Self-consciousness is a funny thing. On the one hand, it forces me out of my own head, making me experience life through the imagined perspectives of those around me. It's like my mental camera is floating somewhere out there, looking back at me, not on the inside looking out. Rather than just being me, I'm performing for an audience, with each choice a decision to cater to their preferences or not. Instead of holding my husband's hand when I want to, I'm either not holding his hand because I'm worried about offending someone, or I'm holding his hand in spite of my concerns about that imagined offense.
On the other hand, self-consciousness keeps me locked within my own head because I'm not really responding to the people around me, but rather responding to the versions of those people that exist in my imagination. People around here are polite to an extreme, so any judgments they make of us are silent. Hypothetically, it's possible that not a single person is judging us at all, if I'm to base my interpretation on actual words exchanged. I suspect the reality is somewhere between this hypothetical scenario (no one is judging me) and my imagination (everyone is judging me), but at the end of the day I'm better off reacting to the reality I can observe than reacting to a reality that exists only in my head.
|This is Judgy Joe. He lives in my head and judges me. Stop judging me, Judgy Joe!|
It's healthy, of course, to be aware of one's place in the world and one's impact on others. But the healthy version is self-awareness, not self-consciousness. Self-awareness puts the camera back in my own head, focused outward on the observable reality around me. Self-awareness recognizes signs of discomfort in those around me and feels compassion, but does not take personal responsibility for discomfort in others caused by their own belief systems and unrealistic expectations. Self-awareness recognizes that to most people, I'm just a stranger passing by, spending no more time in their consciousness than I do in their field of vision. If that's not the case, then it's because of unhealthy thought patterns on their end, and there's nothing I can do about that. I can only fix my own brain.
It would be nice if, having made this realization, I could now declare my self-consciousness defeated, never to plague me again. For better or worse, that's not how brains work. But recognizing an unhealthy thought pattern is a good start. Next time my husband and I are out in public and I notice myself fixating on the imagined discomfort of those around us, I'll remind myself that those thoughts do me no good and try to focus on something else--for instance, how much I enjoy holding my husband's hand. The next time after that, I'll remind myself again. And the next time, and the next time. Eventually, my brain will get the message.