22 thoughts on “What Does Self-Consciousness Feel Like? The Imaginary World of the Insecure and Socially Anxious

  1. “The self-conscious transform themselves into the shape of a serpent who twists anxiously until he knots himself into a state of unendurable pain. Then, finding the suffering too much, this self-disparaging human devours his capacity for joy starting at the head.”

    That is quite a visual you painted!

    The self-conscious may live in an “imaginary world”, but it’s a world that was created by their life experiences, by real people and real events. Self-consciousness is a deep desire to be accepted but knowing from past occurrences that you won’t be if you show your true self.

    Self-consciousness is not about bad hair days or nose hair or shiny shoes, but a lot more about that group of questions you posed which run through one’s head before putting oneself in front of people.

    It is a feeling of not measuring up, actually more than a “feeling”, it’s knowing you don’t and that others will see how inferior you are and judge you harshly for it. It is a wish for the earth to open up and swallow you rather than to be watched by multiple eyes or to be heard by multiple ears. It’s being embarrassed with who you are and knowing you will usually come up short in others’ opinions of you. It’s a form of self-protection from this certainty of their judgement, the only way to preserve and shield whatever small amount of self-worth may still live inside you.

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    • Thank you for this. I believe it underlines the internal dilemma I’ve tried to describe: that what seems “certainty” is often an illusion. Granted, past experience contributes to it mightily and some people who have significant intellectual or physical limitations are quite justified in believing they are wanting in what is needed to be accepted. For most, however, this is not the case. I agree with the notion that great pain is a part of life, but if one is to have any significant measure of life satisfaction, one must see the other side and fight against a self-defeating and defeated self-protectiveness. Those who don’t are simply passing the time, not “living.” The emotional “knots” I’ve described are waiting to be untied. The “real people and real events” have surely caused the pain you describe, but they are also interpretable so that one can learn from them and perhaps change in one’s approach to people and events to increase the chance of a future good outcome. I know this is asking a lot, but the alternative is (for most) less hopeful. It accepts the human condition as awful, beginning to end. I am no Pollyanna, but I have seen people make heroic efforts to change their life and not accept the guilty verdict life also offers. I wish it were easier for everyone and accept that it is not. I am sympathetic to your dilemma, but not ready to throw in the towel on the fight life sometimes seems to offer to those who are particularly insecure and self-conscious.

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  2. One of the few things about myself that I maintain with pride is that I am “the world’s greatest parker.” And, don’t think I refrain from letting everyone know about it as their eyes roll.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Well, sometime we should have a competition, Joan! Unfortunately, I now have a car which prevents me from seeing where the front starts and the back ends, so I am no longer able to park with the facility of the past.

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  3. C’mon Gerry. You’re just trying to get out of the ultimate park-off!

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  4. drgeraldstein

    You’ve found me out, Joan!

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  5. “The self-conscious transform themselves into the shape of a serpent who twists anxiously until he knots himself into a state of unendurable pain. Then, finding the suffering too much, this self-disparaging human devours his capacity for joy starting at the head.”
    ~ Powerful imagery and spot on!
    ~ I must admit that whenever I forward my work to the other members in my writers critique group, I suffer a bout of self-conscious anxiety regarding their possible response.

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    • drgeraldstein

      We are pretty much built to notice and value the opinions of others. Those ancestors who didn’t were voted off the island! Thanks for your kudos and, for what it is worth, here is a vote in favor of your excellent writing and passionate defense of “the good,” as represented on your blog.

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  6. The older I get, the less I care, and this has made the spider veins and enlarged pores well worth it! Life as a teenage girl was just exactly captured by your terrible snake image. Sheesh, all the radiant skin and natural muscle tone in the world could get me to go back to age 13. Cheers to not giving a shit what judgmental people think and recognizing that most people are too self-involved to judge us the way we fear 🙂

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  7. slowmovinglife

    Dr. Stein,

    At issue for me when walking into a therapist’s office is not JUST what she/he may or may not think of me (i.e. judge me) but what I think of myself. I am my most profound and harsh critic. I am a failure as a man. I am a failure as a father. I am a failure as a husband. I am a failure as a son. These are all roles that I am terrible in performing in with any measure of success. I know that I am a failure because of the criteria that I have set for myself that would serve to demonstrate success; measurements which stem from others (role models) who have been successful .

    Now, I can look at another man and see that I am unattractive, lacking in the features and body-type that others find appealing. This isn’t to say that I am seeking folks’ who will lavish me with words and encouragement or have women fawning all over me. To the contrary/ I look in the mirror and see something that others (who do tell me that I am attractive, etc.) can’t see – all of my flaws. My nose is too large, broad, narrow, etc. My eyes are the wrong color. My jaw is too prominent. The physical scars of a rough and tumble childhood are too visible on my face,. etc. I am hideous.

    Having spent a number of my adult years as an obese man, I bear the reminders of what that did to my body. Though today, I am highly physically fit, I still see that disgusting physical appearance (I am not judging others…this is just ME) that is coupled with the disgusting emotional condition that I was in at that time that allowed me to damage myself.

    I had a fantastic therapist who helped me through so much emotional pain several years ago. It took me several visits (a few months) before I trusted him with myself enough to open up and expose all of this. He became a dear friend (limited to office visits, of course) that allowed me to let go while also teaching me to hold myself accountable and in check. Years after he retired, I stopped my therapy, thinking that I was good to stand on my own two feet (I was for a few years) and then things started to happen.

    Two years ago, I did something that I swore that I would never do. I was never THAT man. I was never someone that was capable of being susceptible to having an affair. I met someone who shared some commonalities. She reached into my heart at a very vulnerable moment and helped me see myself. We opened to each other. After a while, we fell in love with each other. There is much to this story but in looking back, I see how I held a lot of myself back from her – afraid that she would discover all of my failures. Dr. Stein, I wanted to leave my wife for her and yet I was withholding myself from her – afraid that she wouldn’t like all of me. That she would see my flaws and leave me. In doing this, I did show a flaw that I didn’t know that i had – a lack of integrity. I cheated on my wife to share myself with her. I lied to my wife rather than confess my love for this woman. In doing so, I lied (omission of the entire truth) to my lover. Now, with my integrity destroyed with her, I have lost her, confirming that I am a failure.

    This woman who also struggles with self-consciousness – is the most beautiful human that I have ever met. Her beauty lies in her heart (her compassion for humanity) and her unbounded capacity to love (me). It saddened me to hear her words that would describe non-existent flaws in her physical beauty (she is, by far the most beautiful woman I have ever seen) her eyes, lips, nose, cheeks, body, hair. I want to fall asleep with her in my arms and wake beside her every day for the rest of my life. I want to listen to her joys, successes, sorrows, hurts. I want to watch this woman be the mother that she is for her kids. I want to love, encourage, support and care for her in all that she does. I want to see her stand on her feet and reach for the stars (and lay hold of them). I love her with all of my heart.

    I am stuck in a place – one that is bordered with self-consciousness and judgement. What is everyone who I care about going to say when I leave my family? What would my love say? She and I never wanted to start a relationship by leaving two others in shambles. Yet, she did that for herself and for me. I didn’t take that step when she did and it hurt her (and me). My integrity is in pieces. My wife knows about my affair and we have been talking through what to do with it. We have been trying to sort through how and when to end things. We have been discussing how to care for our kids. There have been moments where we found ourselves enjoying each others’ company and been civil, like a real married couple. Then, the reality roars back and the animosity follows suit. I am that failure of a man, father, husband, friend.

    This is a rhetorical question,how do I move past this level of self-consciousness – when I KNOW that it is truly self-awareness and truth about myself? How do I overcome what is so damaging and stifling?

    Perhaps I should have been more self-conscious when i first met this beautiful woman with whom I had an affair? Even she suggested that it was this condition (in concert with other situations) that opened me up to an affair?

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    • drgeraldstein

      I am sorry you are in great, great pain. Your standards for yourself appear to permit no human errors. I treated quite a few people — good people — who did not set out to have affairs or harm others, but did. One question you might ask yourself is whether to return to therapy? Another is what might be required to forgive yourself? A third consideration is whether your role models are really as perfect as you think or perhaps only look to be from the outside? Finally, what might you do to redeem your failures, to give them meaning, and to give your life value going forward? Best of luck with all this.

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      • slowmovinglife

        Thank you for your reply.

        The great pain is multi-dimensional. I hurt this woman that I fell in love with. It was entirely unintentional and it was the result of my indecision. I hurt someone so special to me and it causes such hurt within me to know that I was capable of doing this.

        I am also hurting for what I did to my wife kids and how much it pours out of her in every single encounter. The guilt and shame (only from my hurting, betraying and lying to her) is so difficult to accept that *I* was capable of this. I value my integrity and honesty: it is what kept me sane and stable through other rough patches in my life. And yet, I devolved into this and accepted it. I went as far as to try to convince myself that being in love with this beautiful person was NOT cheating – especially considering that she is my soulmate (I know this to be true). What a fool, I am.

        I did return to therapy and I am with a new counselor who I am not entirely comfortable with. Even still, I decided that it was better to be lacking in comfort with him and to just rip the band-aid off and spill my heart and mind. It hasn’t been great, but it has helped.

        I can’t afford human errors. I am a parent – a father. My kids need to see someone rise above challenges and hardship. I want to leave my wife and follow my heart to my love (but I doubt that she’d ever open her heart to me – she most-likely hates me). I want to live honestly again and entirely for myself. Moving ahead is what I want to do and yet I am in a rut; trapped by my fears of failing on all levels.

        My role models were fallible and I understand this. What they did with their weakness and failures is far different than what I did with mine.

        I strive to understand what I look like from within. What do I want to do with myself? How do I want to succeed in life? I am learning to be patient with myself yet those whom I care most about are not patient with me and my timing.

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  8. drgeraldstein

    None of us can afford errors with those we love, yet we make them. I don’t want to dismiss the seriousness of your situation. Questions you might wish to answer for yourself: How have you gotten past other difficult moments? How have you survived and thrived in the past? What qualities have you relied upon? Do you still have those admirable human qualities within you? Is there anything of value in your being? What you’ve offered above is the snapshot of a man in a very difficult moment, but someone with an astonishing ability to look in the mirror and take responsibility. I have known many individuals who could not and cannot do so. Perhaps you will yet learn from this and prosper, and those who have been hurt will also survive and have resilience. It does not sound as though the story is over.

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    • slowmovinglife

      The story is unwritten, to be sure. I have my moments of seeing the lighted road ahead and yet the darkness tries to enclose around me. The pain of loss (the woman I fell in love with, my integrity, trust from my kids, etc.) is so harsh. I have to do as you suggest, look back at what has worked. I have my therapy appointment this afternoon and I will take time to consider what I wrote and your responses in preparation for today.

      You touched on something – is there anything of value in my being? When the woman I fell in love with broke things off, I was in the midst of the realities of the ripple-effects on my marriage and family. The shame was overwhelming and I left my home for two weeks, woefully unprepared for making a full-departure from my marriage. During those times, I began to spiral into an old, tired and familiar place that (in the past) led me to make an attempt on my life. The voices grew in volume and frequency and I fought them off. I heard the voice of my love cutting through – words that still echo inside my heart. She taught me to find value in myself (even though she struggled, similarly for years) and I did. She was the only person who ever saw in me who I am (though now, she believes otherwise). She encouraged me and helped me to find the parts of me that were locked away for decades. When she left me, I suffered the loss of her uplifting and encouraging love. She has abandoned me and it is my fault that she felt this need to do so.

      I press onward with hope for me, my kids, her and her kids. I am foolish enough to have hope that one day, the two of us will find each other again, but without all of the encumbrances and hurts.

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  9. drgeraldstein

    What she found in you is, I suspect, in you still. It does not reside in her or her current opinion, as much as you wish to retrieve her. Hang in there.

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    • slowmovinglife

      I don’t know what remains in me. The waves of doubt are stronger than the waves of self-confidence. Guilt is a terribly powerful force to be reckoned with. I do wish to retrieve her but as I am the abandoned, I wish that she would retrieve me. Being thrown away does have a seriously damaging impact on seeing value in myself.

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      • drgeraldstein

        For sure. Nonetheless, whatever she saw remains. Keep battling. Your courage is evident.

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      • slowmovinglife

        Thank you, Doc.

        I had a very good session with my therapist yesterday and I spoke about what led to my affair and about my self-consciousness. I won’t denigrate my love (for the woman I fell in love with) and downplay it as the result of feeling bad about myself, but I can see how what I don’t like about me contributed to me being opened up to something that I wouldn’t have otherwise given in to.

        Thank you for allowing me to think out loud on your post. I promised my love that I would not blog about me or us as it has been counter-productive. Instead, I have followed my therapist’s advice and am actually keeping a frequent, private journal.

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  10. drgeraldstein

    Thanks for letting me know how the session went. I was hoping you would. I’m delighted to hear that it was productive. All the best.

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  11. Your post makes me feel self-conscious about being self-conscious… though that was never your intention of course…. 😉

    I agree with the 1st person who commented, that being self-conscious comes from having actually, really, harshly been rejected too many times.

    But I also agree that we should stop seeing ourselves as the victims of that, and instead work hard on having an outward focus.

    One of my biggest disappointments in myself is that my self absorbsion has made me cynical, narcissistic even. But it also feels sort of good to be able to realize it at least, and to work on getting better.

    I like “harsh”-ish posts like this, that challenges me, thanks for the post.

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