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Don’t let shyness stop you from looking great: Why it happens, What you can do about it, and How to <u>not</u> get overwhelmed

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Don’t let shyness stop you from looking great: Why it happens, What you can do about it, and How to not get overwhelmed

If you’ve ever felt shy, socially awkward, or nervous in an unfamiliar setting, there’s a good chance you’ve also felt some sort of anxiety from what you’re wearing, or the way you look. This manifests itself in many ways—whether that’s a constant rotation of the same 4 logo tees and 2 pairs of jeans, or excessively out-of-place clothing—but the underlying theme is the same: subconsciously,  you’re dispelling any doubt about your character or worth. Again, this could present itself in distinct ways, but in the end, the link is still there: you want to state “this is me” as quickly as possible, so as to remove attention from yourself or feel mounting stress.

There are a few reasons—backed by psychological literature—that explain why this happens, two of which are related to public self-consciousness and the spotlight effect (don’t worry, we’ll dive into both below). Since so much of how we’re seen is defined by the clothes we wear, it’s a double-edged sword where both sides sting equally: you might find yourself “stuck” because of the clothes you wear, or wildly uncomfortable and even more awkward trying to completely change your look and personality.

Luckily, there are ways to overcome this, and while it’s easier to change your clothes than your mindset, little changes about the way you feel about (and therefore look at) yourself can push you in the right direction. Of course, it can be easy to get overwhelmed making simultaneous style and mental changes, so we’ve also outlined some ways to avoid getting smothered.

In the end, you shouldn’t stop yourself from changing your look. Whether that’s adding a few items to your wardrobe or making a complete overhaul, push yourself a little bit every day – it’ll make you look better, but it’ll also make you a better person in the long run!

Why being shy or socially anxious and awkward stops you from looking your best: public self-consciousness and the spotlight effect

Feelings of social anxiety, awkwardness, and stress can come from a number of sources, but two important ones that deal with physical appearance are public self-consciousness and the spotlight effect.

Public self-consciousness

Simply-put, public self-consciousness is how you perceive others see you. Someone who is constantly thinking about how others see them are high in public self-consciousness. It isn’t always bad, but in social settings, high public self-consciousness can really hinder your experience. For example, people who are afraid of messing up in front of others because of embarrassment could be high in public self-consciousness – they feel like others would judge them harshly for messing up. In a social setting, this might prevent you from engaging in a fun activity (like karaoke) or dressing up for a costume party.

Making big changes is daunting, more so for some than others. One study (1) looked at the links between social anxiety and clothing as they relate to public self-consciousness. They found that “the self-evaluation that accompanies public self-consciousness is thought to produce social anxiety if the evaluation results in an awareness of discrepancies between the self-image and a socially defined ideal.” If the changes you make cause you to feel like a very different person, this might cause more stress and anxiety.


The spotlight effect

The spotlight effect could be one of the biggest contributors to the anxiety you feel if you have high public self-consciousness and find yourself in a less-than-desirable situation. “The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are noticed more than they really are (2,3,4)". While it might be true that we are all the centers of our own worlds, in this case we might also feel that we are the center of everyone else’s world too.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to say that the spotlight effect might occur the most when you’re doing something atypical, or out of the norm. If you struggle to try on new clothes because you think you’re being judged wherever you go, you might be suffering from the spotlight effect.


What you can do to change your look, and not cause more stress and anxiety

Don’t let the above scare you even more. These two phenomena may not be a bad thing – in fact you can (and should!) use this information to conquer your style changes, as well as your mindset.

When public self-consciousness and the spotlight effect manifest themselves negatively, they build your insecurities and push you deeper into the problems you currently have. In reality, the main issue is your mindset: the two phenomena manifest themselves because of how you think about social interaction. Thinking too much about how others perceive you might push you towards being “fake” or insincere in your behavior and dress; and feeling like everyone’s eyes are on you might force you to always dress in the same nondescript way you’ve been dressing for the past 10 years.

Truthfully, people do see you. And they do pass judgment on you. Neither are avoidable, but what’s also unavoidable is the fact that you have at least some control in what they see and how they judge you. And this may not be such a bad thing.

Changing what you wear or how you look is tied to who you are, but they aren’t the only things that define you. By wearing new clothes or getting a new hairstyle, you aren’t changing your identity. But you can use clothes, hairstyles, and makeup to show your identity. This is key. If you aren’t afraid to show who you are, then you won’t feel as much anxiety or stress from wearing new clothes, especially if you feel they define who you are.

When you choose to show who you are, you have more control in how others perceive you. It may not be natural at first, but using your own interests and hobbies to gradually push your fashion comfort zone makes things a lot easier. And for shy people or those who enjoy being quiet, expressing your personality through your physical appearance can speak for you. Of course, it may bring unwanted conversations, but at least they’ll revolve around things you’re interested in – a lot of introverts hate small talk, but love deep conversation about topics they enjoy.


Taking on a new look or style should make you feel better, not worse: how to not get overwhelmed

If you’re ready to make changes but are still a little worried about taking the dive into updating your look (or are worried about giving yourself even more stress and grief), here are some tips to consider.

At the end of the day, you’re dressing for YOU

When you have confidence in yourself, you’ll also have confidence in what you’re wearing. Be clear and definitive about what you like – your personality is yours alone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you establish what you like, you can start to figure out what looks good. Do you like music? Art of a specific type? Use those as a jumping-off point. At the end of the day, the way you dress should be reflecting the best of you – that way you won’t have doubts about who you are, or be dressing to please someone else’s tastes.


Put some thought into it

Plan things out. Just because you’re wearing all of your interests, this doesn’t mean it looks good. While you may not be dressing to appeal to someone else, there are certain intrinsic ideas about how people dress (think of weddings, funerals, prom, etc.). Therefore, plan things out – a little planning goes a long way. At the very least, you’ll save yourself some stress from thinking about whether everyone realizes you’re wearing two different shoes.


The slow life is the love song of our time – make gradual changes

If you’re the type of person to already feel like everyone is looking at you, then a complete wardrobe change is just feeding your paranoia – with a likely situation. In general, you’re going to be thinking about whether someone notices your changes, so no need to add to your own stress by making large, sweeping changes. Start small – maybe a new shirt this week, new glasses, or a fresh pair of shoes. Slowly incorporate new things – the key is to understand your pace and push it a little bit at a time. Just like the first swim of the summer, some people like to soak their feet to test the water while others dive in head-first – but the person diving is making a much bigger splash. Decide what’s right for you.


Don’t get hurt – literally

One of the worst things is a shirt that doesn’t feel right. If you’re getting new clothes, make sure that they feel good to you. Avoid a hairstyle that you feel takes way too long to do, or is hard to maintain. It may not seem so bad at first, but little things can add up over time and lead to more daily stress. If you really want to wear a tighter shirt or dress but it is uncomfortable, consider diet and exercise to help you fit better into your new outfits. Just don’t hurt yourself in the gym.

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1.  “Public Self-Consciousness, Social Anxiety, and Attitudes Toward the Use of Clothing” by Franklin G. Miller, Leslie L. Davis, and Kathleen L. Rowold
2. The Spotlight Effect - Wikipedia
3. The Spotlight Effect - Psychology Today
4. The Spotlight Effect - Social Psych Online

Photo by William Stitt



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