Most are familiar with the feeling of self-consciousness - at least to some extent - when in an unfamiliar social setting or when giving a presentation, for example. This is deeply human and nothing to worry about. However if the feeling becomes overwhelming and crippling, causing an avoidance of certain situations or activities and affects your life negatively, then it could be useful to seek help.

Social anxiety and heightened self-consciousness have consistently been found to be linked to the fear of being negatively evaluated by others. This leads to feelings of embarrassment and shame. Research is not yet conclusive on the origins, but it is generally agreed upon that it can be the result of negative experiences and/or public shaming in someone’s past. It could be as long ago as during someone’s childhood, maybe an experience of failure and having been set straight by a teacher in front of the whole class. Those types of key events can lead to a person avoiding any possibility of being embarrassed in front of other people ever again and of becoming nervous even when thinking about certain social settings. Anticipatory worry in turn makes things worse. The same is true for compulsive “post-mortem” rumination in the aftermath of such situations. 

Often people are very ashamed to talk about their social fears. With the help of a therapist they can explore their underlying core negative beliefs and subsequently dispute and challenge them. Often we try to second guess what people are thinking about us. We “mind-read” and take our assumptions as facts rather than seeing that they are mere hypotheses. “They think I’m weird.” “They think I am useless.” In therapy we can dispute these thoughts and test them for their validity. We can help to find distance from negative automatic thoughts. And we can install alternative appraisals that are more realistic as well as “de-catastrophise” worst case scenarios.

There is another powerful technique which I would like to cover in more detail. It is based on controlling where we place the focus of our attention:

When feeling self-conscious we tend to focus our attention away from the people around us and instead focus on our own anxious behaviour, on the associated physical sensations and on the negative automatic thoughts that come up. We create a negative distorted image of ourselves in our mind. And the more we are appalled by that image, the more we seem to fall in-line with it.

Our sense of self, the “felt sense”, is affected. We develop an attentional bias towards all the little negative signs, blowing them out of proportion in our mind. We believe everybody notices our insecurity and judges us for it. By holding the focus on ourselves we are magnifying the physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g. shaking, sweating, stammering). Often that causes those symptoms to become more severe. A vicious cycle kicks in. We dismiss positive signs like smiles and goodwill directed towards us and we focus on anything negative. We are not able to judge the situation objectively and we are not aware of what is really going on in the room when all our attention is directed inwards, on the negative self-image we have in that moment.

We can manage to break this cycle by turning our attention outwards, observing closely the people around us or our audience. We might notice how many people respond in a positive manner to us, or display a neutral attitude. And some simply don't pay any attention to us at all. We might also notice that in any given situation there will be quite a few people who are just as nervous and who are trying just as hard to make a good impression.

We can work on this by consciously shifting our attention back and forth between our self-image and our surroundings (including the people surrounding us). The more we practise this, the more we realise that our focus is under our voluntary control. By practising this shuttling technique in more and more difficult social situations, we get on the path to break this unhelpful pattern.

Therapy and also hypnotherapy can provide a safe environment to work through the approaches and techniques above and to bring about the desired positive change. After a thorough assessment of the individual’s particular patterns and needs, hypnosis gives the chance to play through difficult situations in the safety of imaginary exposure. It also facilitates the rehearsal of new helpful cognitive and behavioural patterns so that these get instilled and eventually become automated, giving freedom from debilitating fears.

Photo by Norman Toth