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I’ve written about the flushed cheeks and blank mind I experience when suddenly finding myself the center of attention or when called upon to speak extemporaneously among non-friends. Many writers and introverted people seem to experience this freeze of words, awkward physical movement and self-consciousness while being observed. I would like to propose reasons why.

Being false

I did not, at heart, feel I deserved to be class president…and in protest at my false position my vocal apparatus betrayed me. — John Updike, “Self-Consciousness”

While reading John Updike’s appropriately named memoir, “Self-Consciousness”, I discovered a chapter titled, “Getting the Words Out”. In this chapter Updike describes his personal experience with stuttering or stammering and his life-long drive to understand it.

As Updike admits his stammering increases while pretending to be someone he is not, my head nods in recognition. I relate to this experience. Often when I’ve found myself at a loss for words or clumsily doing something, it was when I was trying to impress someone.

For example, I was at a Myers Briggs meeting in Minneapolis years ago. I did not know anyone and had only recently received my certification as a Myers Briggs practitioner. I remember easily listening to others and remarking upon their careers involving the MBTI.

Then someone asked me to describe how I use Myers Briggs in my practice. I barely had a practice or any experience applying the personality inventory. I started to babble on about how I hoped to use it, but noticed everyone looking at me intently. I felt my face turn beet red and my words slow down and get quieter. I went completely blank. I don’t even remember how I got out of that moment, but thankfully attention switched to someone else.

I pretended to be a confident have-it-all-planned-out career woman. My brain/body said, “Ah no. Let’s bring you back to whom you really are.”

That is only one instance of such a deer-in-the-headlights reaction. There have been many more. It’s as if my true self cannot bear to act out of character. My embarrassing behavior betrays my falseness, making me ultimately quite humble and not impressive.

Upholding that carefully crafted persona that protects my complicated and soft insides, requires a lot of energy. Sometimes the mask slips off to reveal my real imperfect self.

Interestingly, acting in a play has the exact opposite effect. I can speak my lines easily and rarely stumble. I think if my behavior crosses the line into getting too big for my britches (as my grandma used to say), I falter. It’s the posing that kills me.

Unfriendly and super smart audiences

I am afraid of New York audiences, especially; they are too smart and left-wing for me. And yet some audiences can be as comforting, with their giant collective sighs and embracing laughter, as an ideal mother… — John Updike, “Self-Consciousness”

intellectual woman

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Most people find judgmental and ultra-intellectual people intimidating. Highly sensitive and introverted people may find them even more so. Our hyper awareness of others’ thoughts and feelings makes their scrutiny of us that much more unbearable.

Updike talks about getting tongue-tied when reaching a brusque electrician on the phone. I can relate. The second I sense dislike, disdain or irritation in someone’s voice, my voice and/or behavior often shifts to awkward and weak.

I have made progress with this reaction. I’ve learned over the years, to not take a person’s directness personally. Having experienced, for example, East Coasters as family and friends, I understand and appreciate the style of different regions. Not to generalize, but many East Coast dwellers speak directly. I still sometimes find it off-putting, but then remind myself it’s their style not a reaction to me personally.

Ultra smart people used to intimidate me too, but I’ve learned to ask them questions or simply listen to them. They usually end up being rather human. If they come across as condescending, I steer clear if at all possible.

People pleasers painfully aware of others

It is an excess of delicacy, excess of sensibility to the presence of his fellow-creature, that makes him stammer. Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle to Ralph Waldo Emerson regarding Henry James

As I mentioned above, our sensitivity to the feelings and thoughts of others, keeps our own thoughts and feelings incredibly busy. All of the awareness makes speaking and even walking or eating more complicated. Our focus zings back and forth between our internal world, the external world, the reactions/feelings of others and our behavior. Coordination is complex and is sometimes sacrificed to the management of all of this awareness.

In our attempts to please others, we take great pains to anticipate their reactions, which causes us to be slower with our reactions and speech.  We don’t want to let anyone down. We are very aware of their presence. We are not at ease, therefore we fumble.

Brain makeup

The last possible reason for our high levels of self-consciousness, comes from Marti Olsen Laney and “The Introvert Advantage”. Dr. Laney describes the introverted brain as having longer channels of information retrieval. She says we put more information in long-term memory, which takes longer to retrieve when needed.

This explains the trouble with spontaneous speaking, but also makes me wonder, due to all the research pointing to brain elasticity, if we can change our brain pathways with behavior and improve our speaking skills.

Introverts, according to Dr. Laney, also tend to be more sensitive to dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that makes us want, desire, seek out and search. It increases our level of arousal and goal-directed behavior. A little goes a long way for introverts. We prefer a more calm neurotransmitter, acetylcholine.

The introverted brain makes more use of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which causes us to focus on our internal world more than an extroverted brain does. Acetylcholine affects attention and learning, influences the ability to stay calm and alert, utilizes long-term memory and activates voluntary movement. Not surprisingly, acetylcholine stimulates a good feeling when we think and feel, which makes our internal world so comfortable, we do not like to venture outside of it. When we do, we are more self-conscious.

Do any of these issues cause you to experience self-consciousness? Do you have social anxiety? If so, how do you cope?