If you suffer with social anxiety disorder (SAD), one of the keys to overcoming your symptoms is to learn how to be less self-conscious. When you are self-conscious, not only do you make your anxiety symptoms worse, but you make it hard to be aware of what is going on around you. With this narrowed focus comes a host of problems including the belief that other people are judging you negatively; when they probably aren't paying attention to you at all.
Psychologists have given a name to this phenomenon: the "spotlight" effect. Although it feels like all eyes are on you, in fact people are probably only noticing about 50% of what you think they are. So you are over-imagining everything by about half.
It's easy to understand that being self-conscious makes your social anxiety worse; it is quite another task to make a change and become more outward-focused. Indeed, one of the antidotes for being self-conscious is to focus your attention outward instead of inward. Below are some steps to help you on your way to becoming less self-conscious.
What is Holding You Back?
Perhaps there are subtle benefits to you being self-conscious that are holding you back from making the change. Maybe you think that it is too scary to focus on the outside world. Maybe it is mentally exhausting for you to keep up with conversations.
As an alternative, consider what benefits there could be from being less self-conscious. Being self-conscious is only making your anxiety worse in the long run and not focusing on others means that you are missing out on much that life has to offer. It is easier to be yourself and be spontaneous if you are not focused inward. You need to learn to lose yourself so that you can become who you really are.
Realize the Disadvantages of Being Self-Conscious
There are many downsides to being self-conscious. Being inwardly focused makes your social anxiety symptoms worse and means that you have trouble accurately reading situations. You remember fewer details about situations and view others as more negative when you are self-conscious.
Develop an Outward Focus
It will be difficult at first to develop an outward focus, particularly if you have used self-attention as a safety strategy for a long time. In order to make the switch, try to become curious about other people as an objective outside observer. Watch what they do, listen to what they say and think openly about the situation. Be objective as you observe the situation from an outside perspective. If you have trouble, assign yourself a task of learning something about the person. Be curious.
Practice Switching Perspectives
One way to develop control over your focus is to learn how to switch between an inward and outward focus and notice the differences between the two. The next time you are in an observational situation (such as riding on a bus), try first focusing totally on yourself. Do this for about five minutes and notice how you feel. Then, switch and try noticing everyone else and how they appear. Try talking to them if it seems appropriate.
Afterwards, notice how you felt and what you took in. The goal of this experiment is to become more aware of where your attention is directed, how to control it, and how it makes you feel. As you gain practice, try switching perspectives while in conversation with someone and notice the differences.
Realize Others Don't Care
If you start to get down on yourself or feel as though directing your focus outward is too dangerous, remember the rule of 50%; people are noticing about 50% of what you think is apparent in terms of your anxiety. And, even if you do act in a way that is embarrassing, it is not the end of the world.
Behaviors to Change Perspective
When you are self-conscious you likely become tense and say very little. As you focus attention outward, try some behaviors that encourage you to break free from the negative cycle of self-attention; smile at others and talk! When you are positive, happy, and talking it is hard to think negative thoughts about yourself.
Learn From Actors
Acting coaches will tell you that the way to a convincing performance is to double everything. Small gestures make you look embarrassed whereas large efforts exude confidence. Although it might seem counter-intuitive at first, if you want to draw less attention to yourself, be more grandiose. Remember, people really only notice 50% of your efforts anyway.
Beck, M. The Cure for Self-Consciousness. Accessed August 14th, 2012.
Butler, G. (2008). Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness. New York: Basic Books.