Back in my twenties I had a common social phobia. I was worried about what other people thought of me. I worried that people were looking at me and judging me. I was too afraid to expose myself to other people because I thought I would appear foolish and possibly humiliate myself. I avoided doing anything that called attention to myself. I didn’t share my opinions unless I was certain the people with whom I was sharing them would agree with me. I sat right in the middle of the boat so I wouldn’t rock it.
So one day I was discussing this little problem with Steve, my husband, though we were just engaged at the time. He was trying to convey to me that no one really paid that much attention to the antics of other people because they were most likely worried about what I was thinking of them! I didn’t really believe him, so he told me he could illustrate his point.
We were living in an apartment building that had a nice pool and Jacuzzi that people would gather around to swim, play cards, listen to music, or just hang out. He told me I should go out to the pool right then and there and jump in with all my clothes on. I was shocked that he would suggest something like that. After all, what would people think of me? I was sure they’d think I was a loon. They’d laugh and point at me, or someone might actually come up to me and say, “Are you crazy? What are you doing?” at which point I would need to keel over from embarassment. At the very least people would be staring at me, and it was something I feared terribly.
Steve asked me, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? Are you going to die? Is the sun going to fall out of the sky? Really, what’s the worst thing that can happen?” I said, “I guess the worst thing is that people think I’m crazy and they stare and laugh at me.” And he said, “Well, can you live with that?” I thought about it and realized that even though it would be uncomfortable I could probably live with it, though I was sure I’d need to hide out for a month or two so people could forget what I’d done. And I’d have to avoid going to get the mail for fear of running into someone who had seen me do it. But that was doable.
So, I agreed to do it. I put on a t-shirt and jeans, but no socks or shoes, and I took off my jewelry (no need to break my watch over this…). I went out to the pool and Steve trailed behind me with a towel. I asked if he was going to come in the gate with me and he said that I needed to feel like I was in it alone. No one to help deflect the crazy looks. I was so uneasy, but I still wanted to do it. There were 6 people out by the pool. Two were in the deep end playing ball. Two were sitting at a table playing cards, and the other two were reading on lounge chairs nearby.
I walked right to the edge of the area between the deep and shallow ends, took a deep breath, plugged my nose, and jumped. The water was freezing (it was autumn). I felt the cold water seep quickly into my clothes and it was uncomfortable. I dreaded surfacing since I assumed 6 pairs of eyes would be staring at me. But I had to come up sometime.
I surfaced, laughing nervously. I glanced around the pool and do you know what? Not one single person was even looking at me. No one appeared to even notice what had just happened. I had just jumped into the pool fully clothed and no one even batted an eyelash. I felt, well… disappointed. Surprised too. Hello, people! Didn’t you just see what I did? Steve brought me a towel and clapped me on the back. He said, “Good job! I didn’t actually think you would do it. How do you feel?” I thought about it a little and said, “Well, I feel good, actually. I just did something I was totally afraid to do and nothing bad actually happened to me.” We walked back to our apartment and discussed the event.
My worst fear did not in fact come to pass. If anyone even noticed what I did they didn’t show it. Steve told me that most people are too concerned with their own lives and their own problems to even notice what other people are doing. I concluded that he was right. I also realized that I didn’t need to be afraid of what other people thought of me. The only thing that mattered was how I felt about myself.
After that day I continued to challenge myself to do what I felt was right even if other people didn’t agree with me. For a while doing this felt like I was jumping back into that pool, but I kept doing it anyway. I grew more trusting of myself, and my discomfort in drawing attention to myself waned a great deal. In short, I grew confident.
Are you afraid of what other people think of you? Do you avoid saying or doing things that will draw attention to yourself? Just ask yourself this question: What’s the worst thing that can happen? If you can live with the answer, and you think it’s the right thing to do, then just do it! It’s like exercising a muscle; you’ve got to keep working it until it becomes strong.
Start small. Get the wrong order at the take-out window? Go back and ask them to remake it. Loan someone money who hasn’t paid you back? Call them up and ask them to make you a payment. Mother-in-law calling you too often? Call her up and… well, work your way up to this one.
If you need to, find a nice large pool with people all around it and jump in with your clothes on. You’ll find the experience exhilarating and not nearly as terrifying as you think. Just don’t forget your towel.