Self Absorbed, or Hyper-Focused on Others: When we Can’t Stop Worrying About How Others See Us

Image. It’s something all of us are worried about to some degree. How we’re seen by those closest to us. Friends, family and co-workers too. What do they think of us? Are we the type of person they want us to be? What do they say about us when we’re not around? These may be some of the thoughts that go through our minds when we’re feeling a little self conscious. And if we’ve experienced love that was conditional, at the hands of our caregivers, then this turns an already bad situation, worse.

Image as a Learned Trait

As I’ve explained in my, “search for a blog“, my family was hyper focused on image. My parents never felt as though they were adding up, so the odds that I could get from my parents what they themselves felt as though they lacked was unlikely. What I got instead was what felt like a constant stream of criticism and judgements.

This, I’ve come to realize, is most likely how my parents felt. Feeling critically judged by others. But while I was growing up, looking for the love and acceptance of my caregivers and not finding it, it was difficult to understand that it wasn’t my fault in some way. That they were the ones transferring their feelings of deficiency onto me. And when you’re constantly being criticized as a child, especially by caregivers, you just assume that there is something wrong with you. Otherwise why would the adults, the people who are in charge, be so disappointed in you so consistently.

Internalizing Our Image of the Critical Eye

As I grew up, I found myself more and more internalizing my caregivers critical eye towards myself and others. I was constantly judging myself to see if I added up against the image I cobbled together from my caregivers past critical judgements. A mosaic of unreasonable standards I surmised from my caretakers. And they were unreasonable. I remember speaking to my GP about the anxiety I was living with one year. Only I described it as, “a weakness in myself I just couldn’t live with anymore”.

I cringe a little now, thinking of the standards I used to live under. But that was what I felt I needed to live up to in order to feel accepted and loved. To survive. And I was so focused on what others thought and felt about me, that I hadn’t even realized that I was focusing on myself. I was so focused on the thoughts and actions of others, that I had stopped seeing myself as a person reacting to a situation. But rather I was a reaction to others responses. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Living From a Place of Fear

This is at the heart of fear based thinking for me. My fear based thinking was fueled by years of critical judgements about my image. Though I feel we all experience this to some degree. and it stems from our feeling a lack of love and belonging from those closest to us. In my case, by being constantly judged by my caregivers.

This fear is also something that can be preyed on by those looking to capitalize on it. This is the trap my family fell into when they began to confuse image and acting a certain way with being loved and valued.. Essentially, we’ve been handing down this cursed family heirloom of critical self judgement. From one generation to the next.

Accepting Our Whole Selves Not Just the Projected Image

So how do we make the change from critical judger to a sense of self acceptances? How do we shed the impossible standards we were raised to strive for? For me it began when I started attuning to my own needs. As I wrote in Attunement and Self-Care, knowing how I’m feeling and then responding to those feelings with what would make me feel most at ease, instead of being focused on how I expected others wanted me to behave was what helped me to understand what my values are. And not what I was told they should be.

For example, I workout regularly and eat healthfully. But when I was feeling tired and sluggish, I knew something needed to change. So I investigated my feelings and listened to my body and came to the conclusion that three days a week were too many to sustainably workout. Also that my skipping breakfast and sometimes lunch, and the scraps of food I was eating at work, weren’t enough. Even though I was having a healthy and substantial dinner.

After investigating how I felt, I put a plan into action. A plan where I reduced my workouts to two days a week and cooked and prepared breakfast and lunch for myself to bring to work. And it’s these small changes I made, after listening and attuning to myself, that I began to build trust and an open dialogue with myself. Also where I stopped looking outside of myself for validation.

Unlearning Past Unhealthy Lessons

That being said, I had a life’s time worth of negative reinforcements that were pushing me in an unhealthy direction. So it may be a bit tricky knowing what needs our attention and what are the unhealthy messages that have been left playing in our minds. A phrase I repeat to myself often that helps is, “don’t believe everything you think”.

For me, it was helpful to know what I felt like when I was fearful. I feel my fear in the lower half of my body, and it’s accompanied by a low lying sense of panic. So when thoughts pop in my mind that I know are remnants of old messages, they are usually followed by a sense of fear. As though I want to latch onto whomever will offer me a felt sense of safety.

And it’s sometimes difficult to pull feelings apart, to know how we’re actually feeling. Especially if our feelings have been manipulated by those who are supposed to be our caregivers. For example, what do we make of love when we are abused and neglected by a caregiver who say they love us? While at the same time are the cause and source of great fear and confusion.

Untangling the Emotions

When asked if we know the difference between fear and love we may say, of course we do. But if we’ve been immersed in an abusive environment and neglected for most of our lives, do we really know the difference? We may be lulled into feeling it’s as simple as knowing the difference between, to use an extreme example, being suddenly burned by something hot and relaxing at the end of a tough workout. Two extremely different sensations and situations. But they are only transient sensations of pain and pleasure. Not sustainable feelings of love and connection.

And if we can’t tell the difference between love and connection, and pleasure seeking, we may end up trying to fill that void with things like shopping or drinking alcohol. This can be a dangerous combination. If we never quite feel fulfilled by the pleasure seeking activity, then we may follow it as far as it will take us. Trying to fill that void.

Exploring Our Feeling to Feel More Fulfilled

So how do we build sustainable connection? Stop the pleasure seeking and find what truly makes us happy? It starts with knowing our fears. Knowing how it feels to have a healthy, unconditional relationship with ourselves. And by stopping the chase after what feels good right now and instead focus on the things that will support and sustain us in the future. It’s similar to having a friend who you know you can count on to listen. Or be there for you in a pinch. Only having that friend within. Knowing you can count on yourself to make the right decisions. To keep yourself safe and focus on your best interests in the future.

And it’s then that we can make the healthy choices in finding friends and romantic partners, that will be supportive, caring and loving, because we will be able to recognize them in ourselves.

It sounds so simple, and it is. But simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. It takes practice and patients. But if we persist we will be able to stop focusing so intently on what others are thinking of us and begin to think about how we can be support for them. Because we know how to support ourselves. I hope this has been of some use to you reader. I know in my journey there are definitely times where I was, and still am, filled with self doubt. So be patient with yourself, and be persistent. It may be difficult, but it’s worth the while. Peace :] and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “#Ireland: The woman with a red coat” by Frédéric Poirot is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Updated 7/29/22

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