How to Get Rid of it?
One of the most common concerns that plagues actors today revolves around the feeling of being self-conscious. The main question being, ‘how do I get rid of it?’
The answer is quite simple, don't.
Don't try to get rid of it at all. As usual, the way out is through. The very moment to moment resistance to the idea of being self-conscious is what causes its perpetuation itself and the suffering that comes with it. Because being self-conscious isn't all that bad. In fact, I'm here to tell you, it means you're halfway there.
Self-Consciousness vs Self-Awareness
I'd like to draw a distinction between the ideas of being self-conscious and self-aware. The latter we can recognise as being a desirable state when it comes to both acting and living a fully present life. The former seems to be one of the most unbearable states one can exist in; so much so that the fear of public speaking often tops a fear of death for people.
So what makes these two experiences different? I would say that to be self-aware is to be embodied and mindful of one's experience, either internally, externally or both. To be self-conscious on the other hand is more akin to the idea of the self-critic. It’s that same awareness but with the addition of judgement. The bad news is it poisons the positive underlying state of awareness and twists it into an unholy state of anxiety. The good news, as I mentioned before, is that means you're halfway there.
If you're self-conscious, you've already got the awareness, you just need to take away the judgement. This is, of course, easier said than done. But this simplified model can be a great tool for turning the logic on its head and helping you make those states that usually hinder you, help you.
Stop Judging the Judging
All you need to do is stop judging yourself for judging yourself! Instead of trying to fix the first problem of judgement by judging it and pushing it away, try to embrace the experience. Recognise that this is the experience of judging. This is what it is to be self-conscious in this moment. By allowing the self-consciousness to enter into our bubble of awareness, instead of pushing it away, we take away the only thing that perverted it in the first place, the suffering.
Once the suffering we've heaped onto it has been let go of, self-consciousness exists like any other emotional or phenomenological state in our experience. It can flow because we are no longer resisting its presence. We become 'the gracious host' at the dinner party of experience. Allowing all experience in and treating it with compassion and acceptance. Recognising the uniqueness of each states' presence and seeing it's inherent beauty that we might have once overlooked.
Embracing the Inner Critic
We can then start to view the role of self-consciousness like that of an overprotective parent. Judging and attempting to control and protect their child from all possibilities of harm or social rejection, often in a neurotic way, but nonetheless from a place of love and care. This is what self-consciousness is trying to do (or the judgement aspect of it, the inner critic). It's saying 'I know you don't like what I'm going to say to you right now and it will hurt, but I'm trying to protect you from a much worse hurt if you get humiliated in front of all these people'. It's admirable deep down, but ultimately misguided.
The self-judging inner critic is deluded and hypersensitive to reality and is often too quick to hit the eject button. It hasn't realised that to become resilient, capable, and brave people we have to experience a few cuts and scrapes. And yes, at times, embarrassment and humiliation.
But as wise people we can overcome this. Instead of arguing with the overprotective parent and telling them to "leave me alone", "you never understand me" or whatever other adolescent reaction one might have, we can soothe the parent. We can bring gratitude and warmth saying 'I know you mean the best for me and I appreciate your care, but right now this is not the most helpful advice'. Or whatever wise words one chooses to convey the sentiment.
The point is to not reject but to accept and embrace. Accept everyone and everything equally as the gracious host. Give the parent a hug, but establish your behaviour as that of a true emotionally integrated individual. This way, you encounter experience on its own terms, listening kindly but ultimately making up your own mind.
Embracing Our Limitations
The truth is that this all comes from a time in our evolution wherein to be socially rejected in any sense could literally result in us being cast out of the tribe. Which back then meant death, for no one could live alone in the wilderness. We literally relied on each other for everything. For better or worse, in modern society, the stakes aren’t quite that high anymore, but our evolution hasn't yet caught up. That's why it often feels like life and death when we are in the grips of self-conscious situations.
At the end of the day the solution is simple but not always easy:
Recognise the experience as it arises.
Accept the fact it's arisen (and that you've fallen out of the ideal state of blissful ‘flow’ and it wasn't your choice)
Place your attention back onto your object of meditation (usually your scene partner) and continue on.
Like in meditation, we have to accept that our minds will drift many times and often to places we don't desire. But it is only through accepting this drifting and working with it, by including it in a wider context, that we can sustain a consistent, reliable practice of focus, concentration and effective action.
As Sanford Meisner said, 'Whatever hinders your task, is your task' and this includes the inner world of the actor themselves. Bring it all into the bigger picture. If nothing is excluded and no experience rejected, our bubble of awareness can begin encompassing it all. Then perhaps one day, if we’re persistent, we might attain a place wherein we are always in the pure state of mindful awareness at all times with all things. Let your acting serve this goal, let this goal serve your acting.