Self-consciousness, Focus, and Projection

Self-consciousness is a funny beast, don’t you think?

We human beings seem to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how we look, how we look compared to others, how we’re being perceived, whether we’re cool enough, and what others might be thinking about us. And all of these concerns are natural extensions of life in an active society, and especially of life in an active society that puts great stock in physical beauty.

But there’s a piece of wisdom that floats through my brain any time I feel myself starting to truly obsess about how I’m being perceived: The vast majority of human beings are so busy worrying about THEMSELVES, they hardly even notice YOU. In other words, self-consciousness isolates and cancels. Yeah, if you walk into a crowded bar wearing a yeti costume most of the bar patrons will focus on you. But if you walk into a crowded bar wearing bar-appropriate clothes, you are unlikely to become the sole object of intense scrutiny. Everyone there is too busy wondering what you think about them to spend much energy sizing you up.

I’m fairly certain that this phenomenon isn’t limited to bars and crowds, but also spills over into one-on-one interactions. When my girlfriends complain of frizzy hair, problem skin, and bloated bellies, my assumption is that they’re honestly, truly worried about their own frizzy hair, problem skin, and bloated bellies. I do not assume that they are voicing their worries in an attempt to imply that MY hair is awful since it’s far frizzier, MY skin is offensive since it’s far spottier, or MY figure is repellent since it’s far lumpier. And some of that comes down to assuming positive intent, but more of it comes down to accepting that it’s not all about me. I may spend the majority of my time thinking about me and me-related things, but I’m quite likely alone in that respect.

And yes, anyone who feels compelled to bemoan in herself a trait she knows to be one of your worry-triggers is being insensitive and careless. And yes, there are some people who kvetch about themselves in pointed, intentional ways as a means of sparking self-consciousness and doubt in others. But in my experience, those people are exceptions. Self-consciousness is both normal and prevalent, so when someone confesses a worry about her own appearance she is likely doing so out of frank personal concern and a need to vent. For better or worse, she probably hasn’t even considered your set of insecurities before voicing her own.

Obviously some people are more attuned and sensitive than others, and many will not only consider your feelings before voicing their worries but also seek to reassure you that what they’re sayingย is no reflection on you. Furthermore, I don’t mean to imply that all human beings are navel-gazing, self-absorbed jerkwads; In my opinion, this kind of gut-level focus on the self is natural, and in no way negative or conceited. And I may be alone in this, but I find it relieving and comforting to know that the people surrounding me aren’t scrutinizing me nearly as closely as I’m scrutinizing myself! It makes sense that people would be self-focused critters as a kind of survival mechanism, and I like knowing that what other people believe, think, and potentially dislike about themselves is entirely unrelated to me.

Image courtesy messtiza.

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  • I may be guilty of doing this but it’s always about me. I would never complain about something that’s bothering me just to secretly say something to the other person. I think it’s important to be sensitive about the other person’s feelings. However, I feel that it’s even more important to be knowledgeable and confident in yourself. If you are that, then whatever somebody else says doesn’t really matter. If I know that that is the case, I also feel freer to discuss just about any topic I like, which is nice for both parties.

  • Daantaat

    When I decided to go back to university at age 42 I voiced my concern about being laughed at by all the younger and cooler students. The lady in the admissions office just chuckled and reminded me that all those kids were thinking about and concerned with were 1. themselves and 2. getting laid. I’ve thought about that over the years and I remind myself of it when I feel I’m getting too caught up in worrying what other people think of me. I’m comfortable in my own skin, so I’m not too concerned about what other people are thinking or saying about me.

  • This thought has actually never crossed my mind. I think when my girl friends complain, they are not doing it to make me feel bad, and likewise I do not complain to make them feel bad about their appearance.

  • A.

    I agree. My husband was quite overweight at one point and with his wonderful weight loss remained his self-consciousness. I’ve spent years telling him, when he worries about how he looks to other people, “Believe me, no one cares what you look like. No one is even paying attention.” I understand where his feelings stem from, though. I also know some girlfriends who think every guy walking by is checking them out. I want to say something like, “Really? It’s not all about you all the time.” Most of us are all so busy and absorbed in our own lives to care much about other people, which is why we shouldn’t, in turn, go around caring about what other people think about us. Just live.

  • That reminds me of this huge blow-up a friend and I wound up having that I still scratch my head over. I wanted to lose weight, and decided to keep it to myself. I had a weight-loss buddy, but didn’t feel comfortable telling people that I was purposely trying to get healthier, more fit, etc. I think I felt a bit of shame that I was doing it. It was very strange.

    Regardless, when this friend of mine found out, one of her points about why my deciding to lose weight was a shitty thing for me to do was that by my not telling her I was trying to lose weight when I was skinnier than she was at the outset meant that if I thought of myself as fat, I must think she was basically obese.

    It seems so silly now, but I remember, when I read the email that she sent ripping me apart, and the impact of that statement fully hit me, how amazed that I was by her interpretation of MY choices regarding MY body. My decision to get healthier had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me, but in her eyes, I betrayed her. Seemingly, my actions threw up a mirror in her face, and made her see issues she had with herself.

    That was my big learning moment, where I realized that when people complain about themselves, they are doing it for themselves, and not for anyone else. Just as you wrote, Sal. Everyone is so focused on themselves they can’t see you for all their self-scrutiny.

  • Hetty

    When in a conversation and a person bemoans a supposed beauty flaw I just chuckle and laugh at one of my own faults. I don’t assume they are pointing out a flaw in me. I assume we are ruefully laughing at our normal bodies. Even super models have flaws that are covered up. Every magazine cover is photoshopped to death. When I see those “candid” images of stars running around grocery shopping without full makeup (horrors!) I don’t think they look awful. They look quite normal to me. And usually are still quite pretty.

  • JI

    Interestingly, I have found the opposite to be true, and quite common. We find in others what we see in ourselves, and do not like in ourselves. So, we project it onto others.

  • I enjoyed Daantaat’s comment so much! And it’s so true. We are self-focused, most of us, by nature and for good evolutionary reasons. But we’re also self-critical to a ridiculous degree. Yet another reason I adore this blog — *already* pretty.

  • Anonymous

    I find it hard to imagine that anyone but the most hateful kind of person would actually make insincere complaints about his/her own faults in order to point out those same faults in others. That would be just disgustingly dishonest – it might be better just to criticize openly and show one’s true colors!
    This post did make me think about the effect that my body complaints may have on others, even if I am only thinking about myself. It would be so much better to refrain from saying negative things about myself and re-direct that energy into building up others.

  • Tara

    Like Courtney, this thought has never crossed my mind either. I like to think I don’t surround myself with the type of people who would make veiled insults to me so I would never suspect that someone was making a back-handed dig when they complain about themselves. Also, I don’t spend much time bemoaning my flaws, nor do the women I associate with. Confidence is attractive to me, and negative self-talk really isn’t.

  • I love this post. I think you are spot-on. I have learned to not take anything personally. It’s really never about me.

  • Susan

    I never assume someone is trying to point out my flaws when they are commenting on their own. However, I do marvel how one of my very slim friends sees flaws in herself that would NEVER be on my radar screen for myself or for anyone else. I generally try not to gripe about my own flaws to others either.

  • LinB

    If you are lucky enough to be raised by loving, caring parents, then yes, your self-consciousness is likely to be entirely self-generated. Those of us — and I am one — who grew up in a friendly, supportive family can have little idea of what those who grew up with mean, hateful, manipulative, evil parents live with as a self-image. My sister and I can laugh when we tease each other as “the smart one” or “the pretty one” since we made those interchangeable labels for each other as adults. We have friends whose psyches are permanently maimed because their mother and father and siblings and larger family called them that to their faces all through childhood and adulthood. Still, I think you are right that most people are so worried about what YOU are thinking of THEM that they hardly notice YOU at all.

  • I am horribly self conscious, but I generally don’t complain about my appearance to my friends. No, I save all that for my husband. I agree with you that most people are too fixated on themselves to be judging others, but I must live in an extraordinarily unfriendly town because I do frequently get the contemptuous up-and-down look from people–people who apparently can’t be happy unless they wordlessly communicate to me that my boots don’t go with my dress or that my skirt is too short. Maybe this is because I live in a small town. In a big city, no one cares what you look like, and when I am visiting big cities, I don’t get those judging looks. My daughter is in school in a city much larger than ours, and I’ve noticed much more diverse and creative personal styles there.

    • pope suburban

      Oh man, I am with you! I live in a pretty small town, in an incredibly homogenous state. I tell myself that no one else cares what I am doing, and that I would be crazy to think anyone notices me– and then I go out and people give me the stink eye. Not every time, not a lot of people, but enough that it undermines my sense of perspective. Even if people wouldn’t notice me in a bigger or more diverse city, they do notice here and it is uncomfortable. I don’t know how to make peace with it because yeah, that is my reality where I live. I don’t let it stop me from developing my personal style and wearing things I love, but it can be discouraging sometimes. I tell myself that I am living in a judgmental place (and it’s true, people remark on it, local and visitor alike), but that only does so much to help. I am working on moving, but until then, it can be a challenge to feel confident when I am out and about (I already struggle with that thanks to my upbringing). I don’t have any words of wisdom, but I am there with you and I hope you rock on with your bad self and feel awesome in spite of all those angry people.

  • sarah

    I tend to assume what you assume… they are genuinely worried about their own appearance. OR they feel safe enough to vent to me because they feel I may be able to relate. Occasionally, that may sting, “It’s so tough having ugly skin, right, Sarah?” Uuuuh ๐Ÿ™‚ but most times, it’s more of a bonding session filled with a mix of honesty and reassurance that we’re worrying too much. ๐Ÿ™‚ And 9 times out of 10, people look better than they realize. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Now, I will say, sometimes when a person vents about a topic that I clearly cannot relate to, I feel awkward. I assume in those situations that they really are just focusing on themselves and not even thinking about the fact that I have zero life experience in that particular insecurity.

    And occasionally, I’ll put my foot in my mouth by venting about something another friend is struggling with on a deeper level. We all do it sometimes, which I remind myself when someone does it to me!

  • For me, I think self-consciousness is mostly something I got over in time. It was mostly part of that teenage narcissism that everybody goes through, thinking you’re the center of the universe and therefore everybody MUST be looking at you at all times. ๐Ÿ™‚ As an adult, you realize that everyone has their own insecurities. You can’t compare what’s happening to you inwardly with what other people project outwardly.

  • This is a wonderful post, Sally.
    There are so many parts of this that I want to comment on. The first thing that springs to mind though, is one particular blogger who I love, but she frequently comments on her need to lose weight or weight loss regime which just makes me feel completely inadequate whenever I read it.
    From the other perspective, however, last year I had gained about 10 pounds in a year and was in a bit of a funk about trying to lose them. I am the smallest of my friends and I felt I was upsetting them with my need to lose weight and hoped I did’t cause any upset in them. But I maintain my argument which was that I wouldn’t have felt the need to lose the weight had I not gained it.
    I guess we can all relate. We moan about our bodies and don’t expect other people to feel inadequate, yet as soon as our other friends do it, we feel inadequate, even if this isn’t their intention.

    Charlotte x

  • Em

    You know, I don’t believe I ever took a friend’s self-image griping as a passive aggressive shot at my own appearance. I’d like to think that it’s because my friends wouldn’t do something like that, but I’ve had some frenemies along the way that may have. Not to mention, I was probably just oblivious to it if it did happen.

    I have a hard time dealing with friends talking about their physical flaws. I have a friend who is a heavier girl, but she’s SO pretty and has this amazing, funny personality, and she’s one of my favorite people to be around, most of the time. However, once in a while she gets down about her size, and makes comments about she wishes she had my body (not that I’m anything to crow about, since I’m about 20 lbs overweight, myself), and it makes me so…uncomfortable and sad. I hate when my friends can’t see themselves as the beautiful, amazing women that they are.

  • J.B.

    I had a funny moment a few years ago where I realized that the things we are self-conscious about and obsess on, no one else even notices. I had started to notice that I had a few TINY wrinkles, and I was feeling very self-conscious about it, feeling like I was young – I had never noticed wrinkles on any of my other friends. So while out with a friend, I started examining her face for wrinkles to see if my wrinkles were out of the ordinary. She said “Why are you looking at me like that?” While I tried to stammer out a response she said “Are you looking at my hair? I know, I just stopped coloring it, you are staring at all my gray hair.” Of course, I had never even noticed her gray hair! And could care less about it, I was just obsessing on my own appearance!

  • This post is so true.

    On a somewhat related note, I find that I never see the things that other people are self-conscious about unless they point out their “flaws” in a self-deprecating comment. Other people’s blemishes, frizzy hair or creases in shirts that weren’t ironed go unnoticed until they open their mouths. For that reason, if someone hasn’t said something to me about some shortcoming I’m obsessing over, I usually keep my mouth shut. ๐Ÿ™‚ Anyway, people who ask questions about other people’s well-being rather than obsessing about their own flaws make for much better conversationalists.;)

    • Tara

      Lisa, if there were a “like” button here, I would have clicked it for your comments!

    • Claire

      I am very guilty of doing this Tara and, every time I find myself doing this, I just want to give myself a big slap! A couple of times recently people have commented on my ‘English Rose’ skin (I am English but living in Australia). As I am now 42 I have noticed wrinkles developing and my checks have some sun damage – all of which I have become conscious of – I find myself pointing these ‘faults’ out. I need to just learn to say ‘Thank you’ and move on…….

  • Sonia

    I once broke-up with a friend because she spent a large amount of time, every day, in every conversation, complaining about how big her butt is, what he ate/didn’t eat, whether she had exercised or when she planned to next. You get the picture. The thing is, she is a beautiful woman with a gorgeous figure. I am quite overweight. I kept wondering, “If she thinks so little of herself, what must she think of MY hugeness?!” And I dumped her. And you’re right — it probably never occured to her that she was being insensitive (and boring). But still — she had to go. I have no room for that much negativity in my life!

    • Anneesha

      I totally have that feeling too! I’m no longer friends with a coupla gal pals who are bright, thin and gorgeous, whose favorite topic was bemoaning their own imagined visual failings. It was BORING. I mean boring. And even repeated lighthearted requests to change the subject had no impact. So many more creative appearance things to discuss!

  • Not to disregard every fabulous point you made here Sal, but all I know is is that the next time I go to a bar, I’m SO wearing a Yeti costume.

    That’ll bring the boys to my yard. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Sal

      DO IT. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Marie

    I haven’t felt like others’ complaints about themselves are back-handed criticism of me, but sometimes comments can make me wonder what people secretly notice and think. Even though we’re all self-absorbed, I’m a visual, observant person and I do notice certain things about people, although I would never say anything! One time a guy I broke up with gave me a bunch of criticism afterwards (I wear colors that don’t suit me, certain clothing and hairstyles he doesn’t like, etc). He thought he was being helpful, not spiteful, and that took a hit to my confidence for a little while.

  • I agree that self-consciousness is self-focused (most of the time). And it’s unfortunate. I think we’re practically trained to be self-conscious. After all, people who actually like themselves must be arrogant jerks, right? Wrong! If only self-love was the standard…imagine how different the world would be!

  • Shaye

    I don’t normally believe that people are secretly judging me when they bemoan their own flaws, even if my hair is frizzier, my skin is spottier, and my body is flabbier. (HINT: it usually is.) I totally dig that when people complain about themselves, they are examining themselves in the funhouse mirror of self-criticism, and they probably haven’t even noticed that I’m frizzier, spottier and flabbier. In fact, if I pointed it out, I’d get a long speech about how pretty and I am and how no one could possibly notice. Most people have trouble applying that to themselves, however.

    No, where I have trouble is in trying not to resent my less frizzy/spotty/flabby sisters when they complain. How DARE they criticize something in themselves that I have worse? Don’t they realize that their pain is nothing to my pain? I have trouble with this in other areas, too, like health. When I’ve spent the last few years in and out of pharmacies, doctor’s offices and hospitals, I have trouble not resenting people who complain about a few body aches. I HAVE to keep reminding myself that it’s not a competition, that this isn’t a zero-sum game, and just because I’m frizzier, flabbier, or have more health problems, it doesn’t mean that their frizz, flab, and health aren’t legitimate complaints. I try really hard to swallow that resentment and turn it into empathy.

    And because of this reaction in myself, when I open my own mouth to complain, I think of this: know your audience. I think about how it makes me feel when other people do this to me, and sometimes I stop myself because it seems inappropriate or insensitive. Not because I’m worried they’ll think I’m judging them, but because I don’t want anyone else to have that indignant “Where does SHE get off?” moment.

    Still, after all of this, I do occasionally have the urge to look at a roomful of women and say: My dress size is 16 and I think I look pretty good. Can we please stop talking about it as if it were the worst thing that could happen to a gal?

  • Mel

    Can’t say that it ever occurred to me. It seems a little under-handed. I try to live a what-I-say-is-what-I-mean kind of life, and I guess I must choose friends who do the same.

    I’m hardly ever feel self-conscious. Usually when it’s something that I want to well in, and am afraid I won’t….like playing in my violin recital. I’m self-conscious cuz I’m the oldest student by far. It’s really humiliating to have a 7 year old get up and fantastically play your recital piece.

    Something funny at the thrift store the other day. Another customer looked me up & down with kind of a “look” on her face; I thought I was getting the stink-eye. I have to say that all of a sudden I DID feel pretty self-conscious. Did I have toilet paper on my shoe? Mud on my face? What?

    After a few moments of us both looking at shoes & me feeling uncomfortable, she leans over and says, “Cute shoes! Where did you get them? You look so put together today!”

    I burst out laughing. Here I thought she was looking negatively at me, where instead she was admiring how nice I looked. We had a good laugh, and a nice discussion of some other thrift stores that have good shoes.

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