“Hell is other people.”
Whether it’s the rude throng of last-minute Christmas shoppers, or the drunken fratboys slithering up to you at a concert, or the old man in the restaurant booth behind you who clears his decrepit throat every forty seconds, everyone finds themselves feeling a general aversion to people now and then. For those with any level of social anxiety, there is always at least a hum of this derision in the background, sometimes a full-on shout. Even for those without it, repeated ugly experiences can inspire a familiar distaste for people that may never completely disappear. Unless, of course, the people do.
Sometimes the feeling is disdain for their behavior, other times it’s a fear of it. Think of the last time you got upset. Chances are, the actions of another person had something to do with it. Other people seem to trigger the most unpleasant emotions in us. Self-consciousness, intimidation, embarrassment, anger, vulnerability and humiliation tend to characterize our most painful experiences and our most unsettling memories.
When people are present, suddenly there arises a certain tension in the body and mind, however subtle. Our senses are very keen to the spectrum of threats other human beings can present to us. This physical and emotional reaction to people could almost be described as an allergy; an involuntary reaction to the introduction of a certain element to the environment. This offending element is humanity.
When people aren’t around, that same tension, whatever magnitude it is for you — the hum or the shout — disappears.
The Freedom of Vacant Spaces
I remember one particular night, as a teenager, when a few of us slipped away from the festivities of some rural bonfire to go and wander through a field of wheat. There was a faint breeze and the sky was warm and clear.
When we emerged at the highway, I remember being stunned at how still it was. It was probably two in the morning, and even as I stood perfectly still, there wasn’t so much as a whisper of a distant car to be heard. It was like all the other people on earth had gone. I remember walking out onto the pavement and enjoying the bizarre sensation of standing on a surface which, by day, would have been a bustling death-zone.
I wanted to explore that feeling more, so I sat, then reclined onto my back on the warm, new blacktop. It was so still and silent. Dangerless. Comfortable. I looked at the stars and listened to the crickets. It was an amazing feeling.
As I went to lay down, one part of my brain kept saying “David! This is a highway! You’re nuts! This is wrong, so very wrong.” But another part of my brain — evidently, a smarter part — knew that there was no danger at all. I knew I would hear any vehicle and see its headlights three miles away. I was only used to treating highways as being invariably threatening.
I realize now that many of us tend to view humans with that same automatic wariness and reactivity as I did the highway. I feel much less of it now than I did when I was very shy, but it is certainly still perceptible. I guess deep down, however accepting we are of human beings generally, we know that they are not entirely harmless. Though we might not always be actively thinking it, some ancient part of our brain always knows that the everyday, garden-variety homo sapien is without question the most dangerous animal on earth.
Not that it’s violence or physical harm that we fear most. Humans are extremely social animals, and injuries to our reputation or self-confidence are interpreted by our brains as being even more worrisome than bumps or bruises. You have to admit, we hate to feel embarrassed or awkward or get looked at funny. Our brains so greatly over-appraise social dangers and aversions, that we are famously more afraid of public speaking than death. We’re all self-conscious to some extent. If you think you are an exception, how would you feel performing author Tim Ferriss’ exercise for eradicating self-consciousness in public:
…simply lie down in the middle of a crowded public place. Lunchtime is ideal. It can be a well-trafficked sidewalk, the middle of a popular Starbucks, or a popular bar. There is no real technique involved. Just lie down and remain silent on the ground for about ten seconds, and then get up and continue on with whatever you were doing before.
Some would say he’s nuts, but I think he’s a genius.
There is no question that the presence of human beings changes how we feel about a given setting. Nearby people seem to add a dose of apprehension, whether a dash or a dollop, to any situation. So when others are around we are unable to relax beyond a certain degree, which depends on our level of self-assuredness, as well as the familiarity and behavior of the people present.
Think of the difference in how you feel, or how you carry yourself, when you are walking around your workplace in the middle of the workday, compared to when you go back to grab something around it after hours. Certainly there is a different tone to the experience. Your gait and your breathing are probably freer, and your thoughts probably aren’t focused on your appearance. There is a way to cultivate that unthreatening tone of having nobody around, even while people are around. But first we have to know what it feels like.
The Cure to People Allergies
Whenever I notice symptoms of a ‘people allergy’, whether it’s feeling self-conscious, a fear of embarrassment, a fear of confrontation or awkwardness, frustration or impatience with people’s actions, or any other people-related discomfort, I remember to do the following exercise.
Picture the same surroundings you’re in right now, but with one minor difference:
They’re all gone. Maybe it’s late and this area is closed. Or maybe you just woke up in a Twilight Zone episode and everyone else on earth is inexplicably gone. Or maybe a neutron bomb wiped them all out, leaving the surroundings intact. It’s just vacant space; only the buildings, plants, furnishings and fixtures remain. Really imagine it, in detail. If it were empty of people, what would it feel like to walk around that same space? Would you still be self-conscious? Could you be?
Can you picture the same office, the same street, the same parking lot, or the same mall, as it would look if you were the only one there?
If there are any other people around, try it right now. Otherwise, try it when you leave your home or office. Any street, building or public place will do. Anywhere you might sense a modicum of self-consciousness, or the loathesome ‘ick’ of overcrowdedness, is perfect. Visualize what the place would look like if it were completely evacuated of people. Get a real physical and emotional sense of what it would be like to walk around an emptied version of it. Imagine striding across the open floor, or the deserted asphalt, blissfully aware that no soul can judge you or perturb you in any way. Treat it as your own world. Be carefree. Get comfortable.
Know what it means to walk and act as if you’re in an empty space. Walk through downtown as if it’s your own personal courtyard. Sit down in a room as if you own it. Feel that sense of free, empty space that the environment always has to offer, even while you walk around a lively party, or the aisles of Home Depot, or your company’s office space.
Next time you’re on the street, imagine that same street as it would look if it had been completely abandoned by humanity. Just bare concrete, without a car or a soul to be seen anywhere. The site itself is just a harmless arrangement of hard surfaces. If you can really imagine what it would be like if everyone but you was gone, if you can really picture how freeing and open everything would feel, then you have a starting point for eliminating self-consciousness and other people allergies.
I recommend making a habit of doing this regularly, not just when you are experiencing anxiety or discomfort. Here are some good places to try it:
- While grocery shopping
- In a boring meeting
- Out on the street
- At a seminar, fundraiser, or any other uninspiring function
- In any entertainment venue
When you are able to picture an environment as empty, instantly that same environment feels inert and harmless, because it is rarely the environment that causes the anxiety. It is the presence of people in our environments that triggers self-consciousness. All issues of self-esteem and self-image are a function of how we feel towards others, not how they feel towards us. Truthfully, we just can’t ever know what they think, we only have access to our own thoughts. We can only think we know what they think. Dr Wayne Dyer famously said “What other people think of me is none of my business.” You can’t really feel other people’s eyes on you; that’s a myth. It’s only your judgments you feel, not theirs.
If there was simply no one else around, we would have a hard time feeling embarrassed, or jealous, or inadequate. Nor could we feel threatened — so long as there are no immediate physical dangers present, such as sharks or lightning. So in order to lose our people-allergies, we have to know what it is like to be able to walk around without them. Picturing the same scene as empty of people introduces us to the feeling of being non-self-conscious in a scene where we might normally be a bit uncomfortable.
Returning the People to the Scene
Of course, there are people. We can’t pretend forever. We have to interact with them, move around them, and accommodate their existence in our habitat.
Once you are able to picture the scene without people, then you can mentally allow the homo sapiens back into the picture, plunking them back into the empty space, one by one if necessary. Recognize that the busy venues we frequent on a daily basis are really just animal habitats. The giant pandas have their bamboo forests, the angel fish have their coral reefs, we humans have our buildings and city streets.
Let them populate the scene and do what they are inclined to do, just as if you were releasing a basketful of cats into an empty living room. Upon their release, they would do nothing but perform their ordinary feline acts and deeds, and you could just watch them as they respond to their environment. They would probably look around, poke at objects with their noses, sniff the other cats, simply react whatever sights and sounds the room contains. Some might try to intimidate other cats, a few may try to mate with other cats, one may try to hoard all the food for himself. Surely this is all forgivable. If one continues to observe, they may witness relationships forming, pecking orders arising, routines becoming established, and personalities revealing themselves.
Do this with human beings. Any environment is ripe for this experiment: an office, a street corner, a restaurant. Watch people interact with their ‘living room.’ All they will do is what people normally do. They can’t do anything but what is in their nature. Maybe we don’t have to be so uptight about it. Consciously give them permission to do their thing. Then just watch them like you’re watching a National Geographic documentary. Observe these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat.
When you focus on observing the environment first, then the inhabitants of the environment, the scene becomes a curiosity rather than a source of personal problems. That delicious sense of wonder and mystery – so scarce in adulthood – returns as if it had never left at all.
The other truth that may smack you in the face is that life itself is miraculous. Simply watching a living thing interact with its habitat is the most captivating sight imaginable, if you are not distracted by your own judgments. If you have ever been floored by Planet Earth, or something similar, give it a try in a manmade environment. The creatures you will witness are beautiful and baffling, ridiculous and adorable. A mall, a store, a school, a sidewalk. Watch the fascinating creatures do their thing.
As a direct result of this newfound fascination with behavior, a certain respect for life arises, and moral judgments do not seem important. After all, we do not condemn a dog who swipes a bone from another dog with nearly the same venom we would for a person behaving with a similar level impulsiveness. I suppose we are extra hard on people because we are so hard on ourselves. We sometimes expect too much, I think. Humans are incredible creatures, but we often forget that we are indeed creatures, subject to the same wants, fears, and impulses as any so-called ‘lesser animal.’ Let the cats be cats.
The Best Part
Often I forget that I’m there at all, that there are any personal interests of mine to be threatened in that situation. I am just observing the scene as it happens, rather than the scene as it relates to me and my interests and my welfare. Self-consciousness disappears. Worry disappears. I lose track of my normal preoccupation with controlling the outcome, for I’ve become (at least for the moment) purely an observer. I am not personally invested in the situation, so my ego takes a back seat.
Watching a moment unfold as it will is exhilarating. The familiar feelings of judgment and social anxiety defeat our ability to observe objectively. Even while I have to move or act in the situation, I can remain in that open, observant mindset. While I’m observing like that, my hands, body and vocal chords seem to do as they are inclined without deliberation or reservation. After all, I’m a cat too.
Sometimes, under extenuating circumstances (picture the sidewalks in Montréal’s shopping district on December 26th) I am still sufficiently overwhelmed to leave the scene in a huff. But even in those rare instances, I still don’t lose sight of the love and compassion that lies just behind my momentary emotional tantrum. Simply understanding that it’s only people doing their people thing really takes the edge off any anxiety that does occur.
The effect on my life has been tremendous. Instances in which I get flustered by others’ behavior are uncommon now, where they used to be virtually guaranteed. More importantly, this way of looking at people has replaced my impulse to condemn with the impulse to forgive.
After picturing their absence, it really is gratifying (and even relieving) to allow these stunning creatures back into their environment. You may feel a hint of sadness at the thought that one day, your beloved city may one day really be empty of life. Perhaps a neutron bomb, or an insidious disease will eventually create the empty manmade spaces you have visualized in this exercise. Don’t take for granted that we live in a place where human beings are alive and breathing and interacting with their habitat. Such an engaging spectacle may not always exist, and we are so lucky to be able to witness it for free, anytime. If you get familiar with this exercise, you will feel more and more of that kind of gratitude, until a visit to an overcrowded mall is becomes a beautiful and touching experience. I’m not kidding.
So when you close your web browser and get up and head out the door, don’t forget that you are just magnificent creature in its natural habitat, and so are the rest of us. I’ll see you out there somewhere.