On Getting Out Of Your Way: Advice for Self-Conscious Party Goers
Self-consciousness is a troubling paradox. The more you are aware of your own self-consciousness, the more self-conscious you feel. It is humbling to realize that we cannot dissipate our own self-consciousness, nor can we always control our feelings.
Take, for example, parties. Sometimes I enter a group of friends, however familiar, with the feeling that everything I say sounds odd, strained, and off-kilter. For me, especially in my younger years, this feeling might send me in search of alcohol: something to take the social edge off in my own worried mind. Other times, however, without the aid of any substance, I enter a group of complete strangers free from internal fretting of any kind. I feel totally in tune with my surroundings, responding naturally, exuding comfort and confidence.
The weird thing is, I’m pretty sure that my visible behavior isn’t noticeably different in these two situations. A bystander observing both scenarios would probably just see me being me. But internally, the difference is big. In one, I am comfortable. In the other, I am not.
Reflecting on these moments of self-consciousness makes me wonder if I have not been mistaken about the idea of ‘willpower.’ To do something ‘at will,’ we must be able to do it in every situation. But clearly, self-consciousness doesn’t fit into this paradigm at all. Who would choose to feel uncomfortable in social situations? If we could, we’d banish this internal turmoil and embrace social bliss. No more self-consciousness.
But in actual practice, banishing anxiety at will is no more within our abilities than the command, “Don’t think of a pink elephant.” The self-reflective quality of our own thoughts creates a feedback loop that echoes obnoxiously. When we are caught in the tangle of our own thinking, it is like focusing obsessively on our own eye floaters, or, in the silence of an empty room, trying to actively ignore our tinnitus. I know as well as anyone that worrying about a problem will not solve it, but this realization does little to curb anxiety when it strikes.
So what do we do? We’re caught in a trap: the harder we pull, the more we are stuck. The trick, of course, would be to loosen completely. But if we could do that, we wouldn’t be in this sticky situation in the first place. Modern practitioners of an early 20th century Japanese form of therapy, called Morita therapy, have an interesting proposal: train yourself to focus on things what you can do in the moment, instead of what you wish you could do.
The primary insight is that while the flow of thoughts and emotions is as unpredictable as the weather, our ability to act is much less complicated. We can, most of the time at least, move our bodies, and with meditation or other practices we can even increase our attentive abilities. The Morita therapy student focuses on activity and behavior, thus allowing thoughts and emotions to unfold without intervention. As author Gregg Krech writes, “Taking action is one of the most important skills you can master if you wish to maintain good mental health” (from The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology, 2014).
Focusing on our actions subtly implies that our emotions actually do not need to be fixed. When we try something new, we feel anxiety and stress. But as Krech points out: “Most people have doubts when they venture into something new” (my emphasis). The feelings are inseparable from the situation. Gradually we learn that emotions are not problems to be solved, nor can we ever be free from unpleasant inner experiences. Rather, emotional responses reflect our preferences in the moment — preferences which are perfectly natural, and which may direct our actions.
The cure to self-consciousness is not more self-consciousness, just as violence used to suppress violence results only in more bloodshed. Instead, I recommend taking a dive into the ideas Morita therapy, which guide us back to what needs to be done in the moment. Some days the party will be awkward, but we may continue making small talk — or gracefully make our exit — as we focus on what to do next.
For anyone interested in this topic I recommend the writings of Gregg Krech (quoted above), and any books by David K. Reynolds, founder of the ‘Constructive Living’ movement.