Do you find it hard to focus on anything except how you look, sound, move, or other people’s opinions of you? Do you experience discomfort or anxiety in social situations because you feel like someone else is looking at you and judging you?
Well that is okay, this article will help you understand what self consciousness is, what causes it and how to be less self conscious.
Understanding Self Consciousness
It’s normal to feel a little self-conscious from time to time. Ideally, the feeling passes and we get on with our lives, unhindered by a persistent mental reflection. Unfortunately for many of us, the feeling doesn’t pass so quickly.
We try to put on a brave face and socialize with others, be happy, and even be a source of fun and entertainment among a social group, but just below the surface lies a heavy focus on every little thing we say or do and a fear of being judged or criticized by someone else.
These are symptoms of social anxiety, so it’s important to check in with a doctor or mental health professional to see if your self conscious thought patterns are actually a sign of social anxiety.
Later in this article, we will outline some useful tips and advice to help you stop being self conscious. First, let’s develop a better understanding of what self-consciousness actually is.
What is Self Consciousness?
When you’re self conscious, you typically experience an uncomfortable, heightened awareness of yourself and others’ perceptions of you. People feel self-conscious to varying degrees, similar to other psychological and emotional experiences such as anxiety and paranoia.
A healthy amount of self awareness can make you act more compassionately and considerately toward others. Your awareness of yourself and your vulnerability to your environment may help you realize that others feel the same, and to do something inconsiderate or hurtful to somebody else might also hurt you, because you are an empathic being.
If you were to stroll through your days without caring or having consideration for how your words and actions might affect others, you probably wouldn’t have a happy life. Showing care, consideration, and empathy for others is key to maintaining our social connections, which in turn are key to living a life of happiness and contentment.
Through self awareness, you realize what it must feel like to be another person, and do the best you can to keep everyone safe and happy. Still, there is a difference between self awareness and self consciousness.
If your heightened awareness of yourself keeps you from enjoying your life, you may miss out on some amazing experiences. As such, it’s important to take action and try to reduce the number of self-conscious thoughts you feel on a daily basis.
You don’t need to worry that you’ll completely rid yourself of your self-conscious thinking and lose your empathy in the process, because empathy is deeply ingrained in our nature. Still, there are steps we can take to reduce the impact of self conscious thinking on our mental, emotional, and social well-being.
Why am I So Self-Conscious?
Excessive self-consciousness may stem from your childhood experiences. A famous study carried out in the 1970s examined the nature of self-awareness and self-consciousness in children. The research involved young children, some of whom were under 18 months old, and the rest of whom were older.
In the experiment, the researchers placed some blush in the tip of the children’s noses and placed a mirror in front of them. Most of the children under 18 months had little to no reaction to the blush, suggesting that they weren’t aware of their reflection. The majority of participants above 18 months touched their nose out of curiosity, which suggested that they were aware of themselves in the mirror.
As we grow beyond the infant and toddler years, our self-awareness, and thus our self-consciousness, becomes more apparent. We are not only aware of our appearance, but also of our behaviors, our personal identity, and how we are perceived by others.
Adolescent Self Consciousness
Adolescence (12-17 years) is perhaps the most self conscious period of our lives. We go through a fundamental but challenging self-transformation of the self, in which we discover more about our likes, dislikes, our bodies, our sexuality, and our place in the world. We start to question everything we have been told and start figuring out things for ourselves.
During this vulnerable time, we usually seek approval, validation, and acceptance from our peers, rather than from our parents or other family members as we did in our early childhood. Peer acceptance and support become a priority, and any sign of non-acceptance, rejection, or exclusion can be heart-wrenchingly painful.
We become careful about what we say, and to whom we say it. We watch our behavior out of fear of being ridiculed or bullied, because going through such an experience might lead to social isolation, which can be extremely damaging to an adolescent’s mental and emotional health and well-being.
Adult Self Consciousness
As we enter adulthood, we generally become less self-conscious. That is not to say we become less self aware, but we tend to worry, obsess, and ruminate far less over how others perceive us. Of course, we retain some degree of self-conscious thinking even in adulthood, but it is typically less overwhelming than it was during adolescence.
Still, while self-consciousness typically lessens as we enter adulthood, this is not the case for some. Some, in fact many, people experience self conscious thinking patterns throughout their lifespan.
‘Concern for one’s behavior, acute awareness of the self as a social object, knowledge of internal and external attributes of the self, and introspection all characterize self-consciousness in adults’, explains Prof. Allan Fenigstein, self consciousness researcher and chair of the psychology department at Kenyon College, Ohio.
Self Consciousness Theory: Public Vs. Private Self
Fenigstein and colleagues conducted in-depth research on the nature of self consciousness and how it manifests in adults. They developed their self-consciousness theory, which suggests that there are two distinct types of self conscious experience: public and private.
The theory poses that some of us are more likely to direct our self-conscious thinking patterns toward aspects of our private lives, while others are more inclined to direct this type of thinking toward their public lives.
The ‘public self’ in self consciousness theory views the self as a social object, while the ‘private self’ is believed ‘to encompass cognitions, emotional states, and intentions.’
The Public Self
Fenigstein’s research suggests that those who are self-conscious about the public self are more likely to experience heightened interpersonal sensitivity, which influences the way we think, our sensitivity to rejection, level of social anxiety, and degree of paranoia experienced.
The Private Self
In contrast, those who are more self conscious about the private self are likely to experience generalized anxiety, depression, excessive rumination, and social withdrawal.
What Causes Self Consciousness?
Some psychologists suggest that self conscious personality and thought patterns originate in childhood trauma. Traumatic experiences in childhood, known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can make you feel bad about yourself because they lead to low self-esteem and low self-worth.
Examples of traumatic experiences in childhood include, but are not limited to:
- Loss of a parent
- Physical, verbal, or sexual abuse
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Exposure to substance use in the home
- Incarceration of a family member
- Living with a mentally ill caregiver
Big T’s and Small t’s
It is important to note that there are both ‘big’ and ‘small’ traumas (known as “big T’s” and “small t’s”.) The experiences mentioned above are all examples of “big T’s”. Examples of small t’s include:
- Bullying or teasing
- Parental separation
- Financial struggles in the home
- Lack of care and affection from a caregiver
The terms ‘big’ and ‘small’ do not necessarily refer to how important an experience was, but big T’s are those which are more likely to lead to mental health conditions such as depression, eating disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Inner Critic
Emotional difficulty at a young age can create a harsh inner critic, or inner voice, that we carry into our adult years. This inner critic feeds us with negative self talk, and makes us feel like we can’t control what we think.
You could be getting along with your day happily in one moment, but in the next notice that you’re nervous, worried, and as though there’s a spotlight on you. This spotlight can be overwhelming and can make you feel awkward and uncomfortable.
Does Being Self-Conscious Mean I Have a Mental Health Condition?
Self conscious thinking is strongly related to common mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. While worrying about others’ opinion of you and ruminating about yourself are not entirely indicative of a mental health condition, if you are constantly self conscious to the point that it’s getting in the way of your life, you may be struggling with anxiety and depression and could benefit from speaking to a therapist.
Self conscious thought patterns are common among people with social anxiety. Social anxiety is more than just feeling shy – it is a persistent fear or worry that others are watching and judging you negatively.
If you do struggle with social anxiety, know that you are not alone. This is one of the most common mental health conditions worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Anxiety disorders are extremely common, affecting over 40 million U.S adults every year. Depression is also one of the most common mental health issues across the globe – it’s estimated that around 264 million people suffer from depression in a given year.
Low self-esteem is common to both depression and anxiety and is closely linked to negative self talk and self conscious feelings. Anxiety can lead to excess rumination over perceived flaws in yourself, which soon becomes unhealthy.
If you frequently experience self conscious thoughts, you may form a cycle of negative thinking. Your mind will produce more and more related thoughts because you may have formed a habit of thinking that way.
These thoughts perpetuate themselves and can grow so strong that they seem to never go away. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to help you feel less self conscious thoughts and prevent those thoughts from taking over your life.
How to Be Less Self Conscious
Understandably, you want to stop being self conscious. There is a paradox here, because you may feel self conscious about feeling self conscious, given that thinking in such a way can have some negative consequences.
For example, if your negative inner critic tells you that you’re not funny or attractive enough to get along well at an upcoming party, you might not go and decide to stay home instead. Over time, you might continue to avoid situations in which you’d feel self conscious.
Eventually, your self-inflicted isolation would make it harder for you to socialize at parties, which could make you self conscious, which in turn might make you want to stay home. So, how do you overcome self conscious thinking and prevent it from getting in the way of your life?
1. Understand Yourself
One of the most effective steps to help you stop being self conscious is to identify what exactly you’re self-conscious about. Is it how you look? The way you speak? Your level of intelligence or literacy? Make a list of things that trigger your self-conscious thoughts.
2. Keep a Journal
Write it down in a journal and elaborate on those feelings. In your writing, consider where these thoughts and beliefs might have come from.
Journaling is an excellent tool to help you increase your self-awareness without increasing your self-consciousness. Your journal is just for you, not for anyone else, so you don’t need to worry about writing well or getting to a particular point. As long as you understand what you’re writing about and it comes from a genuine place inside, that’s all that matters.
After you’ve written a journal entry, read back over it. Consider what actions you can take to change your triggers. Try not to avoid a social situation or certain triggers just to stop feeling self-conscious. While sometimes you might need to cut certain people or things out of your life, too much avoidance can lead to isolation, which isn’t good for your mental health.
3. Record Yourself
If you’d rather not write a journal, try making a voice note on your phone. Speak to it like a journal or diary, and when you listen back to it after, imagine what you would say to the person speaking if you were going to give them any helpful advice – record that too, and listen back.
4. Practice Challenging Your Thoughts
When we have self-conscious thoughts, we’re usually worrying that other people will affirm the negative beliefs we already have about ourselves.
For example, if you’re insecure and feeling self conscious about your weight, and you tell yourself that your weight relates to your self-worth, then if someone comments on your weight you’re likely to get very upset and even more self conscious.
Your negative thoughts about your weight create the belief that being even a little bit overweight is inherently bad. Your focus is ready to pick up on any cues to confirm your negative self-belief, as soon someone says anything about your weight.
When such insecurities come up, try not to fight or suppress them, but you don’t have to fully accept them either. Imagine that the thought itself is ridiculous. Challenge your negative inner voice with a positive, supportive one. Understand that your inner critic is not your friend, is not the ‘truth’, and you don’t have to accept and believe everything it says.
5. Check in with Reality
You might come to believe that you know what everyone else thinks about you, but how could you?
One of the most important things to realize when you are self conscious is that people aren’t thinking about you as much as you think they are. How much do you judge other people for tiny flaws, the way they spoke, or how they look?
The answer is more than likely, not very much. You might notice something about someone, but you don’t hold onto it. The same applies to other people about you.
Most of us are far too caught up with our own lives and what’s going on in our own heads to give a second thought to your perceived flaws. Even when you think people are judging you, they are more than likely dealing with their own self conscious thoughts.
6. Check Your Baggage
If something suddenly makes you feel self conscious, and you feel like you want to withdraw or sink into yourself, consider if your reaction is proportionate to the severity of the trigger. If it’s disproportionate (you’re having a bigger reaction than is objectively reasonable), that may indicate that something left unprocessed from your past has been triggered.
Often, we carry past emotional baggage into our daily experiences. It’s important to understand your baggage and recognize when it has been triggered because if you don’t, you risk reacting to situations today without a clear mind and grounded response, which can hinder your well-being and your relationships.
7. Practice Building Your Confidence
Self confidence is one of the most valuable life skills you can develop. People who are frequently self conscious may believe that confidence is a natural, inherent trait – that you’re born with it or you’re not. This is far from the truth.
Confidence can be learned. As with any other skill, learning it takes practice. You will make some mistakes along the way, but mistakes are part of the process.
To help yourself gain confidence, focus on your goals, progress, and personal achievements. Set realistic, achievable goals for yourself.
If you’re too ambitious, you might set the bar too high and fail to reach your own expectations. Setting the bar too high can set you up for failure, which doesn’t do much for your self-esteem.
Instead, use the SMART acronym to set more realistic goals:
Your goal should be clear and specific. What exactly do you want to achieve, and why do you want to achieve it? Focus on achieving a clearly defined goal.
Track your progress by allocating numbers to your goals. How much work towards your goal can you get done in a day? Or a week?
If you want to be successful in reaching your goal, it needs to be achievable. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and feeling bad when you don’t live up to them, set goals that you know you can achieve.
To stay consistent and motivated with your goal, you need to make sure it’s relevant. Why does this goal matter?
Set a deadline for your goal. It doesn’t have to be too soon, but make sure you set a deadline that’s going to motivate you to work towards achieving your goal every day.
When you set SMART goals and begin to see more personal achievement, your self-esteem will skyrocket. Working on your confidence by achieving goals that matter to you takes a lot of power away from the harsh inner critic that makes you feel self conscious.
8. Practice Self Acceptance
Many of us find it difficult to accept ourselves as we are. We love and enjoy the ‘good’ parts of ourselves, such as our humor or our kindness, but we reject the ‘bad’ parts of ourselves such as our anxieties, fears, and shortcomings.
A key factor in overcoming your self conscious thoughts is to practice accepting yourself fully. When you have a negative self-view, it’s easier for your inner critic to make you feel bad. However, if you shift your focus to a more positive self-view, you will likely experience far less self conscious thoughts.
9. Redirect Your Attention
If you find yourself in the midst of anxiety because your self conscious thoughts have taken over, try to redirect your attention to something else. It could be something simple such as a painting on the wall or the design of a plate! Pay attention to it, notice the colors, the shapes, and the textures.
The trick is to distract yourself from your self conscious thoughts by placing your attention on something outside of yourself. While it may not be a permanent fix, it shows that your self conscious thoughts are not that important.
10. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
One of the most effective ways to stop being self conscious is to step outside of your comfort zone. Nothing builds confidence like trying new things, meeting new people, or learning a new skill. Stepping away from comfort and achieving success as you do it boosts your confidence significantly, which goes a long way in helping you feel less self conscious.
The Bottom Line
We hope that this article has helped you better recognize your self conscious thought patterns and provided you with some useful tools and skills to stop your negative inner critic from making you feel bad about yourself.
Remember that if you need extra support, it’s a good idea to talk to a professional therapist. Talking to a therapist can help you better manage criticism and stop getting lost in other people’s opinions. In therapy, you get the chance to address the root causes of your self conscious thought patterns and work on healing from them from the inside out.