January 23, 2013

“Don’t worry about what other people think of you.” This common advice has always puzzled me. It is true that an excessive amount of thinking about what other people think of you is not beneficial; it would only cause you more pain and could also paralyze you. But on the other hand, not worrying about what other people think of you at all would make you arrogant, selfish, and inconsiderate. So, I’ve always considered it as a matter of balance. I assumed that there was an optimal degree of worrying about what other people thought of me. But now I think I was wrong. My concern shouldn’t be the degree of worrying but who/what is benefitting from my worrying.

In Albert Ellis’ “Shame Attack” exercise where you loudly announce the next stop in a crowded subway car, you would not be harming anyone, and it could even benefit some people who have a hard time hearing the conductor’s announcements via speakers. Yet, most of us would be too embarrassed to do it, which means that our pain of embarrassment is coming solely from our interest in protecting our own self-image/ego. In other words, in this particular instance, there is no optimal degree of worrying; there is no need to worry at all. If you had no attachment to your own self-image, you would be able to do this without a problem.

On the other hand, the same does not hold true for the exercise that Ellis himself conducted, where he tried to talk to as many women as possible in a park. Given the fact that none of the women he talked to stayed in touch with him tells us that they didn’t want to talk to him. I would imagine that some of them were even scared of him. It can therefore be said that he was being selfish in conducting the exercise, although I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we should never do anything selfish. We all do anyway.

From this perspective, shyness is always necessarily selfish. Anytime we would describe our own inner feelings as “shy”, we know deep down that what we are feeling is selfish, meaning, it serves no purpose but to protect our own self-image/ego. If there were a legitimate reason why we shouldn’t do something, we would not describe that sense of hesitation as “shyness”. Granted, we confront many situations where both factors are present. Our action could potentially cause some inconvenience or annoyance to others and at the same time make us feel shy. But it would be helpful to think about shyness as necessarily selfish because then we could take it out of the equation entirely before we make our decisions. The shyness should not be weighed as a factor in our decision-making.

And, without this awareness that shyness is always necessarily selfish, we would be more likely to criticize others of being selfish when they do something we wouldn’t/couldn’t do. By labeling their actions as “selfish”, we would protect our egos, even though the real cause of our inaction may have been our lack of courage.

Ultimately “shame attacks” do not work because all it would do in the end is to serve our own egos further, to make ourselves feel better that we were able to perform the shame attacks. There are plenty of moments in our everyday lives where we resist actions or words because of a potential damage to our self-image/ego. Artificially creating these circumstances as “shame attacks” would further complicate our own egos.