I’ve received a fair bit of email asking me to write about how to be more comfortable in your own skin, particularly in unfamiliar places. Many report some level of anxiety at the thought of venturing into crowded venues, exploring new neighborhoods, or traveling alone.
I won’t pretend I’ve conquered self-consciousness in all its forms, but I can see my preparedness for dealing with the unfamiliar is miles from where it once was.
As a benchmark of how far I’ve come, I often reminisce with some embarrassment how my heart used to beat a little faster even at the thought of ordering pizza over the phone. It’s difficult to comprehend now what exactly I found intimidating about it, but I know that that was reality for me at one point.
Not long ago (maybe two years) I was not in a state of mind where I would be willing to confront the intrinsic uncertainties and risks of shipping myself off to another country. I’ve been on the road for seven weeks in unfamiliar parts of three countries and I’ve run into surprisingly few situations where I could not relax into whatever new scene I’ve found myself in.
I’ve learned a few tricks that really help create ease in situations where you don’t exactly feel like a fish in water. I’ll share two simple ones that you may want to try if you’re feeling a bit out of your element somewhere.
Whenever you sit in a chair, treat it like your easy chair at home.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a bus station, a doctor’s office, a restaurant, or a friend of a friend’s house. Don’t just park yourself there, take the seat. Retire into the seat like you’re settling in for a first-class flight. Really make yourself at home.
We tend to think of home as a specific location — a defined physical space where we feel safe and entitled to be ourselves. But home, like so many other things that profess to be something more concrete, is really just an emotion. “Home” is the emotion of belonging you get from very familiar places. When you don’t feel at home, you feel displaced somewhat, like there is some small but unignorable risk to your merely being there, and you probably feel a growing urgency to get somewhere more comfortable.
Imagine if one could transport the emotion of “home” to a place that is not so physically familiar or predictable. It’s not as difficult as it sounds — often all that’s necessary is to simply make the point of making yourself at home when you find yourself in a not-so-inviting foreign train station or friend’s aunt’s house or pretentious café.
To do that, first let your body be comfortable. Take up a bit more space. In particular, release the tension in your legs and abdomen. Chances are you won’t notice this tension if you don’t look for it. Expand your posture until no part of you is hunching or cowering. When the body is comfortable in the space, only then does the mind have permission to get comfortable too. Sit there like somebody who has a God-given right to occupy the space you’re in.
The sensation we’re looking for is something like you’re a monarch sitting on your throne. Righteous. Stable. Entitled. This is not an invitation to be an ingrate, or a tyrant. No need to demand wenches or fiddlers three, or shoo others from your presence. Nor is it advisable to completely spit on social conventions by putting your feet up on a restaurant table, or for that matter showing up in your bathrobe.
But it is an invitation to assert your existence as if you have the highest of rights to be exactly where (and for that matter who) you are, with no doubts on your part and no challenges from others. And who knows this feeling better than royalty?
In other words, make your new seat your home — for as long as you’re sitting in it. Until you leave (or are physically dislodged by outside forces, in that unlikely event) it is your station in life and yours alone. So occupy it, it’s yours. Sit with dignity, but relax your mind as if you’re in a hammock on the front porch.
If you’re having trouble relaxing into a crowded environment, try first picturing the same surroundings as completely empty of people, as I described here.
The throne technique is a rather counter-intuitive approach to taking a seat in an unfamiliar place. When it feels a bit underconfident, the body seems to want to assert less of a presence, by making itself smaller. In this exercise we want to override this impulse.
Whenever there is some degree of social discomfort, the tendency — if unchecked — is for the body to tense up as if to repel attacks, for the head to lower as if it might otherwise be lopped off, for the shoulders to sink as if to keep from offending anyone, for the hands to stay close to the body as if to prevent their getting into trouble, for the eyes and head to stay aimed away from people as if to avoid scrutinous glances — all overreactive defensive postures that you won’t see in someone sitting in the comfort of their own living room.
Search your body for all those forms of tension and shrinkage, and rectify them. Expand, soften, enjoy yourself. It’s your dining chair, bus-stop bench, pew, duct-taped couch cushion, or whatever.
Forget the greater context of who actually owns the chair or building you’re in. Those are irrelevant circumstantial details that won’t enter into your self-contained tenure as the undisputed emperor of the chair. Your seat is utterly yours while you’re there, so act like it. It is the pulpit from which you’ll speak and the castle in which you’ll reside, during your entire reign.
It is no exaggeration to say that while you are sitting there, you are at the center of the universe, as far as you can perceive it, so make sure you don’t simply perch there feeling “off-center.” Sit in the center of the universe, really. It’s not hard to do, but it doesn’t happen by accident.
We’re All in This Together
The other trick is considerably simpler, and can be of immediate help to anybody feeling any sort of social discomfort among others.
When you feel like a fish out of water, look for hints of self-consciousness in other people.
When your friends have dragged you to a snooty gallery, a college-age bar (and you’re 30), or anywhere else you don’t feel entirely comfortable, one powerful way to feel more at ease is to study strangers for signs of similar social discomfort.
Pick someone who isn’t engaged in conversation or anything else, especially somebody who is alone, and observe. Chances are you will see them sip at their drink a little too often, look around at walls and ceiling ducts like they’re something of interest, scratch their head for no conceivable reason, look at their watch but not really read the time, or any number of other inane symptoms of typical human social discomfort.
It is amazing how easy it is to see this when you’re looking for it. You’ll see all sorts of not-quite-comfortable people, presumably enduring any number of social afflictions, such as hoping someone talks to them, or wondering if they have something in their teeth or if they’ve placed their hands in a weird position.
Much of self-consciousness comes from the erroneous belief that everyone feels like they belong here but you. You can obliterate that falsehood by taking your eyes off yourself and putting it onto another pitiful soul suffering a mild existential crisis. The truth is most people do not, at any given time, feel perfectly at ease when they are in a place that subjects them to social scrutiny.
Human beings are just that neurotic about acceptance, across the board. You can even spot it in the alpha males and females — those who are perpetually surrounded by friends and appear to exude supreme confidence. When they are not engaged by others you will see telltale signs of a need to please, a dependence on esteem. It affects us all.
Self-consciousness is insidious because it pretends to pit you, an individual, against the rest of society. Yet that same ‘rest of society’ is composed only of individuals who are fighting that same battle to some degree.
Just being aware that nobody is always comfortable in their own skin can be comforting in itself. Spotting the signs in other people is extremely reassuring — you have brothers and sisters everywhere.
Photo by chez sugi