I was doing an excellent job of falling off my surfboard recently while practising on a sandy beach break. A goal of mine since escaping 9-5 drudgery has been to learn how to surf which is the main reason I’m spending a few months in Portugal.
While practising there was a point in time when I looked up to where the sun dwellers lounged and all of a sudden felt self-conscious. I thought to myself I bet they’re looking at me. All of a sudden I went from being “in the zone” to worrying about how (poorly) I was performing.
I realised these feelings of concern were illogical. Not only were my self-conscious thoughts likely to be a figment of my imagination but I didn’t know anyone on the beach and everyone was so far away that they looked more like ants than humans.
Worrying about what other people think is something we all suffer from. The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius once said “It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” As truthful as these words may be it doesn’t explain the reason why we worry about what other people think of us. The Romans weren’t aware of natural selection, DNA and evolutionary psychology so as insightful as proverbs can be, I find the underlying evolutionary explanation a better remedy for undesirable emotions.
Our “internal software” still thinks we’re living in prehistoric times and most of our emotional triggers are trying to aid with our survival or propagate our DNA. Many emotions we feel today can be seen as “glitches” as they no longer help with keeping us alive or aiding with reproduction.
The best explanation that I can come up with as to why I felt embarrassed falling off my surfboard falls into both reproduction and survival.
While hunter-gatherers probably didn’t do much surfing they would have hunted, made tools, built shelters and generally engaged in activities that demonstrated their skills and competence. It would have been critical to be a valuable member of a hunter-gatherer group. If you were a terrible hunter, made crap tools and all the shelter you built blew away with the first gust of wind, then you’d probably find yourself on borrowed time before being ousted. So it makes sense to feel uncomfortable with underperformance — our DNA “thinks” we are part of a hunter-gatherer group and we risk being abandoned.
Another key reason and maybe the primary one is our DNA “wants” to reproduce. Being competent would have been a good way to attract mates as it would translate into being a good provider. If you could barely rub two sticks together then it’s unlikely you’d be attracting many mating partners.
As Richard Dawkins said “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” So the next time you are feeling embarrassed or self-conscious: remind yourself that it’s most likely for two reasons. Either to attract a mate or stay alive.
Then ask yourself, is this applicable in the current situation? Nearly 100% of the time it won’t be. The chances are that whatever it is that’s making you feel self-conscious isn’t putting your life at risk or diminishing your odds of having (more) children. By thinking about the irrationality, I find that it helps to dampen the emotion. Or put another way: it quietens the music our DNA is playing.
Now back to falling off my surfboard.