Sometimes a picture of what is going on inside of you is radically different from what others see. Take the simple act of parallel parking a car. No problem for the unself-conscious, but a big problem if you routinely worry about what passersby will think. The task becomes more than a test of spatial sense, motor coordination, and practice. Now you have an audience — imaginary, of course. Maybe your “inspector” is your passenger. He doesn’t identify himself as an inspector, but you perceive him as such. Maybe the observer is a judgmental, critical parent. Maybe you envision a crowd of spectators — again, all in your head — not on the street, like a congregation assembled for the opposite of worship. Of course, each of them is taking notes, taking photos, taking videos and sending them around the world, or so you worry.
None of this is really happening. You are only parking a car. None of this will be remembered by them for more than a minute or a day, assuming they pay you attention at all. None of this weighs heavily on any evaluation of you, will determine your success in life, or prevent any eternal reward for which you hope. In a self-destructive act of creativity, the auto is converted by you into a witness stand and you are on trial, blown up to the size of Cleveland. The image of yourself on the dock is enlarged, as well, by the belief everyone — EVERYONE — will judge you guilty, criticize, and remember. FOREVER!
Here is a selection of troubling, head-bound notions a self-conscious person might experience when preoccupied with the real or the preposterous and unreal observations of others.
- They will realize I’m having a bad hair day. If any of them know me they will recognize I am having a bad hair lifetime. I am unattractive.
- My left eyelid is twitching. It’s like a vampire bat flapping its wings inside my glasses. They will start calling me “Twitcher” or “Batman.”
- My bad side is my left side. Most will see me at my worst.
- I forgot to put deodorant under each armpit this morning. The stink from my pits will carry, depending on how the wind blows.
- I forgot to shine my shoes this week. I’ll get a reputation for bad grooming. OK, they shouldn’t be able to glimpse my feet, but some of them will get pretty close and peer over the car door or use a selfie stick.
- I haven’t been working out. My arms are thin. A beautiful woman will point and laugh.
- I have a big zit on my face. If they look closely the crowd might stare at my large pores, too.
Alright, some of this is drawn to the point of absurdity, but not by much. Catastrophization goes beyond the limits of reason.
The preoccupation with self makes fluent conversation impossible:
- What should I say?
- What if I say … ?
- What will he think if I say … ?
- Will he laugh if I say … ?
- Will he walk away if I say … ?
- Will he tell others if I say … ?
So internally-focused are the self-conscious that what the other does or utters gets lost, makes no impression, or is overestimated as witty and brilliant; or wrongly interpreted as cruel, indifferent, or bored. The reality of the other is distorted. He becomes better than you as well as a potential oppressor: a warrior with the power to crush you or a wished-for lover you will never win to your side. You do not realize who he is: just another human who isn’t monitoring and evaluating your life 24/7, with his own set of flaws, even if they don’t preoccupy him with the malignancy you experience.
Congratulations! You manufactured a monster — an entire population of monsters — who occlude your vision and spew misery from your eyes back to your mind and your mind to your eyes in a perpetual loop.
The imaginary world of self-conscious anxiety prevents relationships where both parties are comfortably at ease, not preempting their speech, not second guessing their words. The extreme of this condition finds the self-inflicting soul afraid to consult a therapist — afraid to reenact the daily agony of human contact at an anticipated higher level of judgement and disapproval by — not simply another person — but an expert on one’s psychological worthiness. For those who reside at this extreme, the prospect of so-called therapy is envisioned as a court trial in which one’s existence would be deemed unworthy: a firing squad for the convicted soul.
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.
In order to enter a counselor’s office, he must first realize (at least at a minimal level) that his sense of being watched and judged is over generalized, applying to too many people too much of the time. He must recognize the world is not made of creatures whose daily agenda is to look at him with contempt or cruelty, but a place full of imperfect individuals just trying to get on with the day.
In the end, if any of us are to experience life satisfaction, we must adjust our vision of humanity and our place in it. Evolution produced the needed capacity to tell friends from enemies, but life is no longer a tribal jungle and we risk misery by thinking we are still in a primitive state of daily peril. The edge of paranoia is not a comfortable resting place. The self-conscious are too easily tempted by the “fight or flight” instincts that permitted our ancestors to survive.
Cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT), in particular, are effective in treating social anxiety and promoting behavioral change. If the sufferer has tried to change himself without success — if he finds the loneliness of self-protective seclusion a poor alternative to life in the mainstream of human contact — then therapy awaits him. He must show up at the doctor’s door in spite of himself.
The counselor’s office is the door to possibility. And what is present behind the door and through the door may be more helpful than he ever imagined.
The uncredited photo comes from an amusing 2013 article in The Onion.