The title “Being Friends with Self-Consciousness” is a surprising title for me to write about. Given how often it has plagued me and got in my way of doing simple things, it would seem for it to be closer to being my enemy.
“We’ll come to that this afternoon,” I said.
My voice was dismissive of the question from one of the 19 people in the room I was there to train. They were in a ‘U’ shape of tables and chairs. An assortment of sizes, shapes, genders, ages and colours of clothes. To my left was a row of windows looking out onto the car park, one floor below. The daylight was soft through pale grey clouds, not dark enough to threaten rain, not thin enough to make the April morning bright. At the back of the room stood 2 tables with pitchers of water, silver flasks of tea and coffee, plates and napkins next to a small toy giraffe. Crumbs were big enough to be seen from where I was above the burgundy tablecloth that covered both tables. The tables were next to the wood-paneled wall that enclosed the rest of the room. Assorted paintings hung straight and one faded portrait of the then Queen with a brass plaque below it saying “This Factory Opened by HRH Queen Elizabeth II on December 1, 1964”. The faces of the people were all on me.
“Let’s take a ten-minute break,” I said. I felt hot. Red. Muddy. Embarrassed. My over-riding thought was “They all think I’m an idiot and they’re right”
By this time, I’d been delivering training workshops to managers in the corporate world for 4 years, and according to the client feedback, their business results and the company I worked for, was good at it.
Not this day. All I could think about was me, and how much of an idiot I was. Because on my light blue-checked shirt was a big stain from the ketchup that fell from my breakfast sandwich an hour or so earlier. A big blob. I couldn’t shake it from my mind. 19 pairs of eyes, transfixed by the ketchup stain on my shirt.
This happened almost 20 years ago, and my memory of the scene, the people and the feeling is as sharp now as ever.
I have learnt so much since then and I had no idea how cool that experience of that day would turn out to be.
What I do know is this: anyone who has their attention on themselves does every single thing less well in life than if their attention is pointed outside of themselves.
From doing the dishes to driving a Formula One car to delivering a presentation, to performing brain surgery, to being in a job interview.
Self-consciousness brings a guarantee: whatever I’m doing, I’m not doing it as well as I could: right now.
That day, with the soft drinks company, with my ketchup-stained shirt: I sucked! The only people who mattered were the 19 I was training. The only person I could think of was me. Yet, in some moments – even on that day – I had them on my mind more than I had me on my mind. And the ketchup stain was still there on my shirt. So the ketchup stain could not have been the cause of my self-consciousness. If it was, I’d have felt the same way for as long as I was wearing that stained shirt. And I didn’t. And let’s face it, each of those 19 people might have for a few moments, been looking at the stain, and it mattered a lot less to them that I’d made it to matter to me.
That April day sharpened my awareness of the feeling of self-consciousness.
And I know that a self-conscious thought is no different in its nature than a thought of ‘I wonder when the rain will stop?’ or ‘What socks will I wear’ or ‘That fence panel in the garden needs fixing’. It brings a different feeling: that’s the effect of the thought, not its nature. In its nature, it’s fleeing, impersonal, illusory and arbitrary.
And even more powerful is the wisdom it brings: the feeling of self-consciousness tells me that my focus is in the wrong place. I do better when my attention is out there, on the task in hand, on the person or people in front of me, at them, not on me. And as soon as I’ve realised that, I can switch my attention in an instant. And I’m back. Doing the best I can. Without me on my mind.
Thank you self-consciousness, you help me more than I could have ever known!
With love and gratitude,