And all I gotta do is act naturally
April 15, 2009 7:04 PM   Subscribe

I’d like to solicit some mental tricks or strategies for keeping my self-consciousness under control in face-to-face conversations. I’ve always been extremely self conscious and never really comfortable with myself physically. I don’t mind my looks - I'm of normal weight, well dressed, no obvious physical defects - but I always feel just wrong in space. Lately, my nervousness has been manifesting itself in physical tics that are getting harder to suppress.

Often, whenever I’m speaking with someone face-to-face, especially when I’m listening to them speak, I become obsessed with how I look at the moment. I’m convinced that I have lip crude, nose detritus, a stray bra strap, a stained shirt, smudged eyeliner, dirty nails, ink on my face, or something that will make me look ridiculous. Or I’m convinced that, perhaps because I’m so distracted, I don’t appear interested enough at what my conversant is saying, or that I’m standing funny, or that my face isn’t animated enough.

So I spend the conversation either twitching at these blemishes or folding my arms, staring straight at that person, and occasionally nodding, all the while feeling an overwhelming compulsion to run to the mirror and fix whatever must be wrong with me. My students must think I have a cocaine habit, as I’ve started rubbing my nose frequently throughout my lectures – but what if there’s something there? (There never is. ) While I’m aware that my behavior is less than rational, it’s getting harder to control. And this reaction doesn’t just happen in professional situations. I can be out to dinner with a friend and suddenly feel like I must look wrong to them somehow, and then I can't concentrate on anything else.

I've been accused of vanity by my parents, who noticed that I was drawn to any reflective surface that I passed, but I'm not admiring myself. I just feel the need to fix whatever must be wrong.

People keep seeking me out for conversation, so I must not come across as too much of a freak, but I’m finding in-person interactions to be increasingly exhausting. If anyone else has this sort of anxiety, I’d love to know what sort of methods you use to Get. Over. It. How do you calm yourself down enough to concentrate on, and perhaps even enjoy, conversations?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I can't believe I'm admitting this, but I occasionally have those moments where I'll be talking to someone and I am convinced - convinced! - that there's something on my shirt or face or in my hair and I just about want to crawl out of my skin because I'm so horrified about the possibility. But there is a pretty handy solution that worked/works for me whenever I feel it coming on: I ask myself have you ever given a shit if someone else had a smudge on their face? Have you ever given a shit if someone else had a few dirty nails? Can you even remember a time when you did?

And boom, like that, it's over, because the answer is no, I have never given a shit about those things. No one cares what minor thing may or may not be there on your shirt. They just want you to pay attention to them.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:07 PM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

They just want you to pay attention to them.

I know exactly how you feel, and I honestly don't have great solutions for it, but every single networking or work conversation I have is plagued with this sort of thing. The closest I have come to being able to live with it picks up on what Optimus Chyme says: realizing that everyone else is waaaaayyy more obsessed with themselves than they are with me.

I mean, you are more aware of yourself than of them, right? Well, so are they. Everyone is mainly focused on him- or herself. So you can let yourself off the hook - if they're noticing anything about you, it's probably much less important to them than whether you are interested in what they're saying. I use the trick of asking a lot of questions and letting people talk about themselves to take some of the pressure off myself.

YEah, sometimes I do have a fallen-down zipper or undone button or thing on my cheek. But (a) a lot of people will just nicely tell you and it won't be a judgemental thing; and (b) a lot of people will just plain not notice. And if they are not doing or saying anything to let you know something's amiss, it's pretty safe to assume it's not. And if something IS amiss - well, a nice person will let you know or at the very least be compassionate and not judge you for it. I mean, would you? Just consider what you would do and how you'd feel if a co-worker acted a little nervous or had a pen-mark on her face. You'd laugh it off and sympathize. Most people are willing to do the same for you.

Even so, it's a freaking plague, and I sympathize. I'm constantly asking myself if I'm blinking enough, smiling enough or too much, standing too close, moving too much, touching my face too much, etc. It's kind of crazy; I assume I look like a walking nervous tic, even though I know intellectually things are probably fine. So I hope there are some other good answers forthcoming.
posted by Miko at 8:26 PM on April 15, 2009

I totally sympathize with you. If your anxiety is causing physical problems like tics, it will probably just get worse to the point of causing other more serious problems. I would suggest you talk to a professional. They can either give you some good techniques or some anti-anxiety meds or both to help. I hope you find something that helps.
posted by kittieJen at 10:49 PM on April 15, 2009

I told my boss recently that I'm having to "cultivate the art of not giving a shit" about some things about the job, which is very public. He's awesome and more like an uncle than a boss. He gave me a hug and said something like, "There you go."

I've been doing this same job for almost 6 years now. If my nails are dirty, well, I've been handling plants or cleaning something grungy the evening before, right?

I'm also lucky enough to have comfortable coworkers who will tell me if I have spinach in my teeth or a booger showing. I do the same for them. It's very neutral and in a "just figured you'd like to know" kind of tone. We're all human beings, and no one is perfect all the time. Perhaps if you have a similar relationship with one or more of your coworkers, that might help.

I don't have an official lunch break and work odd morning and afternoon hours, so I often snag a snack or meal and then dive back into the crowd I handle. Food in my teeth, especially if I just grab a quick salad, is one of my obsessions, so I really get what you are saying. I'll even ask my comfortable coworkers or go check it out in a mirror.

I'll tell you this much straight up. Don't worry about the stray bra strap or the ink that may be on your face. If someone gives a flip, they'll likely tell you. But, it will be for your benefit and because they know you might care. All you do at that point is thank them for letting you know.
posted by lilywing13 at 12:37 AM on April 16, 2009

Mmph. Perhaps instead of obsessing over the state of your shirt or whatever, focus on relaxing?

I find that when conversation starts getting spirited I get tense and start twitching (weird fight-or-flight response? I dunno) and the thing that seems to keep it under control if I consciously force myself to relax rather than obsess over the twitch itself, because that just makes it worse. Because the twitch itself is just a symptom, a manifestation of your tension.

And think about it: the human eye is drawn to movement. Even if you have some tiny smudge on the corner of your shirt, the person you're talking to is far less likely to notice if you don't start rubbing it. So you should leave it alone anyway.
posted by Xany at 12:48 AM on April 16, 2009

Try meditating. Seriously.
posted by silentbicycle at 5:07 AM on April 16, 2009

I second what Optimus Chyme said. Most people don't notice you any more than you notice them.

In addition, if you would be open more of an "immersion therapy" approach, consider taking an acting class. One of the happy side-effects I found in my acting class experience was that it gives you an opportunity to practice having conversations. For me, this practice definitely carried over into real-life interactions. Another factor is that you get good at listening to what is going on and, at the same time, discreetly managing both your body and your internal thoughts.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 5:53 AM on April 16, 2009

If your anxiety is causing physical problems like tics, it will probably just get worse to the point of causing other more serious problems.

I don't there's any reason to assume it's going to get worse at all. I've had these reactions all my life and they've gotten better with life experience, not worse. Like all anxieties, they respond pretty well to a rational approach.
posted by Miko at 7:00 AM on April 16, 2009

The closest I have come to being able to live with it picks up on what Optimus Chyme says: realizing that everyone else is waaaaayyy more obsessed with themselves than they are with me.

This. I had a sudden epiphany in Junior High about this when I idly looked down at my feet in the middle of my second-to-last class of the day and noticed I had actually come to school wearing the scuffed-up fake moccasins I used as slippers at home. But the split-second of sheer panic I had was replaced by the realization that -- I had gone through the entire day like that, and no one had noticed. Or, if they had, they hadn't said anything to me.

that's when I realized that people are generally either oblivious, or are very forgiving of the occasional lapse in grooming.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:29 AM on April 16, 2009

I read about a study once (possibly apocryphal but it doesn't really matter) that really helps me let go whenever I'm stressing about my appearance.

A professor had his students keep a diary and grade their appearance every day. If they felt good, had put together a good outfit, etc. they might rate themselves 9 out of 10 that day. If they were feeling blah, had a big zit on their face, or forgot to wash their hair, they might give themselves 3 of of 10. They were also asked to grade their classmates. When they compared the scores students had given themselves with the scores their classmates had given them, they didn't match. Everyone's harshest critic was themselves, no one else had noted their greasy hair or zit and given a lower score. So even though you may feel the person you're speaking to is is surely staring at that zit on your chin, in reality they're obsessing over you judging their mismatched socks.
posted by Rora at 11:38 AM on April 16, 2009

Carry a mirror and check yourself *between conversations*. I purposely bought a reflective celphone so I could check myself discreetly. You could do the same with a watch or pendant.

If an outfit feels unstable, stop wearing it. I hate falling bra straps and migrating shirts. If anything makes me feel uncomfortable i get rid of it. I switched to convertible bras and whenever possible, I cross the straps so they stay up. I tossed all my wedgie-producing underwear. I don't wear stuff that's too small for me. I contort myself a lot in the mirror before I buy something, to make sure it's gonna stay put once I buy it. Life is too short to be uncomfortably rumpled all the time.

Make a habit of stopping off at the washroom after lunch to freshen up, then try to trust that you did a good job. You're not gonna magically sprout a booger an hour after you look in the mirror, unless you're sick.

Also, realize that it doesn't really matter if you have a boog or some crud. People get that all the time and it's not that gross. Happens to everyone. I know lots of sexy people who have bad breath or the odd bit of eye gunk or whatever. It's not that big a deal as long as their general hygiene is good. Shower every morning, shampoo your hair when it's stringy, wear deodorant, brush your teeth 2-3 times a day, and you're probably fine.

One more word of inspiration: dogs run around with their buttholes showing all day, and they poo in public, gross! And yet, everyone loves them and they have lots of fun. Act more like a dog- be enthusiastic about people (quiet, introverted interest also counts as enthusiasm) and people will like you.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:15 PM on April 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

One more word of inspiration: dogs run around with their buttholes showing all day, and they poo in public, gross! And yet, everyone loves them and they have lots of fun.


This is actually pretty profound. I could see this on t-shirts or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:34 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree, what you have said about dogs is quite wise.

Your other advice is good too. As I read that I mentally decided to give away a bunch of clothes that always cause an "uh oh" reaction because of how they wear.
posted by Miko at 2:26 PM on April 16, 2009

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