What to do about excessive self-consciousness?
June 26, 2006 8:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm incredibly self-conscious and I don't know what to do about it.

I wasn't always this way, though it started when I was pretty young (I'd say around the beginning of middle school or so.) For what it's worth in terms of understanding my situation, I've been diagnosed as high-functioning autistic by three different doctors, including a long and complicated evaluation, so I'm reasonably sure there's something going on there.

This self-consciousness just gradually developed as I committed faux pas after faux pas, completely inadvertently. I usually have the intelligence to figure out why said faux pas was what it was after the fact, but strangely this does not translate into any sort of predictive intelligence about these things. I'm acutely aware of my inability to predict them, and it leads me to be constantly afraid of screwing up, to the point that I don't go out and do things because I'm too scared by this feeling of utter powerlessness to navigate social situations. My measure of myself is warped; I can't get a good read on what my good points are (I generally de-emphasize them in favor of focusing on my weaknesses. Sometimes the pendulum swings the other way and I overestimate myself.)

The balanced, relaxed perspective that comes with confidence completely eludes me. I'm uncomfortable in my own skin, all day, every day. I'm constantly stressed and I can't relax. I don't really have anyone I can talk to about it, either; most of the answers I've gotten in the past have been well-meaning but useless advice in the vein of "don't care what others think/be yourself/etc." like it's something I can just do at will. It's not. And I have no idea how to even begin working toward it. Every time I manage to convince myself that my screwing up in some disastrous way is not a foregone conclusion, it happens and I'm that much more reluctant to venture out the next time.

I realize that a good answer to this may be "get thee to a therapist"; however, I have no health insurance at the moment and I won't until the fall. It's on my list of things to do when I'm able, but I can't do anything about it right now.

With the (copious, sorry, but I felt it was necessary and am still not sure it's even enough to convey what I'm feeling accurately) background out of the way, my question: how do I stop second-guessing everything I do? How do I relax? If you were acutely self-conscious and overcame it somehow, what worked for you?
posted by Kosh to Human Relations (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm extremely self-conscious too. I've learned to cope with it (perhaps badly) by becoming an excellent listener. Not only does keeping your mouth shut leave fewer opportunities for screwups, it also endears you to your conversational partner, so when slip-ups do happen, they're easily forgiven.

Also, I'm a speech therapist and I work with students with autism who have similar problems with social situations. It's called a pragmatic disorder. If you just want to increase your understanding of social situations and cues, you might want to find a speech therapist, or contact the Communicative Disorders department at your local university. I'm not sure if they could help you since I don't know your status, but it might be worth a shot.
posted by christinetheslp at 8:52 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

One piece of useful advice: join a science fiction club, or somewhere else populated by nerds. I'm quite serious. The thing about nerds is (a) many of them are *more* socially inept than you are (trust me, really), and (b) so long as you are a decent person, nerds are incredibly forgiving of social faux pas. Also, much of these clubs are built around playing board games and other activities where there is a pretty clearly defined social setting where it will be harder for you to make mistakes, and there will be less for you to worry about.

And keep going.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 8:56 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would take an improv class or join a group. I don't mean to minimize your condition or say you don't need any real (medical) help.

But improv basically forces you out of your own skin, forces you to listen and approach strange situations with confidence. I took a small class with a tight-knit group, and saw a lot of people come out of their shells. It was a great experience.
posted by sweetkid at 8:57 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

The easy answers are to stop caring so much and to hang out with less judgmental people. Without knowing you and your situation better it is hard to say more. Everyone does or says things they regret, or makes jokes that bomb. If it really happens a lot, and the crowd is not overly critical then perhaps you want to dial back your exuberance a notch. However, without knowing more who can say whether these things are real, or whether the audience is overly critical or what?
posted by caddis at 8:58 PM on June 26, 2006

Self-consciousness comes from low self-esteem and low self-esteem comes from social avoidance. The only solution is to be willing to make a fool of yourself and love it. Who but a strong person, would be willing to look foolish. Love the pain of making social mistakes, and eventually it will cease to be a pain. I just read the biography of Warren Buffett, like his pal Bill Gates, he is another high functioning autistic. Buffett loved telling stories of his social ineptness. Once at a fancy dinner the woman next to them, asked him to help her cut her meat. He thought she was coming on to him, so he ignored her. At the end the meal, he realize she had cast on her arm. The great actor, Alastair Sim's got over his performance anxiety by accepting he was a fool and always would be a fool. You probably do make social mistakes, but you are way overestimating how cool you have to be to get others' approval, and way underestimating how bad you have to be before people reject you. Try to purposely to look foolish at a minimum of once a day and love the discomfort, and kill it with kindness. Bad feelings need love too
posted by zackdog at 9:18 PM on June 26, 2006 [9 favorites]

I would recommend checking out the Social Anxiety & Phobia workbook. It helped me deal with my social anxiety a bit as well as my self-consciousness.
posted by tastybrains at 9:20 PM on June 26, 2006

Good comments above. Now for something that may or may not appeal to you (but it fits the "can't afford therapy" criterion well).

Ever hear of Design Patterns? I think it started as a book, and now it's just a concept. It's the idea that a good coder (or software engineer, or whatever) should not come up with new ideas that don't matter. Example: when you need to do a sort, you should have several different types of sort methods memorized (or at least know where to look 'em up) and compare the various methods' advantages, rather than figuring out from scratch how to sort stuff. That's an extreme example, but Design Patterns is about recognizing common situations and knowing how to respond.

Similarly, I have two Aspie/HFA friends (and I've heard of others doing this) who made a conscious effort to write - even just mentally - their own Design Patterns for Social Interaction. Rules starting with the perhaps more obvious, "when someone asks how you're doing, the acceptable response is {good|fine|can't complain} rather than {my dog died|I'm behind on the rent|who the hell are you}" and then gradually building to more complex situations.

That may or may not be helpful for you - but even if you don't want to be that explicit about it, do analyze. When you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself what it is specifically that you're afraid of, and why. When you're in a social situation that goes poorly - or even moreso, one that goes well - do a post-mortem afterwards and think about the things that you did well, the things you could improve on, and the things that others did well or could improve on.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:38 PM on June 26, 2006

My partner tends to over-analyse the embarrassing things she's done and said to people, to the extent that it often keeps her up at night. The thing is, I am with her a lot of the time in social situations and I have no clue as to what embarrassing things she thinks she has said or done. So remember these three things:
1. Spectators of a faux pas incident may not even notice it happened. If they did, they won't remember it.
2. The world is full of weird/crazy/different/interesting people. No one acts the same in social situations.
3. Most people are pretty forgiving. If they're not, they're assholes and you don't want anything to do with them.
posted by azuma at 10:07 PM on June 26, 2006 [3 favorites]

Many therapists work on sliding scales. Contact one (or several) and ask. You need to see a professional. While the Mefites are generallY well-meaning, very few are practicing psychologists.

(And as an aside, forget you ever heard the term "self-esteem" and run in the other direction if you encounter a shrink who uses this term earnestly. "Self-esteem" means almost nothing and is a red herring that 1970's pop psychologists used as a catch-all to turn symptoms into syndromes. In a word, it's bullshit.)
posted by ryanhealy at 10:20 PM on June 26, 2006

three different doctors who all studied the same books -- you are not a high-functioning autistic, youre a human being -- some people are not meant to be JohnnyGoGetter -- learn to paint, write a book -- stake your claim in the collective unconscious and guard it with your life -- the WE is growing more stagnant by the minute
posted by Satapher at 10:43 PM on June 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

The first thing you need to realize is that the people who willingly, joyfully, and self-consciously make fools of themselves are usually the most popular people.

Who's the bigger fool, the one who asks a stupid question and learns the answer, or the one who doesn't ask and remains ignorant? A question is just one kind of foolish action, but the principle is the same.

The thing is: Nobody cares if you look foolish. They're too busy worrying about whether they themselves look silly to even notice, and if they did, they'd understand. And when you start to attract attention for daring to do things they're scared to do, they'll be jealous.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 10:46 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Self esteem or self respect is a real concept. Do something you've been putting off and see how you feel about your self. You will generally feel better about your self, at least for a while. The reverse happen when you avoid something, you feel like a whip or a croward. Countless studies verify this.
posted by zackdog at 11:13 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second tastybrains' suggestion to check out the Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook. If you read it seriously and do all the exercises, it's every bit as helpful as a course of cognitive behavioral therapy. In fact, it basically is a course of cognitive behavioral therapy.
posted by feathermeat at 11:27 PM on June 26, 2006

Get thee to a therapist. This sounds, to me, like something pretty "deep" that probably won't be resolved by following a few self-help sound bites.

Many therapists and practices work on a sliding fee basis, so I'm guessing that with some legwork (a pain, but worth it in this case) you could find someone you can afford. If there are any universities or schools in your area that have masters or phd psychology programs, you might start looking there -- some have community outreach/internship programs in which the interns charge nothing or very little.

My only advice with regard to choosing therapists is that you find someone you trust, you feel is competent, and you feel comfortable talking to.

As far as self-help sound-bites go, though . . . I suspect you know way more about autism than me, but one thing I hear a lot is that many people with high-functioning autism aren't good at picking up on certain social cues. I've never been evaluated for something like autism, but I feel I can sympathize to a certain degree -- I've got a significant blind-spot when it comes to social cues and this does make me quite self-conscious. I would venture that healing begins with the realization that it's not your fault, that you're not a bad or undesireable person just because you don't pick up on certain cues.
posted by treepour at 11:30 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

The mark of confidence is not necessarily avoiding those mistakes, but being able to laugh it off when you do. Try to not be the first person in line for something, let someone else go first and watch what they do. We all make this mistakes, it is the reaction that sets people apart however. Don't just look crestfallen and walk away embarrased. An alpha male who makes a mistake and gets laughed at would probably respond with aggression, try to strike a balance between the two extremes. A simple "Yeah sorry, I didn't know" and a chuckle will get you off pretty easily in most situations.

Also, ask questions beforehand if you aren't sure. It might be a dumb question, but it is a lot better to ask a stupid question of your friend than to make a stupid mistake in front of everyone.
posted by sophist at 12:01 AM on June 27, 2006

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned alcohol yet. Obviously you can't use it everywhere but it is very helpful in those situations where it is available, and you'll learn that it is possible to loosen up and enjoy yourself with people without anything really bad happening.

Secondly, make a point of taking care over your appearance. Get some nice clothes, take care of your skin (see a dermatologist if necessary), get a decent haircut (a buzz cut takes care of itself if that's what you need), and get in shape. Just dressing better has huge psychological benefits. I guarantee you that this will help.

Lastly, your post is intelligently written and demonstrates that when you step back you do actually understand yourself very well. I bet you had some new insight about the problem while you were writing this. Maybe a regular habit of writing your feelings down would help you work this stuff out. Good luck.
posted by teleskiving at 1:34 AM on June 27, 2006

How much do you notice other people's social "faux pas"? They probably believe they're committing them at the same rate you think you are. If you're not noticing other people's mistakes, they're probably not noticing yours.

Excluding very close friends, most people are too self-involved to care about your or anyone else's quirks. I know I am. Meanwhile, you actually seem to be more interesting than the average person. I don't think you have anything to worry about.

(Oh, and regarding the alcohol suggestion, drugs are not the answer.)
posted by krisjohn at 1:42 AM on June 27, 2006

Here is the honest answer.
1. Punishing myself by continually putting myself to the test and telling myself that every failure only makes me a better/stronger person.
2. A girlfriend.
3. Time.

That's how I really did it. In retrospect, I've appreciated that being self-conscious is not such a bad thing and being different from the pack is something to be admired. Every failure is a notch on your experience belt. Experience is not something you can ever have enough of. Later in life it will have laid the foundations for your perspective and outlook on life and provide you with valuable insights. So whilst this won't go far to reducing your day-by-day pain - it might reassure the little voice in your head who constitutes the real you that this is all for a purpose and you will look back on it and feel this constant painful self-testing was all worth it ................. one day...... ;)

PS Im old-ish.
posted by zaebiz at 2:05 AM on June 27, 2006

I have Aspergers. Human motivations aren't naturally understandable to me. Yet I've managed to carve out a life that is all about them. I direct plays, and I'm only interested in character-based plays. And I'm a teacher. Most of my classes are small or one-on-one.

How did I get over my confusion about human nature and even embrace it as my area of expertise? By rigorous study!

Humans operate via rules. They may be fuzzy rules, but they're still rules. And rules are learnable. Most people are lucky in that they don't have to learn them. Most people can successfully go by gut. You and I, Kosh, are not so lucky. Well, no use crying over spilled milk. We can catch up by working at it.

And we're lucky to live in a culture packed with resources: books, tapes, tv-shows and websites all itching to open the hood of human nature and peer inside.

I recommend starting with Eric Berne's books. His most famous one is "Games People Play". Berne invented a system called Transactional Analysis. It's basic premise is that all human interaction can be viewed as a transaction -- both parties trying to get something from each other. Berne neatly lists the rules of these transactions.

In my view, Berne's model is way over-simplified. But it's still useful. It's to psychology what the Newtonian model is to physics -- fundamentally wrong but close enough for large-scale reasoning.

Berne appealed to me, because I people seemed slippery and unpredictable. I was more comfortable with mechanical systems. Burne bridges the gap by viewing people AS mechanical systems (he would probably flip in his grave at this assessment. He believed his model was an exact mirror of reality).

Once I had devoured Berne, I moved on to other models. I read and watched everything I could about people, how they think, how they evolved, how they inter-relate. Gradually, I became an expert at reading people. It took me a long time, but I got there.

It will NEVER be second nature to me. I and someone else will come to the same conclusion -- Mary is nervous -- but whereas the other person will just "get it", I will come to my conclusion by going through a mental checklist of expressions, intonations and behaviors. (Which is exactly what the other person is doing. He's just doing it unconsciously.) After years of practice, I can reach my conclusions very quickly. And, though I can't use my gut, I can back up what I say better than the gut-people. They can't say WHY they know Mary is nervous. It's just a feeling they get. I can say why.

Often, my deficit/ability gives me an advantage. I'm an "Anthropologist on Mars" -- a "Stranger in a Strange Land," and this gives me a unique perspective. I often pick up social clues that others miss.

Since it's not innate, I can forget to turn on my social-reasoning mechanism. And then I screw up and fail to notice things that are obvious to everyone else. But the older I get, the less this happens. Practice is making it habitual.

Remember, human nature is learnable (or at least you can pick from reasonable models -- and if you don't like Berne, pick some other model). Reasoning about other people will always be error prone. You have incomplete information, since you can't get inside someone else's head. Which just means you have to make statistically-based predictions. With some study, these predictions will become more and more on-target.

And with mastery comes confidence!
posted by grumblebee at 6:57 AM on June 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

Lots of wonderful information here, wow, I have quite a bit to go through. I'll start with the newest first.

grumblebee, I too have spent an enormous amount of time dissecting human nature. I systemize people to a certain extent and use a lot of computing--particularly programming--metaphors to understand them (which is funny, because I'm more of a literary/verbal geek than anything, and can't code to save my life.) I've reverse-engineered a great many social protocols and as such can, like you, usually explain why someone is acting a certain way. Other people learn these things automatically and take that function for granted, so they don't have to delve any deeper. I've had to figure out why in order to survive. People say that I'm very empathic.

That having been said, my problem here is that I can't figure out any reasonable algorithm for avoiding situations that give me this feeling. That's the thing. It evades my usual method of analysis and as such I feel very anxious and powerless. Every time I think I have one of the rules figured out, I trespass yet another boundary that had previously been invisible. It's maddening and frustrating and makes me wonder how many mines are left in the minefield before I've finally figured out how to avoid them with a reasonable rate of success. I'll check out that book and see if it helps me refine my system a bit.

teleskiving, I actually avoid alcohol completely because I'm afraid of what I'd do under its influence, because my guard would be relaxed. Part of what has gotten me in trouble in the past is keeping my exuberance under control, and I suspect that would be harder to do after having a drink or two. I have enthusiasm by the truckload for the things I like. The sweeping majority of my earlier faux pas (and some of my later ones) that led to this self-consciousness in the first place have to do with being enthusiastic in a way that makes me stand out in a way that I'd rather not stand out.

sophist (and others with similar sentiments), it's really hard for me to just laugh it off. When I've tried, people just look at me even more strangely. I don't know how to do that, so I try and fake it, but I can't fake it well enough for it to work. I'm a terrible actor.

spaceman_spiff, that sounds a lot like what I do. I think it's actually one of my problems, in that I analyze so much I achieve "analysis paralysis" and can't do anything.

And I suppose I should have added this in the original post, but it probably isn't helping matters any that I just came out of a four year relationship that ended very suddenly and disastrously, resulting in me moving back to my home state and struggling to put my life back together. (And she married someone else a month later. Does wonders for the confidence, I'm sure.)
posted by Kosh at 7:39 AM on June 27, 2006

I've finally figured out how to avoid them with a reasonable rate of success.

Great! Keep plugging away at it. From your own admission, you've improved. If you keep at it and don't let yourself get disheartened, you'll keep on improving.

How old are you? I just turned 40. In my 20s, I was a mess. In my 30s, I improved but still screwed up. I my late 30s, everything started to click. My 40s are looking to be my decade of confidence. If you're 22, it may sound depressing that you'll have to work 20 years in order to become confident. But hey, better at 40 than at 80! I have half my life to live in a much more comfortable skin. Any maybe it will click for you earlier than it did with me. (Or later. Who knows. The only thing we can be reasonably sure of is that, with work, you'll gradually improve.)

Please know that I still goof and I'm sure I always will (even "normal" people make social gaffs). But as you get better and better with people, the goofs matter less and less. Like you, I once couldn't "laugh it off." Now I can. I can, because the goofs are less frequent and I know how to address them when they happen.

There was a study recently (can someone site it?) in which two men, one confident and the other not-confident, approached many women and asked for phone numbers. They both "scored" equally well/poorly. They were both rejected many times and they both managed to pick up a few numbers. The rule was that they HAD to approach X number of women during the night.

On a typical night while not doing the experiment, the confident guy would have approached that many women, anyway. AND HE WOULD HAVE BEEN REJECTED MANY TIMES. The non-confident guy would have normally given up after the first rejection.

I know you're not talking about picking up women, but there's a lesson here for ALL social interaction. You HAVE to keep plugging away at it. You have to fall on your face so many times that it doesn't matter any more. And some of those times you won't fall on your face. With the work we've discussed PLUS repetition, you'll fall less and less.

I'm fairly good now socially, but I still have a problem: small-talk with strangers. I do well with friends, and even acquaintences, but if I'm standing in an elevator with a stranger, and he starts to talk to me, I get flustered. I need to work on this. I actually have a plan to do so (which I must admit, I haven't implemented yet.)

At some point, I'm going to start a blog called Talking To Strangers. Every day, I'm going to force myself to START an interaction with a complete stranger. And I'm going to blog my progress -- good or bad. I'm going to throw myself to the lions over and over until I can tame them.

Maybe something like this -- a challenge -- will work for you, too. I figure that if I make it a blog -- something public -- I will be forced to keep at it. Sort of like those people who blog their attempts at weight loss.
posted by grumblebee at 8:41 AM on June 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Actually, just hearing that it eventually gets better has helped me a lot. I'm doing my best to muddle my way through a dark place right now and any glimmer of hope is helpful to me.

I'm also a lot better socially than I used to be--I've improved in much the same way as you have. I can do smalltalk with friends and acquaintances fairly well, but when a stranger speaks to me and attempts to make smalltalk there's a 50% chance that I'll short-circuit and get flustered. Sometimes I can pull it off, sometimes I can't. It's weird.

I guess my problem right now is that I feel like I have so much further to go, and I'm tired. I want to reach a place where I can just collapse and rest awhile. The "Anthropologist on Mars" feeling is equal parts frustrating and fascinating. It's neat, because it leads you to understand people better, but at the same time it can be terribly lonely.

I'd be really interested in reading about your efforts. Maybe even pledging to do it with you and documenting it would be helpful... I don't know.

(And I'm 25.)
posted by Kosh at 9:15 AM on June 27, 2006

I'll let you know if/when I start my blog. I'm mostly putting it off due to a heavy work schedule.

Something I've learned by watching myself and my friends: I think there was a time when people were grown up by their early 20s (or earlier). That was back when life was harsh and you HAD to grow up fast in order to survive. Alas,, we're so pampered now -- at least those of us who grew up in middle+ class, affluent environments. My point is that at 25, you're far from finished. I KNOW it's exhausting, but it DOES get better. Pretty much everyone I know was much happier -- and more confident -- in their 30s than their 20s. And even more in their 40s than their 30s.

Something that helped ME a lot: about a year ago, in another thread, we were discussing shyness (I can't link to it, because I can't find it). I mentioned my (at times) crippling shyness. JohnMC, who -- as I've seen at meetups -- is the epitome of cool confidence admitted that he's just as socially nervous as I am. I deal with it by clamming up; he deals with it by running at the mouth.

Yes, I wish my coping mechanism was more like his (neurotic or not, his is more socially helpful), but he made me realize that MOST people are socially nervous. And that made me feel less alone.

there's a 50% chance that I'll short-circuit and get flustered. Sometimes I can pull it off, sometimes I can't. It's weird.

Same here. But let's think about it. I can't be magic. So there must be real-life factors involved that make socializing easier sometimes than others. And these factors probably are different for you than they are for me. Possibilities include...

-- how tired you are. Since socializing doesn't come naturally to us, we have to use more energy to do it than the average bear. And on some days we might not have the required energy.

-- the type of person we're stuck talking to. For instance, I have an easier time talking to women than men.

-- how many successful/unsuccessful interactions we've had that day prior to the current interaction. Which will affect our general level of confidence.

-- our mood. Sometimes I desperately want to interact. Sometimes I want to be left alone but feel like I SHOULD interact.

-- etc.

The point here is that this is the sort of analysis that we Autistics/Aspergers are good at. Turn your deficit into an advantage. Don't just throw up your hands and say, "Sometimes God rolls the dice in my favor; other times he doesn't." Try to log an analyze the interactions. Maybe you'll learn the stumbling blocks and be able to make the necessary adjustments.
posted by grumblebee at 9:45 AM on June 27, 2006

I wish I had advice for you but I don't. Mainly I just want to say you're not alone. Embarrassment rears its ugly head multiple times daily in my life. Sometimes in my life I'm better at dealing with it then other times. Right now I'm so self conscious that it's hard for me to get things accomplished. Little steps help. I had to visit a previous employer today to pick up an old paycheck. I've been putting it off for the last two months but I needed the money. I started off by making a list of everything that could happen and what I would say. I was worse off after that. I finally had to just pull myself together and go. Only one bad thing happened. After I left I felt relieved, it was only one mistake on my part. Its a start. Hopefully my story helps, or at least to let you know you're not alone.
posted by vionnett at 7:57 PM on June 27, 2006

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