Self-awareness seems like a good thing because it allows you to know yourself, understand your motivations, and ultimately make better decisions. But it can also lead you to second guess yourself and spin out into an excruciating state of self-consciousness, micro-analyzing every nuance of your thoughts and actions.
For instance, after a presentation at work, Molly’s boss pointed out a nervous tic she had in her speech. Her boss explained in a kind way that it was distracting. It got in the way of her building a confident professional image. Molly appreciated the feedback and knew objectively the feedback was spot-on. But, now she was afraid to speak up because she didn’t want to keep making this mistake.
While all her attention was focused on not making the speech tic, she lost track of what she was saying. She could not closely monitor her speech from an observer’s perspective and focus on the content of her presentation at the same time.
Also, it seemed like the harder she tried not to make the speech tic, the more she did it. Psychologists coined the term “ironic thought processes” to explain the phenomenon of when suppression of thought or action actually makes it more likely to occur.
A friend suggested she delve into the origin of the tic. Molly remembered she was anxious as a young girl in school and a teacher once told her she was “too nervous” to be on the sports team. Since when she always believed she was too nervous to fit in. Now that she understood the origin, she had justification for her nervous tic. But having a story to explain it just seemed to reinforce it—as though she was arguing for the existence of her own limitation.
In Insight, Tasha Eurich explains that asking why something is happening can lead us down a rabbit hole of unhelpful self-scrutiny and victim storytelling. Instead, research shows that asking what is more helpful. So Molly shifted her self-inquiry to what: What can I do now? What can I do instead of this? What’s the solution to the problem? By shifting the question, she was able to move out of stagnation to find new approaches to improving her performance.
In my work with mirrors and reflections, I teach people how to use their own self-reflection to gain insights into how they appear to others and also stay in touch with themselves and how they are feeling in the moment.
Molly practiced some deep breathing and did a mindful body scan to relax muscle tension. Then, she recorded herself talking to herself about anything on her mind every day for 10 minutes for two weeks. She made the videos in a quiet place where she would not be interrupted, and she agreed not to show them to anyone—which took away the pressure of others’ evaluation.
After two weeks of video journaling, she felt more comfortable talking—at least to herself. So then I suggested that she watch her videos. Most people tend to cringe when they see themselves on video. So, Molly did some deep breathing and relaxation exercises before watching them. Then she watched her videos with mindful attention, being aware of the thoughts and feelings that came up as she watched herself.
After she got over their initial discomfort, she came to see that it wasn’t really that bad after all. She noticed when her inner critic popped up and when she was able to see herself with compassion.
How to be kind to yourself
According to Kristin Neff, the leading researcher on self-compassion, there are three components to learning to be kind to yourself.
First, you can choose to see yourself with self-kindness or self-judgment. You can practice kindness by treating yourself as you would any other person you love and care about. Molly practiced looking at her videos through kind eyes instead of focusing on every flaw.
Second, you can choose between seeing yourself in isolation or seeing your common humanity. For example, Molly could see herself as the only one in the world who spoke with a speech tic or expand her view to realize how common it is to have a little quirk in how you talk—and that it is so entirely human.
Third, you can choose mindfulness or over-identification. Try just being receptive and allowing the experience without getting wrapped up in it. Instead of over-identifying and hyper-focusing on every tiny flaw and foible and magnifying her negative reaction to it, Molly tried to be mindfully aware of her thoughts and feelings as she watched herself.
After making the videos and practicing self-compassion, Molly was more comfortable with herself and her way of speaking. She was ready to improve but knew she didn’t have to be self-critical or bring up the feelings from the past to do it.
From this new perspective, she started to practice speaking in front of an audience. Public performance can naturally lead to public self-consciousness. You tend to be aware of how others see you because the spotlight is on you. Instead of deepening into her feelings of being on the stage or actively trying to suppress her speech tic, I suggested that Molly shift her attention outward toward the audience and make the connection to them by asking them a question and then connect with her desire to share information them. Instead of focusing on making a good impression, she focused on building rapport with her audience.
It worked. Molly felt great, and her speech tic naturally subsided. By practicing self-compassion and focusing on the audience, she shifted from immobilized self-consciousness to empowered and compassionate self-awareness.
You, too, can control your focus—and experience self-awareness without anxiety.
Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com
Image courtesy of Alex Green.