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Two Simple Tricks to Be More Comfortable in Your Own Skin

alone in a crowd

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

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Eric December 3, 2009 at 3:51 pm

I really like the first tip. I can see how treating a chair like my own easy chair at home could help me relax. I use a similar techinque when talking to new people, especially during job interviews. I imagine myself speaking to an old friend, just hanging out and having casual conversation. That image sets the tone for the entire conversation.
.-= Eric´s last blog ..The Post Movie High – That good feeling you get after watching a great movie. =-.

David December 3, 2009 at 6:30 pm

That’s a great idea too, assuming rapport, or as Gretchen Rubin called it, The “Hey, you’re my old friend from summer camp” technique.

Jay Schryer December 3, 2009 at 8:21 pm

Dammit! Right when I was getting ready to go to a friend’s aunt’s house or someplace like that and order up a wench, you shoot me out of the water! You can’t just offer up an idea like that and then snatch it away! What’s wrong with you?!?!

In all seriousness, though, this is a great post, I especially like the idea of finding other people and observing how uncomfortable they are. I find that this really helps me feel more at ease in unfamiliar surroundings. Another thing I always try to keep in mind is that people don’t really think about me as often as I *think* they do, so they’re not paying as much attention to me as my ego would have me believe. I often find that just reminding myself of that fact helps put me at ease.

David December 4, 2009 at 2:44 am

Hey if you’ve got wenches on the brain, then you do what you gotta do Jay :)

You’re totally right, IMO, other people probably don’t find ourselves nearly as worth scrutinizing as we do.

Patty - Why Not Start Now? December 3, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Nice twist on the idea of feeling more at ease in new situations. I like that you make this about physical sensation, that you pay attention to the wisdom of the body. And when I notice the body language of others who are also feeling self-conscious, I like to reach out and engage them in some way. Because two self-conscious people together can easily become two people who feel comfort and belonging.
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Big Questions =-.

David December 4, 2009 at 2:47 am

I think the physical body is such a sensitive barometer for what’s going on in the brain. The two are completely dependent on one another, so if we want to effect changes in one, it helps to look at what the other is doing. Reaching out is a great idea, I’ll try that next time I have a chance. It feels good to be reached out to.

Trish Scott December 4, 2009 at 10:42 am

Many years ago I got a job that required a power suit. I’d always worn jeans and t-shirts. Power suits were new to women in those days anyway so I knew this just wasn’t going to work without an attitude adjustment.

My father was a doctor and lived in a suit. I don’t think I ever saw him in anything but a suit unless he was going hunting. He mowed the lawn in a suit. Dressing down at home was taking off his suit coat and putting on a smoking jacket. There was nothing out of place about Dad in a suit no matter what he was doing. He also had a way of taking up all the space he needed – and he was a big man. When he walked into a room people noticed. He was the center of his universe and others who weren’t quite attuned to their own center gravitated around him. He didn’t really notice. It was just the normal way for him.

So back to my power suit. I put on my new suit at home and put myself into the “way” of my Dad. I lounged around in it and ate dinner in it and just made myself entirely at home in that suit. When I went to work the next day I took up all the space I needed in my chair at the office and in the hot seats in clients offices all day long. Of course I soon learned to live in my suits and came to love the ease of getting dressed in the morning. The choice of what shirt and tie to wear with the same three suits got sorted out fairly quickly :) Life can be good in a suit.

I love this post. It helps to clear up the whole issue about self consciousness. We all experience it to some extent and it does take a conscious effort to get past it. Your post points out how simple that actually is. I may blog this idea – I’ll link to you if I do. Thanks.

David December 4, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Haha, great power suit story Trish. I love the image of your dad mowing the lawn in a suit. I’ll keep it in mind when I don my “going out” clothes today.

Leigh Ann December 4, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Thanks for another great post! I really enjoy these ones dealing with social anxieties, since that is one of my greatest challenges. Having concrete actions to take at the very least gives me something else to think about. And since the whole problem begins with thinking too much, that’s a big leap forward.

I LOVE the phrase “. . . the undisputed emperor of the chair.” That’s such a vivid image that it’s very easy to bring the feelings and thoughts of comfort and confidence along with the image. I’ve learned to be extremely proficient at being invisible, and while that can be quite useful at times, it’s a defense mechanism that, as a reflex, has overstayed its welcome. It’s very comforting to know that I’m not the only one who’s ever been afraid to order a pizza (I was SO happy when online ordering became an option) and that it can be overcome.

David December 5, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Thanks Leigh Ann. Just writing this post has reminded me to do these things more often, especially the chair one. Sometimes I just forget outright. At the moment I’m the emperor of an internet café in Rotorua :)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) December 5, 2009 at 5:47 am

wherever I am that is where I belong~ the feeling uncomfortable in my skin can be awkward at times tho. As I pick up so much input I cannot help but fidget and react, sometimes it’s like the universe is soaking through my skin~ no coffee on those days ~:-(
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..Forums =-.

David December 5, 2009 at 6:47 pm

wherever I am that is where I belong

Love that one!

Suddenly I feel like a coffee.

Tim — Inspiration Pro December 5, 2009 at 5:20 pm

David, I used to have the exact same problem as you described here. I suffered from social anxiety most of my life because I was overweight, I looked like a nerd (more than I do now, I should add), and subconsciously I think I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be anywhere where there was a large group of people. I consistently feared what other people were thinking of me.

Some ways that helped me become more comfortable in my skin was reading inspirational books that helped me aim higher in life, losing 80 pounds, eating healthy (which I think improved my mental well-being), learning more about life and the world in general, and learning to joke with people I first meet.

I also think that realizing that other people were just as nervous and vulnerable as I was was also a good start.
.-= Tim — Inspiration Pro´s last blog ..12 Fundamentals of Instant Charisma =-.

David December 5, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Yeah, I’m not sure why it’s such a huge surprise to find that vulnerability is normal, even in confidence people. I’ve been people-watching a lot today, and it’s absolutely everywhere. Thank God for the shortcomings of others ;)

Brenda (betaphi) December 6, 2009 at 4:27 pm

I think women, especially, fuss and fidget over how they look. Someone once told me not to worry because most people are more interested in how they look than how you look. That helped a lot.
.-= Brenda (betaphi)´s last blog ..Why the Dragons Went Away =-.

David December 7, 2009 at 1:51 pm

That’s the ultimate defense to self-consciousness: to know that people are much more concerned with themselves than with you.

Financial Samurai December 6, 2009 at 6:07 pm

I think part of the reason why Americans feel uncomfortable in foreign places is b/c of our lack of ability to speak a foreign language.

Did you know that only 20% of Americans can speak a foreign language at an advanced level? It’s pretty shocking to me.

Once you know a foreign language, you understand nuances.
.-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Why The World Forgives Rich And Famous People For Cheating =-.

David December 7, 2009 at 1:54 pm

You’re probably right. However, it’s strange: I feel less self-conscious in places where I don’t speak the local language. I suppose it’s because I know I have no chance of fitting in seamlessly, so there’s no anxiety about it. I felt virtually no self-consciousness in Thailand, except when I was surrounded by Westerners.

Langston December 6, 2009 at 11:48 pm

I see how your techniques can make someone feel more comfortable, but the chair technique seems too ego based. It seems to me that it may be more socially and personally healthy for someone not to cover their discomfort with the comfort found in ownership of a situation. I would recommend learning to sit with your discomfort. Explore it; see where it takes you. This can lead to all sorts of revelations pertaining to yourself, society, or even the deeper mysteries of the universe.

David December 7, 2009 at 2:00 pm

I too recommend sitting with discomfort. Nothing has been more useful to me than learning to sit with all sorts of feelings. This is very strong medicine, and it’s the work of a lifetime.

These tips are simple tricks to achieve a more accurate perspective when you find your ego has convinced you that you are smaller than the people around you. Self-consciousness is a lack of perspective, and you can manipulate the ego to restore that perspective by compensating through visualization. Always do what works best for you.

Tatiana December 22, 2009 at 5:43 pm

The fist tip is exactly the advice I sort of follow internally in those rare moments when I feel social discomfort. Unlike many people in this thread I rarely feel self-conscious and don’t mind looking like an idiot if I feel like it. I don’t mind the feeling of being lost and bewildered and rather enjoy feeling like a fish out of water because I know it’s such a temporary feeling.

But the odd time when I feel uncomfortable in a new environment I do what you do – step back a bit, get my bearings, relax into the environment and feel the strangeness until you gleefully realize that absolutely no one but no one is paying attention to you. Most people are so absorbed in their internal chatter that they pay quite scant attention to wee you and your problems. Then – deep breath and proceed to do what you need to do – find a schedule, get a taxi, whatever. Also – worst case – ask for help – people generally like to help out and will do so given the opportunity. :)
.-= Tatiana´s last blog ..A helpful tourist =-.

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