Are you self-conscious? Do you get nervous in crowds or fear walking into a crowded room?
I used to be very ill at ease being around a lot of people I didn’t know. I was embarrassed if I needed to walk into a crowded room, hesitating outside the door. I just knew they would all be looking at me. And I certainly wouldn’t rise to their expectations. Finally, I would bow my head and charge in, looking at the floor, afraid to meet everyone’s gaze.
But I got over it, and you can get over it too. I know you can because I got over it in high school, of all places. High school. That place where self-consciousness is raised to an art form. Where it is taught right alongside algebra and history. Where you first begin to fear people are talking about you behind your back. Because they are.
But I remember that one time I forced myself to walk into the cafeteria and shuffle over to the table in the corner where a few friends sat. This guy I knew from my neighborhood not only noticed my discomfort but immediately diagnosed the cause. He was the same boy who, a few years later, gave me the sage advice on why you should never argue with anyone. Maybe I’ll write that one up soon. It was another defining moment.
Anyway, he saw I was embarrassed. He leaned over close and said, “You don’t like coming in here because you think everyone is looking at you, right?” I was surprised that he knew this because I was pretty sure that I was the only person in the history of the planet who felt that way. This was my pain, personal and private.
And then, he gave me the advice that changed my overwhelming self-consciousness forever. Do you want to know what that is? Probably not. I know you’re not going to like it. But it will be okay. It’s like going to the dentist for a toothache. Do you hurt a little all the time, or let somebody stick needles into your mouth and drill holes in your teeth. It hurts like hell, but if you think about it, that pain only lasts a little while, where the toothache never stops.
So, here it is. I’m going to rip the Band-Aid off. Shut your eyes.
Okay, don’t shut your eyes; you won’t be able to read the one simple trick.
But here it is, ready or not.
You’re not that damned important.
I vividly remember the exact moment when he said that to me. It was like being slapped in the face. By someone who I thought was my friend. Here I am feeling bad about myself, and he just made it worse.
He knew his words had stung, so he went on to explain.
“You’ve been sitting here for about five minutes. Who has walked in since you got here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because I wasn’t paying attention.”
He looked at me and started grinning. Because he could tell that I got it. That little cartoon light went off over my head. I hadn’t paid attention to the people that walked in after me, because they weren’t that important.
Unless it was a teacher or someone making a lot of noise, no one paid any attention to people as they walked into the room.
Because none of them were that important.
It was then that I realized that my self-consciousness was a form of conceit, and I’d never been accused of that before. Who the hell did I think I was that my mere presence in the room would cause hundreds of heads to rise and face my way?
But not all of that came at once. It sort of percolated in the back of my brain for the rest of the day as I wrestled with the logic. And by the next morning, I realized that my friend was right. At least, I was pretty sure he was. It certainly made sense to my thirteen-year-old brain and ego.
So, I decided to put it to the test. That morning, I walked up to the cafeteria doors. I hesitated outside for a minute as always, but this time instead of fear, it was anticipation. I was about to give my epiphany an examination. This wondrous phrase that I had clung to for almost 24 hours was about to be put on trial. But even before I did so, I knew in my heart what the result would be.
After all, I was nobody.
So, with my head held high in my shroud of anonymity, I pushed open the doors and walked in. I stepped to the side, stood there, back to the wall, and looked around the room.
And guess what? Not one damn person in that entire auditorium had so much as glanced my way. They weren’t all staring at me. It’s as if I didn’t exist. How great is that? I almost raised my fist in the air and shouted, “I’m insignificant and proud of it.” But that would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?
But what I said wasn’t entirely true. As I looked around the room and saw that no conversation had been interrupted by my presence, no eyes had turned from the book or friend where they rested. Not one person even knew I had shown up.
Except one. My friend. He had been waiting for me. I guess he knew what I would do. He was still at the far corner, sitting at a table with a few other friends, none of whom had noticed my arrival. But he had. He just looked across the room at me. He was smiling and nodding his head.
I could read his thoughts all the way across the vast room full of people studiously ignoring me.
See? You’re not that damn important.