How can I stop caring so much about what people think of me?
July 18, 2014 1:26 PM   Subscribe

I tend to care about what people think way too much. I get nervous in social situations sometimes to where I feel shakey and out of breath. I can't think straight sometimes when talking to people. I also tend to change the way I act around different people to the point of where I feel disconnected from myself. How can I stop caring so much?

Is it normal to change how you act sometimes around different people? For example, I feel like a slightly different person around my family, friends, and coworkers. I just wish I had more consistency in my personality so I don't feel weird about it.
posted by anon1129 to Human Relations (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, I am a 21 year old female.
posted by anon1129 at 1:27 PM on July 18, 2014

Is it normal to change how you act sometimes around different people? For example, I feel like a slightly different person around my family, friends, and coworkers.

I think this is very, very common, especially for people in your (our) age group. There are things we can say to friends and family, but not to coworkers; different expectations for interacting with people from each of those groups; and each person has unique social needs that can really shape how one interacts with them. I don't think it's possible to entirely remove the subtle nuances in how you act around different people, but you can definitely minimize those differences.

The answer, I think, is self-assurance. Confidence that "being yourself" is sufficient in all social situations, that your input and thoughts are valuable, and that you aren't defined by others' opinions of you. For some of us the whole confidence thing happens organically; for others it's more of a struggle. Have you considered talking to someone about these feelings? I don't even think it has to be a therapist; sometimes just sharing fears and anxieties with close friends can help one overcome problematic thought processes.* Just vocalizing things can be very cathartic.

Definitely know that what you're experiencing is common and totally normal. In fact, if it helps, most people I know are secretly more awkward and weird than they seem. I think it's human to paint "them" as 'normal,' and "us" as kind of weird and awkward. Coming to this realization has really helped me overcome my shyness and (mild) social anxiety, and has made friend-making and socialization 100% more pleasant.

Good luck! :)

*Of course, you also don't want to use or overload your friends, so if this is a more serious problem, please do seek out a professional.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:41 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

For me, the answers were, in order:

-Outgoing friends who didn't judge me (nerdy activities are good for this)
-More exposure to uncomfortable situations, in company of said friends
-More therapy
-Depression meds

Each of these was a little step toward feeling more comfortable in my own skin. And, well, getting older (not all that much older than you) helped.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:41 PM on July 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also: you have time. So much time! Your question history made me see how anxious you're feeling, but also- hey, you ended a five year relationship (which started when you were, what, 16?) like two months ago! Go easy on yourself. You're fine. Way more fine than you probably suspect.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:43 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is it normal to change how you act sometimes around different people?

Absolutely. How I act and express myself to say, my wife, at home, is entirely different that what my cow-orkers ever see, for example. I behave differently at work than when I'm playing volleyball with the rec league than I do when, say I go to court or attend a funeral.

I'm the same person inside, but different contexts have differing expectations for what sides of your personality you are allowed or expected to show, so I'd say its totally normal to change how you act sometimes.

But, you know, this is a skill. Its OK, if it feels weird as you learn how to do it. Eventually, that weirdness should pass.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:53 PM on July 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes. This is normal. The sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about it extensively in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

I think that social network usage makes this a bit more apparent because of what is known as context collapse - all of the people from work, family, varying levels of friends - they're all present on Facebook, so it can be muddy or confusing when we want to present ourselves there. We're forced to recognize or notice or come to terms with this presentation of self a lot more now than we used to be, I think.

If you feel like you are having trouble with this and it really bothers you, journaling can be a very helpful way to get a concrete notion of who you are. I also think that getting some solo hobbies - knitting, reading, playing a musical instrument, gardening - can be a really good way to get to know yourself a bit better.
posted by sockermom at 2:02 PM on July 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm prone to lose my "self" in relationships. Here's what helped me: long walks alone, writing poems, keeping a journal, drawing, reading biographies, talking to a good listener, trying new things with new people and noticing how it feels. As others have said: this is the work for someone you age, and you will repeat it again and again as you move through life. Happy journey- you are not alone!
posted by SyraCarol at 2:03 PM on July 18, 2014

It's very normal to act different around different people. I'm 38 and I've still never acted anywhere close to what I consider "myself" around my parents. At this point I probably never will.

I get nervous in social situations sometimes to where I feel shakey and out of breath.
This is less normal and sounds like an anxiety issue. You don't have to live with this if you don't want to- there's therapy, and there's medication they might recommend.

Good luck!
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:07 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think this is very normal. It's especially normal for someone your age.

Remember that:

1. There is no "right" way to have a conversation or a "right" way to respond. Just say what you're feeling or thinking and go with it.

2. Most people don't think of you at all. They are thinking of themselves. Most people are not judging you or giving you much thought.

3. Be true to yourself and don't pretend you're someone you're not. Example: Let's say you sleep with your dog every night. Don't say you don't just because your friend thinks sleeping with animals is gross. Be okay with who you are. Let your personality shine. You are not defective. People will respect you more.

4. I'm 41 and sometimes feel anxious in social situations. I have felt paralyzed at times and really don't know what to say because I'm anxious. If you find yourself in this situation, ask a question "What did you do today?" "How's work/school going?" "Where did you grow up?" etc. This will get the conversation flowing and hopefully then you will feel less self-conscious.
posted by Fairchild at 2:50 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a quote that I try to keep in mind: "What other people think of you is none of your business". You can tie yourself in knots worrying about what you've said or done, but once you've put it out there it's up to whoever "receives" it to do what they like with it. So try and listen to your inner Self more, and act from that place, rather than the Self that is acting out a certain role - daughter, friend, colleague, whatever - and try to develop a sense of trust in that Self. Meditation might be of help with this.
posted by billiebee at 2:59 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I remember having a lot of anxiety and self-consciousness at 21. It was all rooted in insecurity, and over time, mindfully building self-confidence helped me focus more on the positive aspects of social interaction instead of always being wary that I'm being judged. The process takes time, involves internalizing unconditional self-love, and learning to not take myself too seriously.

I make an effort to be presentable when I face the world, and show kindness and sensitivity to everyone I interact with. That's my only responsibility, everything else is not worth the fuss. How people make their judgments, most of the time, says a lot more about them than about you anyway.

Good luck!
posted by tackypink at 3:06 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I echo many of the suggestions above, but what worked for me miiiight not work for everyone.

I used to be incredibly self-conscious. The turning point was spending time around people I really didn't like. I had coworkers who would give me a hard time for showing up in a button down shirt and not-jeans/not-khakis instead of whatever it was they thought I should wear, they'd give me crap for using "big words" etc.

I hit a moment of realization: I could not physically care any less about what they thought of me. When I realized that, it meant that if I didn't care what they thought, my only concern is what I thought. So I was able to start doing what made me happy and not worrying about what criticisms they might try to toss my way.

That realization grew to include most of the people in the town I lived in (I was very unhappy there), so I stopped caring that I got side-eye when out and not looking/acting like someone felt I "should" look or act. I also took a lot of time to sit and ponder and really figure out what was important to me, and who I really was. It is much easier to have a strong/consistent sense of self if you have figured out what aspects are self, and what aspects are "what I should be"*.

Now that I have moved and am in a much better location, I still get somewhat self-conscious when being around people whose opinions I do care about, but it is MASSIVELY improved. I was able to gain the headspace necessary to prioritize my authentic self above trying to squeeze into a mold created by "should"s. I tend to work from a basis of "be considerate, don't be a jerk", and then my own personal moral compass guides me from there. Beyond that, I try to just be myself and realize that other people are just as stressed.

I am still a bit weirded out when these days people like me and such, and I have that moment of "waiiit, they're not saying "you'd be so ____ if you would only _____", they're not expecting me to change who I am in order to be their friend...they like me for who I am. ...WEIRD"

These days I actually appreciate it when people openly make judgmental comments, because it's a "Wow, thank you for self-selecting out of my life! That's awesome! I know definitively that you're someone I don't need to concern myself with. Have a great day!" thing for me now, instead of worrying about it and feeling bad about myself.

*Where "what I should be" is indicated/pressured/defined by societal/cultural/social (friend group) conditioning, basically outside forces vs internal.

Remembered this when I hit preview: I've found this to be a great reminder of perception vs (probable) reality (SFW) - Particularly the first and second sets of images.
posted by HermitDog at 3:55 PM on July 18, 2014 [10 favorites]

Take an improv class and learn to be comfortable with whatever happens. Get more mature friends. Don't watch a lot of TV (a lot of TV is very judgemental and reinforces that). Eliminate negative and judgmental people from your life. Replace those people with supportive, open-minded friends. Realize that most people are thinking of how they come across and not about you. Stay away from people that talk about others behind their back. Replace the negative media with positive media. Excercise. Develop your own personality by trying thing you like and growing (one of the major things you should do in your 20s!). This will develop confidence. Travel to South America or to a place outside of the US where the people are less judgmental. If you cannot do that, realize the Americans can be very judgmental so you can have perspective.

But really, you are only 21 and developing in to your own takes time and is something that you will slowly acquire. The brain is still growing until around 25, which is around the same age that many people get more comfortable in their own skin. Oh, and take the improv class! It is some of he most fun you can have without clothes on and it can help get you out of your head and just accept whatever comes at you. You might also find you are funny, which is good. People love funny people and want to be around them. (It also helps sometimes smooth things over with bosses and teachers :) Good luck.
posted by eq21 at 4:19 PM on July 18, 2014

First of all it's a GOOD thing to be a social chameleon. You want to be able to adapt yourself to the group you're with. It makes you more comfortable, and them.

One of my friends in high school would buy an outfit, but she's wait a week or so to wear it because her thinking was, "they'll think I got it yesterday and wore it today." Uh, hate to break it to you, but people just aren't thinking that hard about what you're wearing.

Sometimes I think that I wear my favorite outfits too often, then I think, "Gee, what were the people at work wearing yesterday", and I'm a blank. I didn't notice at all! So I don my favorite dress and flounce off.

My point is that people just aren't focusing on you that much, so relax. Divide anything you're experiencing by about 4 and you might approximate what others are thinking.

If you're thinking, "That zit on my forehead is a blinking neon sign!" They're thinking, 'are those Fritos?"

Honestly, just start telling yourself, "I'm cool, but it's not like I'm the center of attention."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:10 PM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

The first thing I was going to ask before seeing your followup was "are you young?" Because I feel like this is definitely something that has gotten better with age. When I was 21, I used to spend hours, days even, ruminating over some perceived slight, or re-playing some embarrassing or awkward event in my head, and thinking of how people perceived me.

I don't know if there is any instant panacea to this type of thinking. I think it just gets better with age, and to some degree might be a personality quirk (overly self-conscious). I'm only 27 now and while it's definitely gotten much better in the past few years, I still get upset about this sort of thing occasionally.

If it helps, I really think that you can't personally do much to change what people think of you, so it doesn't matter what you do anyway. I think preconceptions, stereotypes, and first impressions determine a huge amount of "what people think" about another person, and in most cases it's an uphill battle to do anything to change that.
posted by pravit at 8:01 PM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your experience will be your own, but I agree with the posters above that social anxiety often gets way better with age. Around 26, talking to strangers just got ... easier. I remember being terrified of my public speaking class in college, and now I perform improv. Go figure.

If you're in the market for reading material, I really recommend the anxiety section of Feeling Good. Cognitive behavioral therapy arms you with practical tools you can use to help your brain chill out.
posted by jessca84 at 9:37 PM on July 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I had this problem a lot as a fellow 21 year old female but I agree with those who said that people really think of you very little unless they are close to you or into you (in which case they are probably not thinking bad things about you) so try to keep reminding yourself of that.

Even if you can't shake that thought, know that even if someone random does have a negative thought about you there's almost no chance they will dwell on it for more than a couple of seconds and will probably forget about it themselves.
posted by hejrat at 3:26 AM on July 19, 2014

What helps me is to take multiple moments for myself when I am with other people. I ask myself, "so, how are you?"and I really listen. I focus on how my body is feeling (clenching my fists, hunching my shoulders) and how I am feeling (tense, like I need to entertain and am terrified of failing). It's pure emotion.
Then I talk to myself reasonably about how no one is watching me that closely, my friends will love me even if I don't talk much the next hour etc. I might roll my shoulders unobrusively and breathe more deeply to loosen my body.
To me, it feels like getting a calm time of love and reassurance from myself. It helps me remember how I actually want to be myself. I regroup.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:19 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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