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Learned Self-consciousness

Overweight people may be uncomfortable with their appearance due to a concept called learned self-consciousness. Of course, a person can be any weight and self-conscious or plus-size and cool with it. With learned self-consciousness, you are hyper-aware of your body or appearance, uneasy being looked at or even noticed, and become twitchy when people focus or comment on your body. You’re dying to blend in, be invisible, shrink into nothingness. Self-consciousness is a learned trait—and you can unlearn it.

Children are notoriously unselfconscious—they scream, dance around, run naked, make silly sounds, and pick their noses in public. They would continue this behavior on into adulthood and probably take it to their grave were it not for the intervention of adults who socialize them into thinking that certain behaviors are unacceptable and off limits. A good deal of the teaching is about our bodies, so that we become preoccupied with how they look, move, and present themselves to the world to be acceptable.

It we are criticized for our weight, clothing, hairstyle, posture, or our “look” often enough, we begin to think there is something wrong with our bodies and expect anyone looking at us to be critical. We assume that someone glancing our way or staring at us must have negative thoughts because when our parents—or relatives—looked at us, what followed was disapproval about how we looked. Now we wrongly continue to pair the two together based on our experience with a small number of people in the past.

The fact is we learned to become self-conscious and we can unlearn this attitude by exploring our history and changing our beliefs. Questions to ponder include: When did I first become self-conscious? Who was involved in causing me to feel badly about my appearance? Were comments or criticisms valid or from some inner discomfort on someone else’s part? Was there anything I really needed to change or was I fine as I was? How do I know from evidence (not merely suspect) that people who are looking at me now are thinking negative thoughts? What if they are? How will that harm me?

Now that you’re an adult, if people criticize you, you can defend yourself. As to strangers, you’ll never know what they think anyway, so forget about them. Be aware of when you and with whom you become self-conscious. Notice the negative, fearful assumptions you have about what people are thinking, and counter them with sensible self-talk that reduces your self-consciousness. Work on developing a mindset that leads to unself-consciousness about your body by changing your beliefs and your self-talk.