Better Not, They’ll Think I’m Silly

[5-Minute Read + Video]The fear of judgment can rear up in strange places. I'm often described as fearless so you could assume I conquered the fear of judgment long ago. That's not the case.

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Better Not, They’ll Think I’m Silly

The fear of judgment can rear up in strange places. I’m often described as fearless so you could assume I conquered the fear of judgment long ago. That’s not the case.

VIDEO INTRO: What do you conclude now you’ve seen me reading a Phantom comic?

Have you ever found yourself in a meeting, an idea teetering on the edge of your tongue, only to swallow it at the last second?

The fear of judgment is like a voice in your head that’s second-guessing how you will appear to others. It’s a fear that makes you feel intensely self-aware. You consciously register every breath you take and every move you make. But the real sting is the question triggered in your mind that polices your next move.

“What will they think of me?”

The fear of social judgment, scientifically known as social anxiety, is a piece of evolutionary psychology that has gone haywire.

Way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, our brains developed a mechanism to keep our behaviours aligned to the needs of the pack. Back then, our survival relied on being part of a social group, and if we didn’t fit in, we were left to fend for ourselves. Our brains developed a mechanism that would make us feel bad when we did something that could get us kicked out of the group.

Fast forward to today, and although the stakes have changed, that primal fear still lingers in meeting rooms, in every email we hesitate to send, and in every idea we keep to ourselves.

It’s a primal fear.

As someone often described as fearless, you could assume I’d have left the fear of judgment behind long ago. That’s not the case. It rears up from nowhere at the strangest times.

For example, this week, a local fashion retailer asked me to speak at an in-store event. Yes, me. Fashion.

I had a brief dance as a fashionista in the 1980s and early 1990s. The style of bright colours, bold lines and big hair aligned well with my personality, making it easy for me to be on point.

But then fashion and I parted ways.

I enjoy buying clothes that prioritise function over fashion. If you let me loose in an outdoor store, you won’t see me for hours. The same goes for sports stores.

I understand how to buy functional clothes. I think about what I need the items to achieve – warmth, protection, flexibility, comfort, visibility, etc. Then, I look for the best options within my budget.

I set the criteria, make the judgment call and buy it. Easy.

However, fashion stores sell clothes that are about how they look rather than the purpose they serve. That rips the decision out of my hands and puts it into another’s—the fashion industry. The judgment call on “what works” is no longer mine.

That shift in control triggered fear.

When I received the request to speak at a fashion event, the first question that popped into my mind was, “What will I wear?”.

“How curious”, I thought. “Why is that the most pressing issue on my mind?”

For instance, my mind could have flipped straight to “What will I talk about?” “I wonder who will be there?” or any of a myriad of other questions.

But it didn’t.

It went straight to my weak point in the scenario, my greatest vulnerability, and put it at the top of the stack.

My next thought was, “What’s the impression I want to make?” which is the precursor to the all-time classic, which is “Does my butt look big in this?”

All those questions come from the same place.

The fear of judgement. Social anxiety.

Research delivers a surprising twist.

When I decided to write this story, I searched Google to see what researchers had to say on the subject. I was especially interested in gender trends.

In the back of my mind a belief bounced around that women experienced this style of social anxiety more than men.

Cultural norms exert excessive pressure on women. They dictate what women should wear, how they should behave, their careers, and their pay packets. Rules can confine every moment of a woman’s day if she lets them.

Men, on the other hand, the perceived beneficiaries of the patriarchy, have greater freedom and are often the rule makers. They are the judges rather than the judged.

So, logic would tell you that women would experience the fear of judgement more than men and that is generally what research results show. Women report experiencing social anxiety at much higher levels than men.


There’s always a but.

All the research I found has used self-reporting to collect data, which is common with cognitive research. That’s where you’re asked to rate your feelings in a moment, or how much you agree with a statement.

Many researchers believe the higher results are a consequence of men’s unwillingness to acknowledge or report their feelings.

That’s a sad consequence of patriarchal norms and is one of the behaviours encompassed in the term “toxic masculinity”. Some men refuse to acknowledge they feel anxious for fear of being judged. That suppression of emotion leads to significant psychological health issues down the track. 

Where does that leave us?

If you put ten women and ten men in a room, all the women will freely share moments when they have feared feeling judged, while most men will look at their shoes or suddenly be very interested in the fly crawling up the wall. But chances are 10 out of 10 men also frequently experience those moments.

So what’s my fear buster?

You know me well. Yes, I experience fear of judgment, but I also have a technique that allows me to step through it and avoid any lingering negative consequences.

My process goes like this.

Step 1: Acknowledge its presence

I notice and feel it for a moment or two. I don’t try to suppress it or pretend it doesn’t exist. If you bury fear, it will come back to haunt you.

Step 2: Focus on function

What do you want to achieve or express with that thing/idea/action? Clarity of personal purpose is the source of your strength. Use it. 

Step 3: Answer that inner calling

Act in alignment with your purpose or driver. That means keeping it top of mind and dialling in whatever you’re doing to act with integrity.

Ok, so that’s quite abstract. I’ll walk you through my recent fashion example and show you how it works.

The question “What will I wear?” popped into my mind, and I noticed that it was a weighty, important question with a tingle of nerves in its underbelly.

I’ve done step one.

I then pondered what I wanted to express or achieve through my appearance. When I delivered a keynote recently at a swanky business breakfast, I decided I wanted to bring joy into the guests’ morning. I opted to wear a dress that brought me joy, knowing that feeling would be contagious.

I’ll speak about the fear of judgement at the upcoming fashion show. My clothes will be a fantastic visual cue. I’ll wear my farm work wear with the clear intent to create contrast and demonstrate a principle.

Step two gets a green tick.

The final piece is easy when the other two are already in play. I can confidently step into any space, backed by the strength of knowing what I’m doing and why. I step into that room, living on my terms, guided by my own set of rules.

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

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