the picture. Self-consciousness can lead to toe-curling embarrassments.
If you are shy or if you live with social anxiety, you’ll know self-consciousness can be particularly acute. In social situations, your own attention is invariably on yourself. You probably aren’t really listening to the person talking to you because you’re too concerned about the fact that you feel sick, nervous, and shaky.
At this point I want to put some of your most likely common concerns to one side:
Your symptoms feel worse than they look. You think everyone can see that you're nervous and shaking, but you’re probably wrong. Even if your nervousness is spotted, it’s likely that little attention will be paid to it. It simply won’t have the same significance to others as it does to you.
People usually look calm even if they don’t feel it.
Most people are preoccupied with their own issues, not yours.
Nobody is entirely happy with the way they are or the way they get on with others.
Using curiosity: A two-way experiment
We all know there are certain codes of acceptable behavior. Within these codes there’s quite a lot of flexibility. In the end, people do what feels comfortable and what works for them.
In her book, Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness, Professor Gillian Butler, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, suggests a two-way experiment as a way to do things differently. The experiment involves trying things in two contrasting ways, then comparing what you notice and what you feel on the two occasions.
It means adopting an attitude of curiosity and finding out what happens if you exclusively pay attention to yourself, and then the opposite. Butler suggests starting the experiment in a setting where you aren’t emotionally invested, perhaps, for example, standing in line for a train, a bus, or at the supermarket.
First, focus on yourself. Notice all the physical sensations you can feel. Are you hot or cold? Hungry? Tired? Can you feel your clothes? What are your feelings and emotions? What’s running through your mind? Continue like this for three to five minutes, then ask yourself two questions:
How did I feel?
What did I notice?
Use your curiosity as a prompt. Were you surprised by how many things were going on inside you?
Then reverse the experiment. For the same length of time, focus your attention exclusively on what’s going on around you. Notice something about the people nearby. Are they lively? Are they lethargic? Do they look fit and healthy? If it seems natural and appropriate, talk to them. Allow your curiosity to lead the way.
How did this feel and what did you notice?
Sum up the experiment by thinking about what you learned. Could you use the same technique in slightly more demanding circumstances?
How curiosity helps
Gillian Butler argues that because there are no ideals for how we should behave, moment by moment, there is no reason to suppose that doing something in an unusual way, or in a way that feels wrong, attracts the attention of others. Curiosity is a great way to double-check your own findings and to observe the great diversity of acceptable behaviors other people engage in.