How to let go of self-consciousness
“Tons of my problems come back to the fact that I’m constantly thinking about myself, and what other people think of me, and whether they think I’m weird or strange or ugly or whatever.
I hate that my mind is constantly, constantly focused on myself. I can’t escape the fear of everyone potentially judging the Christ out of me at every turn and it makes me nervous and scared.
I feel like if I could only get away from this, I would be okay. How can I do that?”
Eireannach, 19 (Ireland)
What a lovely question. I honestly think it’s wonderful that you’ve identified and decided to step out of what might be called self-consciousness. Many choose to perpetuate it for a lifetime. They may try to feel better by treating it with pride, inflate it into egotism, and don’t realise that they’re perpetuating it in a way that’s making them unhappy. You, on the other hand, have decided to identify and step out of it early on.
Self-consciousness – if you’re happy to call it that for now – is a natural human condition. I’ve met some great and wise teachers, and yet having gotten to know them, I’d happily bet that even they suffered from it. Typically children are un-self-conscious until they reach pre-puberty; then it enters, along with the psychological maturing process. Suddenly we are painfully and minutely aware of our existence. Where once we would have run wild and naked down a beach in joy, instead we may turn inward and cringe in the shadows.
The extent of this development varies culturally; some cultures are more self-conscious than others. It serves a purpose by creating a contemplative space in which we can examine what we’re made of, and how the adult world works. It’s a good time for extroverts to temporarily become introvert, and re-assess what role they’d like to play in that adult world. The following is an analogy, but sometimes it can feel like breaking out of an egg: very sensitive, as if the lights are sometimes too bright, the things people say too harsh.
In response it’s easy to feel defensive, go into overdrive, and either over- or under-express ourselves. As a teenager I would swing from being the life of the party, to being a depressed recluse. Take the time to learn to hear and meet your own needs, before emotions get out of hand (although when they do, it isn’t the end of the world). The rich emotional tapestry of daily life is changing and will never look the same; take it slow, get to know it and learn to get comfortable with it.
Remember to be your own best friend through this. Whether we like it or not, acceptance, gentle guidance and patience are the only things which have ever worked, when we want to change. It’s tempting to try shortcuts and it’s common to beat ourselves up, but such tactics only slow us down and prevent development.
One reason I liked your question was that I always ask myself, where is the question coming from? It can only be your place of selflessness, that wants to rid itself of self-concern. Self-concern wouldn’t want to rid itself of itself. So the fact that you asked means that you’re already coming from a place of generosity and connection.
Sitting still for a moment, allow yourself to feel the feelings that gave rise to your question. You said you felt nervousness and fear, for example. Remember to breathe, and without deliberately thinking, let yourself feel nervousness and fear of judgment completely. (It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it won’t kill you.) Locate the feelings in your body, and describe how they feel to yourself. Butterflies? Pins and needles? Shortness of breath? Every few minutes relax any tense muscles and breathe calmly, and realise that relaxation is something you can choose to do anytime you want.
The trick is to relax into it and explore the feeling, and it will dissipate. If you relax as a distraction away from feelings, they will only keep coming back.
This is the meditative aspect of guiding yourself to grow out of what feels like a constricting shell. You can do it wherever you are, and anytime you feel something coming up again. It might be several times a day.
There’s a practical or ‘worldly’ aspect to it, too. It differs from person to person; you’ll need to find yours. It could be a combination of lots of things, and usually changes as you grow older.
It’s one or all of the following: a project, hobby, job, passion, sport, activity or service, which you find attractive enough to want to immerse yourself in completely. It’s likely to be challenging and a bit scary, but something that you feel much better for having done. (So it isn’t drugs or gambling ) For some people it’s having kids, however it’d be a bit drastic to go that far only for the sake of self-liberation! For me it’s been travel, study, dance, learning filmmaking, and creating challenging work projects. (This was over a 25-year period – I haven’t been busy always.)
Giving yourself to a bigger cause, or working in a group, is a great way to lose yourself, and it serves both you and them. And believe me, you’re not too “weird” to do anything you want. The weirder the better, even; are there not a plethora of weird role models at the top? True, there are those who call others “weird” like it’s a criticism. That’s their insecurity and not a reflection on you, since they don’t even know you. The original meaning of “weird” is “destiny”. Once you know what you yourself want, what others think will roll like water off a duck’s back.
The other joy in pursuing interests you’re passionate about, is that you eventually meet people who feel the same as you. It might take years, but when you do meet them it feels like coming home to your “tribe”.
I used to be excruciatingly shy and self-conscious, to the point where if I realised I was walking the wrong way down a street from where I wanted to go, I was too frightened to turn around because I thought that people would laugh at me for it. So I’d walk all the way around the block, and then stealthily side-step into the right direction when nobody was looking. I also spent many years alone because I felt too much like an alien to know how to make friends!
The thing that first brought me out of my shell was finding people interesting. At the same time I had absorbed myself in hobbies I enjoyed doing, so a couple of people found me interesting in return. When they reached out to me, I dared to venture a stumbling conversation. Friendships developed, but I was still frightened and massively defensive (and as a result I could be verbally aggressive, as can be common with teenagers.)
Without realising it, I styled my appearance accordingly: aggressively “attractive” according to how I thought people wanted me to look. If you’re a young woman and you’re somewhere where everyone really is looking at you no matter what you wear, it’s near impossible not to be painfully self-conscious anyway.
My way of facing my fears was a bit extreme, and mixed in with my love for travel and people – I took up work as a model. While I wouldn’t recommend that, the theory works for everyone: it might be a drama class, singing class or anything in which you have to express yourself in a group at some point.
Other major things which helped me was working for charities abroad, and serving at a monastery. Again, these may be too extreme for some, but the simple practice of spending most of my day serving others was tremendously helpful in letting go of self-concern. Wherever you are, there will always be places and people which need your help.
It isn’t all about creating big dramas; the little things add up too. Make small social steps for the day which you wouldn’t normally do, like talking to the local grocer, dressing differently, getting a shoulder massage, or smiling at a stranger just because you feel like it, without expecting any particular reaction in return. Share a secret. You might even dare yourself to play the fool, just once, by being silly with friends or in public to see what happens. Playing the fool is one of the most generous and fun things you can do. In my experience it makes people laugh with you, every time.
My point in mentioning my experiences is to show that it’s possible to change from being very self-conscious, to being happy talking on stage in front of hundreds if not thousands of people. I’ve learned that it really, really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as long as I know myself and that I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m not doing it to please anyone else; I’m doing it because I’ve figured out what’s important to me. The fear that being open would make me completely alone was unfounded; in fact it had the opposite effect.
Very few people over the age of five are completely un-self-conscious, and to a degree it’s healthy to keep some of it. Don’t think that you have to change yourself completely, just because one thing is making you uncomfortable. Nobody expects you to be perfect. The difference is in your perspective, and perspectives change with practice.