Myth 4: I Have to Hide My Fatal Flaw

Hello again! Somehow, it’s already Day 4!

Yesterday I showed you how to acquire objective evidence that your fatal flaw is either not obvious or non-existent. You can use the phone in your pocket to see objectively how you’re coming across. And that’s WAY better than asking your anxiety.

But what if your video left something to be desired? What if there is something weird or odd or annoying you’re doing?

Take heart: these are called safety behaviors. These are the things you do to try to keep your flaw hidden. Even without a video, you may already know what your safety behaviors are.

Here are some things you might do:

  • Keep your hands in your pockets or your arms crossed firmly in front of you
  • Pepper people with questions so you don’t have to talk
  • Have a drink (or more) to loosen up and feel better
  • Sit in the back of the room or stand on the outskirts of the group
  • Pretend you’re not interested in what’s happening
  • Detach yourself from a group conversation by sitting silently
  • Rehearse what you’re going to say before you speak
  • Walk with your head down, earbuds in, and of course, those Wayfarers on, baby.
  • Pause what you’re doing when someone might be watching you eat, drink, calculate, or write
  • Fidget or wring your hands
  • Check your phone
  • Not look up while giving a presentation
  • Stick close to your partner or friend at events
  • Talk very softly
  • Cover your mouth with your hand when you talk
  • Smile constantly
  • Bounce your leg up and down while sitting
  • Hold onto something, like the podium, while speaking
  • Try to blend into the Oval Office drapes so the President doesn’t notice you. Okay, maybe not that one.

If you’re worried about appearing visibly anxious or some other aspect of your appearance you may:

  • Wear high-necked shirts to hide blushing or hives
  • Clear your throat a lot so your voice doesn’t crack
  • Drink water (or anything!) so your voice behaves
  • Wear a hat so no one notices your hair
  • Wear makeup or tinted moisturizer to hide blushing

Some safety behaviors are really subtle:

  • Staying really busy--too busy to reach out, network, or hang out
  • Using your introverted temperament as a reason to avoid things you wish you could do comfortably.

As for me, I used to do the following:

  • Avoid eye contact
  • End conversations early by not giving them much to work with
  • Answer in short phrases when someone strikes up conversation
  • Talk quickly to get things over with

No matter what we do, we do them because of the fourth myth:

I have to hide my fatal flaw.


But here’s the kicker: these are the very actions that are keeping you stuck. I call these actions the life preserver that’s holding you underwater. You’re doing them to save yourself. But really they’re holding you back. They’re the problem.

So what’s the answer? It’s not what you’d think:

Counterintuitively, do nothing to save yourself.


Here’s today’s exercise:

Choose what safety behavior you’d like to drop. In a series of studies, social anxiety researchers Dr. Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia and Dr. Charles Taylor of the University of California San Diego showed that 92 percent of people could immediately name the safety behaviors they use.

So identify yours. What’s something you're doing that feels like its keeping you safe? 

Once you’ve identified what safety behavior you want to drop, have two conversations. It will work best if you have both conversations in the same environment, like your weekly Tuesday 3 PM meeting or two consecutive mornings exchanging small talk with your favorite barista.

In the first conversation, use your safety behavior as usual. Cover your mouth, talk quickly, rehearse your words, jiggle your leg, whatever it is you do to try to tamp down your anxiety and hide your perceived fatal flaw.

But in the next conversation, let the safety behavior go. If you usually scroll through your phone, go ahead and look your conversation partner in the eye. If you usually chatter quickly to get your words out, slow down.

Think of this as an experiment. You want to discover what happens when you let go of that fake life preserver.

Want a spoiler? Thanks to Alden and Taylor’s studies, we already have the answer. When you stop trying to conceal your fatal flaw, rather than your fatal flaw spilling out everywhere, you actually look and feel more comfortable.

And there’s more: When researchers ask the conversation partners (the people at your Tuesday meeting, your barista, etc.) for feedback, they discover they rate the people who drop their safety behaviors are more enjoyable to talk to. Furthermore, the conversation partners would prefer the people who drop their safety behaviors as a friend, and would like to spend more time with them as compared to socially anxious individuals who keep using their safety behaviors. Why? Because people who drop their safety behaviors are more authentic. They’re real. 

This is what happens when you stop trying to manage people’s impression of you. So stop trying to save yourself. Letting go of that life preserver seems counterintuitive, but try it and you’ll never go back.

Tomorrow we’ll do the unthinkable: we’ll ease up on ourselves.

Until then, be kind to others and yourself!