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Some people are naturals in front of the camera—I’m not one of them. Whether it’s my parents urging me to get into the middle of a group shot at a birthday party, or my friend roping me into her Snapchat story, I’ve always felt a momentary panic when I’m thrust in front of a camera lens. I cancel FaceTime requests when they pop up on my phone, and I wave off my selfie-obsessed friends when we’re at a show. Often, I can’t stand the way I look and sound when videos are played back to me: I pick out flaws in my posture, the way my clothes fit, how my voice sounds. But I’m also feeling increasingly left out, and I’m afraid I’ll one day regret not being a more visible part of these memories and experiences. What can I do to get over my camera-phobia?
For those of us who prefer not to be the focus of attention, it used to be so much easier to hide. Pre-iPhones and Instagram, whenever someone annoying came along with a camera, sure it triggered feelings of self-consciousness and spoiled the care-free spontaneity of the occasion, but you could at least re-locate quickly to a shadowy corner of the room, or make a strategic bathroom visit. These days, of course, all your friends, all of the time, are potential paparazzi—and before you know it, your face is splashed all over social media.
You describe yourself as being very self-critical of your appearance, and so, given this ever-present chance of exposure and scrutiny in today’s world, your discomfort is understandable. But there are good reasons why you don’t need to be quite so worried as you are.
For instance, if you are concerned about being captured making an embarrassing face or in an awkward pose, take comfort from the fact that research suggests other people will probably judge you far less harshly than you are judging yourself—especially if they have been in a similar situation themselves—which, let’s face it, most of us have.
Also, bear in mind that disliking your appearance in photos is a common experience. There are various psychological explanations for this, including that we’re so used to seeing our mirror image that seeing ourselves non-mirror-reversed in photos can seem really odd. Similarly, our own voice sounds strange to us when recorded because we’re used to hearing it in part through the vibrations in our skull.
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Another factor is that you are probably comparing photos of yourself against an impossible standard, based on your unique level of knowledge about how your hair, clothes and body can look when at their very best. Be assured, most other people simply won’t be able to conduct this depth of judgment when seeing pictures of you.
In fact, it is partly the desire to present a perfect self-image that motivates many people to post so many carefully prepared selfies. Again, however, there is a mismatch between how we think we come across and how others actually view us. While the selfie-taker believes he or she is presenting him or herself in the most favorable way, research suggests that observers rate the same person as more attractive, more likeable, and less narcissistic in a photo taken by others.
Similarly, you could take comfort from what has become known as the “cheerleader effect,” which is the consistent finding that we rate faces as more attractive when they appear in a group than when they appear in isolation. When you look back at those photos of your friends and you on a night out, you are probably zooming in on yourself and scrutinizing every flaw. In contrast, when others see the pic online, they will be viewing you and your friends more at the group-level, averaging out the attractiveness of any single individual.
Besides taking on board all this research that suggests you are probably your harshest judge, you could also try to be more prepared: Preparation is one of the most effective antidotes to panic, which you said you feel when a camera moment comes along. Try to have a few plans in place, however trivial, for what to do when it’s picture time and this might help you feel more in control. If it’s a posed photo, for instance, there are certain factors that you can influence—such as your gaze and facial expression. (Studies suggest that smiling faces that make eye contact are considered more attractive and intelligent, respectively).
From a purely practical perspective, you could also make sure you are au fait with all the ways to un-tag yourself from pictures and protect your privacy online. And as far as being left out is concerned, remember that in the months or years to come many digital photos might end up being edited or deleted by others anyway.
A final thought: You mention not being happy with your hair and clothes when looking back at photos. Is this because you don’t normally pay much attention to these matters, and it’s only when looking at photos of yourself that they become salient? If so, and especially if the camera-phobia you describe is increasingly bothersome, maybe it's time to treat yourself to some more TLC.
In fact, perhaps your camera phobia is not the real crux of the problem, but a mere symptom of your self-criticism and harsh self-judgment. If so, the deeper answer here could be for you to try to aspire to greater self-compassion; to begin treating yourself with as much compassion as you would a close friend.
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Dr. Christian Jarrett, PhD (@Psych_Writer) is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. His next book, about personality change, will be published next year by Simon and Schuster.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.