The Narcissus in All of Us

Reflections on the self, personality, and what makes you, "you."

Why do you worry more than other people?

Why you feel more anxious than most people

In which situations do you get inhibited? When you're about to ask someone you know out on a date for the first time? When you want to tell someone to quit doing something that's really annoying you? When you're in the midst of having sex with your partner and you want to ask your partner to do something special for you?

In many situations, we're reluctant to speak up or take action because we're afraid of being embarrassed or looking foolish. When the moment of truth arrives, we often tense up and can't get ourselves to say or do what we want. These inhibitions are just some of the ways that anxiety constrains our behavior.

Others bloggers on this site have written about the magnitude and prevalence of our anxiety and worrying, asserting that anxiety is the most common psychological problem we humans experience.

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One issue we'd like to focus on - but one that is rarely discussed - is how we compare our own anxiety level with the anxiety level of other people. As we'll see, the way we perceive and the way we communicate personal distress have an impact on how we cope with it.

Despite the pervasiveness of our anxieties, it's interesting to note that they constitute a relatively small part of our everyday conversations. In other words, we talk about our fears and doubts far less than we actually experience them. One reason for this is that you probably assume that other people worry about things less than you do. If so, then divulging all of your worries will seem inappropriate, since others won't be able to identify with them and may even come to regard you as overly neurotic.

As it happens, people tend to judge themselves as more anxious, more inhibited, and shyer than the average person. This (mis)perception exists because, while we are perfectly aware of these characteristics in ourselves, they are less evident in others.

In contrast, people do not rate themselves any differently than the average person in terms of aggressiveness, gracefulness, or sarcasm, because these traits have more distinguishing behaviors associated with them. We can therefore compare ourselves more accurately with others along these dimensions.

When we don't have diagnostic information, however, we can easily come to the wrong conclusions about other people. An extreme case of this is called "pluralistic ignorance", and occurs when we misperceive others' true feelings because everyone is behaving inconsistently with how they really feel. A classic example is when a teacher says something in class that confuses everyone, but each student is hesitant to ask for clarification because they don't want to risk looking foolish in front of the class. When no one raises their hand, each person assumes that everyone else must have understood the teacher's comment. Thus, the class ends up creating a social norm (that the teacher's message was clear), even though the norm misrepresents everyone's true feelings.

Research by John Sabini has suggested that these sorts of misperceptions lead us to draw very different conclusions about other people's inactions vs. our own inactions. For example, when asked to imagine "making the first move" in initiating a romantic relationship, we give different reasons to explain why we (vs. someone else) did not approach a potential partner. We explain our own inaction as due to a fear of rejection, whereas we explain another person's inaction as due to their lack of interest in the potential partner. Therefore, even when we're in the same situation and behave identically to other people, we fail to see that others are controlled by social inhibitions and anxiety just as much as we are.

Our misperceptions are further distorted because of a widespread (but completely unrelated) norm in our culture: When engaging in casual conversation with other people, the nature of our comments should be kept neutral or slightly positive. That is, we try to avoid being (too) negative because it's considered inappropriate and makes others feel uncomfortable. When chatting with your local supermarket cashier, for example, it would be a surefire conversation stopper if you suddenly revealed your concerns about some mysterious medical symptoms you've been experiencing, or if you gave details about your most recent existentialist crisis. We typically only discuss our worries, be they small or large, with people to whom we feel close.

Unfortunately, the norm of maintaining positive talk often masks people's true feelings, and only reinforces the impression that others are not anxious.

The fact that we underestimate others' anxiety and overestimate our own can have serious consequences, one of which is a sense of social isolation. Coping with distress is difficult enough as it is, but feeling that we're facing it alone only makes things seem worse. Moreover, suppressing our negative emotions isn't good for our mental or physical health, nor is it good for building solid relationships with others.

The first step toward overcoming these difficulties is to remind ourselves that other people tend to be just as inhibited and worried about the same things we are, even if they don't appear to be. Maintaining this awareness in our daily interactions should lead to a stronger sense of connectedness with others and a greater willingness to say what's on our mind.

Who knows, we might soon feel comfortable breaking the ice with attractive strangers, speaking up when something isn't right, and yes, even making some adventurous requests in bed.

(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)

Ilan Shrira is a social psychologist at the Loyola University in Chicago.

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