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Everybody’s Looking at Me

What triggers and exacerbates self-consciousness — and how can you overcome it?

“I still remember the Friday night my friend showed up for a sudden visit just minutes after candlelighting,” shares Shoshana (name changed to protect the guilty). “This was my I-always-have-it-together, will-never-settle-for-less-than-perfect friend — you know the type? She was in the neighborhood, she said, and on a whim thought she’d surprise me.

“That might have been nice, if my house had been sparkling clean like it usually is in time for Shabbos. But that Friday, for no reason at all, it had been particularly hectic, and my house still had signs of my chaotic day — toys and magazines strewn all over, the table scattered with napkins not yet folded, and a stack of dishes washed minutes before candlelighting drying on a rack.

“So there we were, my friend and I at the open door, and all I could think was, There’s no way in the world I can let my friend see my house the way it looks and have her find out the real truth about me, that most times I’m in control, but sometimes… I’m just not.”

Shoshana still winces at the memory. “As I sidestepped the mess and reluctantly led my friend into the living room, a part of me just wanted to hide in shame.”

Shoshana’s story could have been my own. Forget the specifics; the state of my house is something I’m also perpetually self-conscious about. As I am about my ability to write. And my (non) ability to juggle lots of things at once. And a myriad other things that, well, let’s just say I prefer not to mention.

Like many of you, and like thousands of folks the world over, I’m still in the process of overcoming my lifelong habit of caring what people think of me. And of feeling sometimes insecure in a world where there’s always someone better, smarter, more efficient, more successful, more, more, more.

In the Spotlight

It’s an interesting paradox, self-consciousness. It’s something we all feel to some degree — so I’ve discovered — yet instead of feeling normal for it, we feel alienated. That’s kind of what self-consciousness often is: feeling like you’re the only one who does/doesn’t/has/doesn’t have/can’t/has to (fill in the blank).

What else is in the term? If you’re a purist, you understand self-consciousness as simply being aware of yourself as an individual, according to Webster’s, or, if you prefer Oxford, to be “deliberate and with full awareness.” Which, out of context, is neither a good thing, nor a bad one. It just is.

Conventionally speaking, however, self-consciousness usually means experiencing an uncomfortable awareness of yourself, or feeling insecure and hyperaware of your appearance or manner. It’s the unpleasant feeling of being watched and also perhaps judged, the sense that everyone’s looking at you.

That’s a natural feeling for most, says Paul Bloom, writer and professor of psychology at Yale University. In his research on self-consciousness, he references “the spotlight effect” — a term Cornell University psychology professor Thomas Gilovich coined after he conducted a fascinating experiment. In his experiment, Gilovich instructed a group of students to don what was considered an offensive T-shirt and to mingle with other people. The students were then asked to rate how many people they thought noticed their T-shirts. The results were largely overestimated.

Even when students wore clothing that was considered proper, they still overestimated how many people noticed them. In study after study of similar nature, the subjects tended to think that other people noticed them far more than they actually did.

“We are naturally conscious of ourselves, what we are thinking, how we look, and what we are doing,” writes Bloom in the Atlantic, “and so it’s hard to block the inference that others share this focus. If I’m wearing a ridiculous T-shirt, I’m thinking about it, and so I assume that you are too.” When something is salient in your mind, he says, you think others are sensitive to it as well.

That’s self-consciousness.

AM I GOOD ENOUGH?

How and to what extent does self-consciousness affect you?

For the purpose of this article, that was one question I posed to a group of about 20 women of various ages, professions, and backgrounds. My goal: to get a gauge on what factors and scenarios lent themselves to higher levels versus lower levels of self-consciousness in different people.

The first thing that was clear immediately came as a surprise: The same things these women admitted to feeling self-conscious about were the very same things I know them to be good at. And I know these women.

One, who shared that she feels most self-conscious when she’s among other women who are dressed to a tee, happens to be one of the most put-together people I know. Another woman known for her sensitivity and exceptional tact admitted that she tends to feel most self-conscious when she’s around unfamiliar people. And yet another, whose career history I personally envy, said that she’s struggled with insecurity and low self-esteem all her life.

Yet when you think about it, it makes sense. When something is of value to you, it becomes key to your identity. It’s important to you, so you become good at it; and because it’s important to you, you feel self-conscious about it —am I as good enough at this as I believe I ought to be? You have expectations of yourself and you want to meet them.

Say intelligence is something you value, but on occasion you’re forced to break your teeth trying to communicate in a foreign language that has you sounding only partially coherent. Prime fodder for self-consciousness. If constantly having your act together is important to you, then the likelihood of feeling self-conscious when greeting an unexpected guest at the door amid a chaotic bedtime is going to be high.

There’s another element here: part of the human condition is that we love to compare. You look around and see everyone else performing in an area that you’re not. Actually, scratch that. You think everyone else is performing and you’re not. So you tell yourself you’re not good enough.

At the root of that, says Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, is shame. Shame, she says famously, is the gremlin that tells you, “ ‘You’re not good enough.’ Shame is: do it all, do it perfect, and never let them see you sweat. Shame is conflicting emotions about who we’re supposed to be.”

We know this instinctively: when we’re self-conscious, we’re often also shy, embarrassed, or feeling low self-esteem. They’re all connected.

Take Shoshana’s story, for example. Her belief and desire are that Shabbos should be the one time a week her house has to sparkle. When it doesn’t, she’s ashamed. She’d like to be the person who has it together come Shabbos, but in reality, that’s not always the case. So she’s self-conscious.

Then there’s a host of wider, more global factors that also contribute to self-consciousness, say professionals: social media, style of upbringing, community expectations.

The thing with social media, suggests Jerusalem-based teacher and psychotherapist Rabbi Shragie Bomzer, is that it creates an air of unrealistic expectation, where people present only the parts of themselves that are faultless. Anything less than impressive is not worthy of publicity, so what you end up with is an inaccurate picture of perfection and success, where good is no longer good enough, and perfect becomes the standard.

The messages you received in your childhood and in other key experiences play a vital part here, too. “Over the years, we’ve seen numerous cases of people incapacitated by feelings of self-consciousness,” says Dr. Yossi Shafer, psychologist and clinical director at Lakewood’s Empower Health Center. “And often the feeling arises out of our early developed beliefs.”

In one such example, a guy stopped showing up in shul because he was self-conscious about his Hebrew, which was accented. Turned out, the guy had been tormented by his friends when his family made the move toward becoming chozer b’teshuvah years earlier. The message they gave him was clear: You’ll never fit in.

Along similar lines was the case of an individual who never allowed herself to eat in public out of a strong sense of self-consciousness that people were judging her for her weight. In her family, weight and worth went hand in hand.

In some families, it’s wealth, in others, it’s having certain degrees. In some families, moms are expected to be great cooks, in others, boys are expected to spend their free time learning. What are the messages you grew up with? If you were ever taught that there are conditions to being worthy, you may be in for a bit of trouble.

Disheartened yet?

Add to the mix the fact that we live in communities where there are norms and expectations, and where sometimes undue importance is attached to stuff like money and status, and the picture becomes bleaker.

KNOW YOURSELF THROUGH OTHERS

But all is not lost for humanity.

While it’s true that living in groups breeds collective self-consciousness, that doesn’t mean it’s an entirely negative thing, offers Brachah, one of the women in my poll group. “Living among others will always mean you’re being watched, and that there are standards — be it in a chassidish group, a shared neighborhood, a shul community. While standards don’t necessarily equal expectation, self-consciousness will exist by virtue of belonging to a larger whole.

“Even with a self-esteem that’s intact, and even if you live up to expectations, you’ll still likely be self-conscious, and for good reason: either you have children in shidduchim, or you want to get your kids into certain schools, or you otherwise just know you’re being noticed.”

Not judged — noticed.

In that sense, we leave behind its pejorative meaning and discover that, in fact, not only is self-consciousness not always a bad thing, there are times it can be beneficial.

The most common themes from the women weighing in: It stops you from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time; it shows you when something needs to be changed, such as your way of speech or your dress; it helps you perform better in situations such as a job interview or when your behavior just matters. Or as one survey participant, Leora, put it, “it leads me to be more sensitive to others, and in general more tznuah about my behavior.”

Self-consciousness “needs to be understood in both its positive and negative contexts,” explains Rabbi Bomzer, in his own refreshing take on the topic. In psychology, he says, there’s this theory called “the looking-glass self,” which suggests that as individuals, we base our sense of self on how we believe others view us — and use our social interactions as a type of mirror, to draw judgments on our worth, values, and behavior.

It’s similar to what’s known as “social comparison theory,” which hypothesizes that people are only able to assess themselves — their abilities and opinions — by comparing themselves with individuals around them.

“We need others to really know ourselves,” says Rabbi Bomzer. “Without the ability to correlate ourselves in the context of others, we don’t really know who we are. On the other hand, if you’re very preoccupied with yourself, as in, ‘I’m so nervous to do things because people might think XYZ,’ then it becomes a question of balance: How much should we conform to others and how much should we individuate?

“Even though we need other people and their scrutiny to know about ourselves, we tend to put too much emphasis on their opinions. That’s when self-consciousness becomes inhibiting. That’s when it becomes negative.”

Just like with every human emotion, he continues, “the question isn’t, Is it good, is it bad? Instead— Is it helpful? Is there a real place for it? That’s how we should be approaching it. The desire to be like everyone else is an important, fundamental need, and it’s there to assist us. Just like fear keeps you from getting too close to the edge of the cliff, self-consciousness is there to guide you along, to help you make decisions about who you really want to be, and how you want to behave.”

Similar sentiments are shared by Dr. Shafer. “Just as many personality traits hold both positive and negative connotations, self-consciousness is no different. On the upside, being self-conscious allows you to be mindful of your setting, incorporate social standards and norms, and relate better to those around you.”

Clearly, the shared consensus is that self-consciousness isn’t that bad after all.

A WORK IN PROGRESS

Still, the fact remains that sometimes it cripples you, and sometimes you wish you were just a little less, well, self-conscious about things — that you held yourself to more realistic standards, that you didn’t compare yourself so much. Welcome to the human race. We’re all in this together.

It helps to remember that at the core of every single human being is a person who struggles and sometimes succeeds and sometimes… fails. And even though you feel like you’re the only one, you’re not. The paradox again.

Personally, that’s how I get through it. That’s how I got through it when I was post-move or post-birth and barely keeping it together, and that’s how I get through it on a daily basis — when I spend a month on an article that a colleague can produce in three days, when I have to work hard to pull off a Shabbos, without guests, and wonder at my friend’s ability to do so with what looks like much less effort and guests.

I’ll compare myself to no end and have my inner voice tell me I’m not good enough. I’ll feel inadequate at my lack of ability to come through and perform. I’ll wonder how everyone else manages but only I don’t. I’ll feel a little shame. I’ll be self-conscious.

Then I’ll remember my strengths. I’ll remember that I’m good at lots of other things, even if sometimes — nay, often — I fall short. I’ll remember that I’m human, just like you.

And when I feel secure about the things I’m good at, as well as the things I’m not good at, and accept myself for being a work in progress, I feel less need to be apologetic — to myself and to others.

Seline Shenoy, former life coach, writer, and founder of the blog The Dream Catcher, remembers a period during her teen years that she felt particularly self-conscious in an effort to conform and not appear too boring among her elite clique of wealthy friends. (Young adulthood, she explains, “is the crucial juncture that a person first experiences life as an individual within the context of a social group.”)

One morning, she writes, she looked in the mirror and “I couldn’t recognize the person I saw anymore. I realized that I’d lost myself in my efforts to fit in.”

After that day, says Seline, “I made a conscious decision to move away from the bubble that I was living in and expand my social circle to include people who inspired me and challenged me to grow.”

Putting other people’s opinions into perspective, she suggests further, is another way to help turn down the dial on self-consciousness. “What’s important to realize,” she says, “is that people will judge each other based on what they think is right and their yardstick for success.”

For Sarah, one of the poll participants, “developing an inner core that believes I’m okay, no matter what, is what helped me raise my self-esteem and feel safer in the world.”

Two books that changed Sarah’s life were Dr. David Burns’ Feeling Good Handbook, which forced her to challenge the beliefs she had about herself, and Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. “Brown taught me to alter the way I spoke to myself. Recently, for example, I neglected to have my son’s glasses repaired, and a neighbor pointed out how important it was that I deal with it. Once, I would’ve said to myself, ‘You’re such an irresponsible, neglectful mother, and what a lazy, bad person you must be.’

“And for good measure, I would’ve avoided dealing with the glasses — my injured ego would just not have allowed me. Now I thought, It’s okay. I’m okay. I’m not a bad person. Procrastinating is my weakness and I’m working on it. But I’m glad my neighbor reminded me to make it a top priority. And the next day I made my son an appointment with his ophthalmologist.”

People who live “wholeheartedly,” as Brené Brown puts it, “are people who have the courage to be imperfect. And the compassion to be kind to themselves. They are ready to let go of who they think they should be in order to be who they are.”

By a similar token, Bloom writes: “When looking back on our lives, we often regret our failures to act, and one reason for these failures is our worry about embarrassment, what others will think of us.” We might take a modest step toward more fulfilling lives, says Bloom, quoting Gilovich, “ ‘if we took stock of a few of Abraham Lincoln’s more memorable words and understood that ‘people will little note, nor long remember’ what we say or do.’ ”

This, Dr. Shafer points out, is reminiscent of an adage: During your teenage years, you were convinced everyone was looking at you and adjusted your behavior accordingly. You turned 25 and still believed that everyone was looking at you, but at that point, you rationalized that you didn’t care and insisted on doing your own thing. Then you turned 50, and you realized no one was ever looking at you.

But even if they were, does it matter?

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and tackle my overflowing sink, lest someone notice my dishes and think of me as dysfunctional.

By the way, the dishes are from three days ago.

Just don’t tell anyone.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 682)

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