In my youth, no advice was more infuriating and demeaning to me than the three-word lecture, "Just be yourself." “Just," as if it were obvious to everyone else how I should be. People who are told to "be themselves" are people who don't know what "being themselves" means. As far back as I can remember, I have always known I was as interesting, entertaining, intelligent, and attractive as anyone else. My problem was I had no faith in anyone outside my family believing it. To this day, when speaking in front of groups of people, I experience gut-tearing anguish. If I use notes, I cannot read them. They are no longer words on paper but are swirly scribbles. It is then when I fear the Earth will open beneath me and suck me under. Afterward, as it always happens, people commend me on my presentation. They tell me I was interesting, engaging, and motivating. On a down day, I may confide with a friend and say, “I’m painfully shy.” The friend invariably laughs and says, “You? You’re the least shy person I know.” There is a galactic gap between my perception of myself and others' perceptions of me. I could fill reams of paper about this. But the truth is I am just fine. There has never been anything wrong with me beyond the normal foibles of life.
So, why the angst?
Are you ready for the big exciting finish? I experience "hyper awareness." See this site. I am "too aware." I could be engaged in vibrant, captivating conversation when I’ll see someone in the corner of the room make a facial expression that wrecks me. The truth is the person was thinking of something else and likely wasn't even aware of me. But he might as well have walked up to me, knocked me to the floor, and stepped on my face. Every movement and expression of anyone in my visible field of view carries in my mind equal weight. This, of course, is ridiculously irrational and stupid. There is no “pill” to fix this. No drugs. From what I understand, the condition is learned. It's nothing more than a habit. Beginning from infancy(?), it grew silently and internally. No one knew to tell me, “Jeffrey, don’t think that way or you'll be tortured the rest of your life.” How could anyone have known? Unfortunately, it's very difficult to overcome such a habit. After all, what's so wrong with being aware? Isn't that like being responsible and wise?
Some days I think I’ve licked it. Then something minor happens and I feel I’ve made no progress at all. My life is filled with abundant evidence that my manufactured agonies are utterly false. If you had not known this about me and had met me over dinner, you wouldn't know I had this problem.
Don't worry about what other people think of you
Well, maybe worry a little. This is done by doing the following over time: listen to others, watch others, be pleasant, offer suggestions, experiment with being yourself, tell jokes, volunteer, take on responsibilities, and be reliable.
Generous benefits come to you from not caring too much about what people think of you. Here is a short list of the good that comes from this:
You will subconsciously help other people stop caring too much about what others think of themselves.
You will attract people who are more like you; you will avoid those who aren't.
People who don't worry too much are, on average, more attractive.
You will please yourself instead of only pleasing others.
You will have more energy to build relationships.
People will feel more comfortable around you.
You will be less dependent upon others.
You will enjoy interactions.
You will be free.
An actual, true, test trial
The following actually happened. I know this because I did it many years ago when I was 21-years-old. I attended a large social gathering far from where I lived. I knew that those at the event would be strangers to me. By then, I was old enough to know generally how outgoing, socially attractive people acted.
I came up with an idea. I decided I would pretend to be popular. After making sure I looked the part (nice hair and clothing), I walked into the building faking the role. I reduced the personal space between me and girls. I brandished a big smile and touched everyone on the shoulder or side. I employed whatever mannerisms were done back then.
To my surprise, I fooled everyone. I know this because all of them within earshot asked, "What's your name?" and "Where are you from?" They stood closer to me. They brought their friends to me. None of this had happened to me previously.
If bad people can act like good people,
why can't good people act like good people?
But don't misunderstand me. Inside my chest were blenders and lawnmowers running up and down the length of my body shredding my insides. It was an extremely difficult act to pull off! I felt like a wretched fraud. That was too bad, because what was morally wrong with acting popular when there was no reason for not being popular?
The experiment helped me realize how superficial and façade-like social gatherings were. I had placed myself on a stage among actors performing before a great audience.
But, I also learned that I must make it easier for other people to want to be around me.
* * * *
As the saying goes, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This is where being creative comes in. Actors, writers, musicians, scientists, and painters, are notorious for having this the skill of creation. This puts me in a group of some of the most famous and accomplished people in the world. And the kindest. I am religious and believe in the hereafter. I cannot imagine what existence will be like when I am wholly free of this affliction. At that point, Heaven won’t have to be that spectacular for me to experience an exhilaration so poignant that other souls around me will say to each other, “Dang, this place isn’t that good!” And I won’t care what they think!