science of us

Self-Promotion Advice for the Extremely Self-Conscious

Photo: Laura Allegri/EyeEm/Getty Images

At a party not long ago, a woman asked me an extremely rude question: “What is your book about?”

Some people love talking themselves up. This advice is not for them. This is for those of us who hate calling attention to ourselves, even when we’re proud of our accomplishments and really should be talking them up. And it doesn’t have to be something like a book; it could be a job interview, or a self-evaluation at work, or a party, or a first date. There are times when all of us need to figure out how to speak with pride about ourselves and our accomplishments.

The funny thing is that my book is even about self-consciousness, or at least it is in part. Shouldn’t I be better at this by now? “Oh my god,” said Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., when I reached her by phone last week. “I’m still working on this myself.” Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist and the author of How to Be Yourself, which is about how to overcome social anxiety. And yet she’s struggled with this, too, especially when thinking about how to talk about her own book, which is out next month. “You think, “I’m going to be annoying, people are going think I’m such a burden!’” she said.

But Hendriksen also had some great advice, which has helped me think about how to get over this. Maybe it will help you, too, next time you have to brag about yourself.

Consider forgetting the “self” part of self-promotion.

So you hate talking about yourself. Lucky for you, there is an easy fix for that: Stop talking about yourself. “What I’ve been trying to do is to not think of it as promoting myself, but to think about it as promoting this third-party message, that’s not necessarily myself,” Hendriksen said. “I am the vehicle behind this book, and, yes, I wrote it — but, ultimately, I’m excited about the book, and the information it contains, and how it can help people.” Try to think about your accomplishment, whatever it is, as a thing separate from yourself. Doesn’t that thing deserve some recognition?

“If I create some distance between me and this thing I created,” Hendriksen continued, “and I can point to this object and say, This thing is super cool, this thing will help you, read this! Then I feel much better about having to go out and promote it.”

Pretend you’re playing a part.

Think of self-promotion as a role you occasionally step into, and will eventually step back out of. Regular You may hate talking about herself, but Job Interview You? She can handle it. There’s something about this sort of framing that seems to help, perhaps because it emphasizes that this is temporary; the spotlight that is currently overhead will eventually move along.

Anecdotally, Hendriksen says that her social anxiety patients often don’t mind public speaking, as long as it’s something like delivering a speech or acting in a play — something with a clear structure. “I think if you were just pushed out there, and it was like, Okay, go! Be entertaining! That would be paralyzing,” she said. “But if you’re a conduit for lines or a message or whatever — if you have a purpose — then it becomes a lot easier. It’s a role to play. It’s not really you. It’s a role.”

It’s a nice way of tricking yourself into doing something you don’t want to do. But after the fact, remember to look back, and to mentally stitch those two selves back together. “If you look back and you’re like, Huh, I just gave a talk to 500 people. Hmm. Maybe I can do that,” Hendriksen said, this can be a sort of backward route to self-confidence. “By watching yourself do it, you start to believe you can do it. It’s thinking, Okay, maybe now I can give a talk, or be on stage. Not just me in this role, but me, as myself. But I think that only happens in hindsight.”

Don’t wait for confidence.

We tend to think we have to feel like doing something before we do it. We wait for motivation before we go for a run; we wait to feel inspired before we sit down to write. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it works that way. But just as often, Hendriksen said, the feeling follows the action.

“You don’t go into a cocoon and read some books and do some work on yourself and then emerge confident into the world,” she said. “Instead, you become confident by doing things that are a little bit hard, by stretching and growing and pushing yourself a little bit. And as you do those things, your confidence catches up.” In the spirit of Hendriksen’s advice, here goes. To the woman at the party, all those months ago: My book is called Cringeworthy, and it is about the psychological science behind self-consciousness, awkwardness, and things that make me cringe. Things like self-promotion.

Self-Promotion Advice for the Extremely Self-Conscious