You want to talk about self-consciousness? Here's a little story:
I was 15 years old. My hair was greasy, my voice was shaky, and I stumbled awkwardly into my art class. I didn’t say a damn word to anyone. I wanted to show up, do my work, and leave. But it never works out that way, does it?
My teacher asked me to grab a stapler out of the cabinet. When I looked in the cabinet, I could feel her staring at me, along with the rest of the class. Now is when you grab the stapler.
But the strangest thing happened. I was looking right at the stapler, but it disappeared. My eyes were fixed inside the cabinet, but my attention was fixed on myself.
I was thinking, “what if I can’t find the stapler?” and “what kind of dumbass wouldn’t be able to see a stapler right in front of his face!?” I stared blankly into the cabinet until my teacher said, “Would you like me to grab it for you?” And I solidified my reputation as the dopest kid in school. Legend material.
Self-consciousness is complicated. I like to describe it as a sudden loss of faith in your ability to do basic things. It’s self-applied pressure for the purpose of keeping up appearances.
You become acutely aware of every action you make because you fear the consequences of making the wrong move. It’s like putting an imaginary gun to your head and saying, “Don’t screw up.”
To get past this kind of thinking, you need to make some fundamental changes in how you see yourself and relate to others.
Allow Yourself to Fail
Improvisation expert Dave Morris gave a TED talk on the principles of improv, the most important of which was “let yourself fail.” Not allowing yourself to fail puts a tough strictness on the things you do. We improvise our way through life, and we should embrace failure as a natural part of creating and just being in the world.
When you let yourself fail, you become free from all expectations, including your own. The task you’re doing becomes about play and engagement, as opposed to performance and evaluation.
If you leave your self-worth in the hands of others, then self-consciousness is the mindset you gravitate toward. “If they see me fail, then I’m a failure. If they see me succeed, then I’m worthy of love.” This is flawed and harmful thinking. According to Positive Psychology.com:
According to the self-worth theory, self-worth is determined mostly by our self-evaluated abilities and our performance in one or more activities that we deem valuable.
Self-worth is a self-negotiated process.
When you become self-conscious, your mind gets locked in the perspective of everyone else. Suddenly you’re a performer who must not fail their performance. Because if you do, you’ll feel rejected by everyone. And if they’re the ones who supply your worth, how will you feel worthy of anything?
We all have natural instinct to care what people think. I’m not saying you can become someone who can never be affected by other people’s opinions. Praise will still feel good. Scorn will still hurt. But the point is to not let praise and scorn make or break you.
Ultimately, the only person who decides what you’re worth is you.
Challenging Self Conciousness
“Watch me fail” is an attitude that challenges self-conscious thinking. This is addressing the fear of judgment head-on. This takes away your judges’ power and restores your perspective.
It allows you to take back control of your actions because you assert where your worth comes from (you). And sure enough, that control often leads to you seizing the moment. And even if you fail, you support yourself, you adapt, you improvise, and you bounce back.
It is a declaration of self-sovereignty. You don’t have to turn to your audience and beat your chest like a gorilla when you say it (unless you want to). You can just quietly remind yourself that these people don’t rule you.
Allowing yourself to fail, or rather, allowing yourself to be, is a trust fall into your own arms.
If I had allowed myself to not find the stapler, instead of desperately trying to look competent for everyone, then I would have found it. And I would have felt good about helping out my teacher. Putting it bluntly, I shouldn’t have given a fuck.
What About When Failure Isn’t an Option?
How do you overcome self-consciousness in crucial moments, like presentations, stage performances, or competitions?
I like to remind myself that, like an improviser, I’ll be able to deal with hiccups in my task as they come up. This frees up mental bandwidth to do the most important thing of all: Trust myself, and give my task 100% focus.
Being self-conscious diverts a portion of your attention away from what you’re doing and on to yourself. You don’t have faith that you’re doing the task correctly, so you watch yourself as you do it. This blocks you from entering flow. Then you screw up.
I’ve you’ve spent hours preparing for something, then you’ve probably reached the 4th stage of the Four Stages of Competence:
- Unconscious Incompetence (Ignorance)— You don’t know what you’re doing, or why you’re bad at it.
- Conscious Incompetence (Awareness) — You start making mistakes and understand the things you need to work on.
- Conscious Competence (Learning) — You know how to do something but it requires concentration.
- Unconscious Competence (Mastery) —You’ve spent so much time doing something you can do without thought. You “know it by heart.”
If you’re well prepared enough for your task, you can do it without thinking about it. But when you become self-conscious, you start examining yourself again. You kick yourself back to the 3rd stage, the learning stage. If you want to beat self-consciousness:
Focus on what you’re doing, not how you’re doing it.
Focusing on the how is for practice and experimentation, not for a real game.
You don’t have to obsessively check how you’re doing something if you know you can do it. You don’t have to be self-conscious if you have faith in your abilities, and you respect your honest self-expression.
This is what leads to that elusive moment everyone says you need to be in. When you’re in the moment, awareness of yourself is lost, and you’re completely immersed in the task, or the conversation, or the experience. This is what “losing yourself” is, and it’s the difference between trying and doing.
Trust Yourself and Be Free of Self Consciousness
If you’re bold enough to express yourself as you are, you can let go. Do what you do for your own sake, not for validation.
Dealing with self-consciousness can be a bit of an art. Getting into a flow state and trusting yourself is not always easy, but it can be done. Keep these principles in mind:
- Remember why you are doing what you’re doing, and allow yourself to fail.
- Reorient your focus onto what you’re doing, not how you’re doing it.
The more you allow yourself to fail, the more you’ll discover how capable you are, and the less self-conscious you’ll be.