Setting the Stage
In May 2019, I had the unique opportunity to join the incredibly talented performer, Alex Economou, on stage during his nationwide concert. I was there to accompany him on the piano for a song I had written for him, titled “Daisy.”
This rare experience for an amateur songwriter like me to play one of my own songs live quickly turned into a battleground of my own self-conscious thoughts. “My hands are visibly trembling,” I thought in panic. “Are those people in the first row smiling at me or laughing at me?” When I missed a note, my mind raced: “I’ve completely botched it. Everyone must be noticing the sweat on my face…”
Self-Consciousness and Neuroticism
This internal monologue was a classic case of the anxiety and nervousness stemming from heightened self-consciousness. While self-awareness is frequently celebrated as a fundamental component of emotional intelligence and spirituality, self-consciousness is more commonly associated with heightened self-examination that can lead to negative emotions such as social anxiety.
In fact, heightened self-consciousness is a key component of the neuroticism trait in the Big Five personality test, a widely-accepted framework in psychology for assessing personality traits. This test, extensively used in the corporate world, helps to illuminate how such traits can impact our professional and personal lives.
To put it more plainly and bluntly, it seems that the more you think about yourself, the more miserable you become.
While it is almost impossible (and often counter-productive) to try to block your thoughts, here are a few tried and tested ways to use to mitigate the social anxiety linked to self-consciousness.
Alleviating Heightened Self-Consciousness
Being of service
Shifting focus from thinking about our selves to thinking, caring about and serving others enhances connectedness and purpose. Consider a social party. Instead of being constantly preoccupied with whether you are dressed properly, if your left arm is longer than your right or if the buffet will fit your dietary requirements, try to make another person feel comfortable instead by being interested in their own experience, story and personal circumstances. This shifts the focus outwardly and helps ameliorate enhanced self-focus.
As a more general point, looking after our appearance, health, and wellbeing boosts confidence and reduces preoccupations about how we feel, how we look and how others view us. Hitting the gym or working out consistently, dressing properly, attending to our hygiene and eating a balanced diet can tick some of the proverbial boxes and alleviate some of the worries as to how we feel or how we look.
Developing Skills and Knowledge
Enhancing expertise in areas that cause stress and self-doubt can significantly reduce anxiety. The more competent we feel, the less likely we are to worry about others’ perceptions.
Similarly, the more we engage in social events the more we exercise our social skills and the less inclined we become to withdraw from social circles. The opposite holds true too: avoiding social situations to avoid feeling discomfort due to self-consciousness only makes the problem worse as the more we withdraw from others the more our social skills wither leading to a downward spiral of isolation, withdrawal and thus more anxiety.
Embracing Flow: Losing our sense of ‘Self’
Another vital component in ameliorating anxiety linked to heightened self-consciousness is immersing ourselves in stimulating experiences that generate a state of ‘flow.’ This concept, popularized by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to becoming so engrossed in an activity that we lose track of time and self-consciousness: we lose our sense of ‘self’ altogether.
Activities like skiing, tennis, rock climbing, painting, playing sports, or even tackling challenging tasks at work can trigger this state. Not only do these flow experiences provide a break from the cycle of self-focused thoughts, but they also enhance our skills and contribute to a sense of achievement and fulfillment. Action cures fear and engaging in stimulating challenges can help as ameliorate stress and anxiety.
Conclusion: Embracing a Holistic Approach
Finding balance involves not just shifting focus outward but also building self-confidence through skill enhancement, immersion in stimulating experiences and self-care. While it’s crucial to be self-aware, constantly thinking about ourselves and obsessing over how we look, feel or are perceived often leads to stress. Instead, fostering an outward focus, honing our abilities, engaging in stimulating activities and caring for our wellbeing creates a more fulfilling and anxiety-free life.
P.S.1: Post-performance, when I shared my ruminating thoughts while on stage with my wife and friends, their reaction was one of surprise – they hadn’t even noticed that I was stressed. This illustrated a profound truth: our self-focused anxieties are often unnoticed by others.
P.S.2: Dive Deeper in My Book For the full story of my stage experience plus for more insights on some of the key concepts mentioned above including the concept of flow and finding balance, the 2nd Edition of my book “The MARVEL of Happiness: Principles, Stories, and Lessons for Living Fully” that has been recently published offers a comprehensive exploration.