Inklings of Truth


Self-Consciousness:  Playing to Our Audience

By Audrey Stallsmith

Occasionally, when a church service gets cancelled, we listen to one of Anthony Campolo's recorded sermons on the Internet instead.  I can’t help but envy his unselfconscious ease as a speaker.

You might say it is always self-consciousness that gets us in trouble.  In the beginning, Adam and Eve were apparently as innocent as the animals.  They had so much to see and explore that it didn't occur to them to think about themselves much at all.

The best public speakers also are so infatuated with their subject that they are thinking about it rather than about themselves.  That’s why many of them can ramble all over the stage or even into the audience without feeling self-conscious. 

The more shy among us, as soon as we have to get up in front of a crowd, become overly aware of how all those people are seeing us—and terrified that we will expose our inadequacy.  As C. S. Lewis warns in Mere Christianity, “you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you're making.”

New Testament Timothy apparently was an introvert, since Paul had to remind him that “the Holy Spirit, God's gift, does not want you to be afraid of people, but to be wise and strong, and to love them and enjoy being with them." (II Timothy 1:7)  That’s easy for the bold and brassy like Paul to say!

We more timid types start worrying about what to do with our hands and whether our lapels and rhetoric are straight.  And we definitely need a pulpit to hide behind!  As Hannah Whitall Smith points out in The Unselfishness of God, shyness is “simply thinking of oneself.”  Her idea of “a certain cure” was “to forget oneself.”  Also more easily said than done.

I actually was much more self-conscious as a child, feeling as if I was on stage whenever I was around people other than my family.  I eventually realized that I was being ridiculous, since most of those people weren’t actually paying attention to me anyway.  As Jim Taylor writes in Psychology Today “Here is a simple reality that should be liberating if you are overly self-conscious. Nobody is watching you. Nobody is thinking about you. Very few people even care about you. . .you’re not that important!” 

Such a realization can be deflating to the ego, but it drains off a lot of tension.  Now, I usually save my self-consciousness for public speaking occasions--about the only time when people actually are paying attention to me.

Chesterton notes that excessive self-consciousness is caused by our trying to please everybody, to be all things to all people.  Only God can do that.  The rest of us need to learn our limitations and accept that some people are going to dislike us on sight no matter what we do.  Such reactions can be called personality clashes, but at least it means that we each still have a personality!

Campolo has a much more outgoing one than I, as well as natural charisma and a great sense of humor, but even he has his share of detractors.  He pushes boundaries so often that he was accused of heresy at one point.  Due to that boldness, things happen to him that probably wouldn't happen to the rest of us.  Who can forget his throwing a birthday party for a prostitute at a diner in the wee hours of the morning, just because he heard her saying that she’d never had one? 

Hilary Weeks once said, “Don't worry about what others think about you; worry about what they think of themselves when they're with you.”  By throwing that party, Campolo showed more concern for the woman involved than for his own reputation.  In that, he was just following the example of Christ, who often was accused of consorting with sinners.

Will I ever come up with something as unexpected as that party?  Considering the antisocial type that I am, the answer would have to be “Probably not.”

Fortunately, in regard to the performance that is my life, God doesn’t expect me to imitate other people, but to be what He has made me.  As Thomas Merton writes in No Man Is an Island, “when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.”

God is the only one I should be trying to wow with that performance, as He is the only One who does watch me all the time.  I’ve got to start realizing that the things which will impress Him aren’t the same ones that will impress other audiences.