Overcoming Self-consciousness and Inhibition
Social anxiety symptoms often begin during adolescence. For most people, the teenage years of life are filled with self-conscious focus on how we look to our peers. It’s a developmental process that creates profound psychological change, especially in terms of how we relate to others. One of the most frustrating aspects of the adolescent years is the tendency for self-focus to decrease the amount of focus we have left for the feelings and needs of others.
While these changes are fairly universal, those of us who were born with a shy temperament can carry the fears of adolescence into adulthood. An anxious temperament (meaning inborn personality traits that cause us to be more anxious and sensitive) causes our brains to react with greater force when exposed to the stress of sudden awareness of our peers and how we come across to them. Because we experience those fears at a heightened level, our brains label the fear of exposure or embarrassment as highly dangerous. The result is what you have experienced for many years: excessive self-consciousness and inhibition when you feel you are being observed.
Without sounding condescending, and without oversimplifying the problem, I would like to challenge you to strive for increased focus on other people, in place of your excessive focus on yourself. Yes, I know, this is easier said than done. The fear causes your mind to feel as if it is practically glued to the thoughts of losing control or making a fool of yourself when you are in the spotlight. But if you begin to build a new response, or habit, in reaction to your fears, you will gradually build up a stronger response than the inhibited fear response that currently dominates your neural circuitry (habits of your mind).
Here’s what you should do. When you are NOT anxious and feeling self-conscious, try to increase the amount of attention, time, and focus you place on observing other people. I know of a psychologist who spent some time studying treatments for Social Anxiety Disorder in London. One of the things that was very helpful to her patients was the instruction to go into a pub with the assignment to come out fifteen minutes later with details about the people they talked with. They were told, “I want you to tell me what color their eyes were, what they were wearing, what emotions they wore on their face, and what signs you saw of energy or fatigue in their face. Did they have wrinkle’s under their eye? Did they seem to be in a good mood?” These questions led the social anxiety sufferers into a different sort of mental focus than they would typically have upon entering a pub. The effect? Less self-consciousness, which leads to an automatic decrease in feelings that lead to inhibition of social energy. Spend some time thinking about how you could apply this technique in your own life.
Dr. Todd Snyder