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How Dressing Up Reduces Social Anxiety

Published on
April 27, 2023
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Where are you going? Why are you so dressed up? Are you meeting someone important? 

These questions often come up when I meet new people. I sometimes smile and give the devilish reply, “Yes, I’m meeting you. Aren’t you important?” 

I view clothing as a communication tool that allows us to express the identity we want to be associated with. 

The process of getting dressed puts me in a good mood and reminds me to be more present. This gives me confidence and helps me connect with others. But things weren’t always that way.

For many years I struggled with social anxiety. 

Growing up in central Mississippi meant always being under the microscope of the small-town busybodies. Although my mother did her best to ensure we were presentable, our limited means were more than apparent. 

When the start of the school year rolled around, my brother Brandon and I would receive one or two outfits as we’d grown out of our old ones. In the winter, we might receive another via the local Walmart layaway program. Layaway is the original buy now, pay later, but you don’t take possession of the product until it’s all paid off. 

Our duds were stained, faded, and tattered by year's end from repeated wear and tear. Feeding the dogs, cutting the grass, raking the leaves, and working the fields really did a number on those clothes. And, to make it worse, I’d almost always catch Brandon wearing my new shirt, jeans, or shorts to tear apart some filthy contraption that he was fixin'.

Within a month or two, we’d both show up to church service looking like we’d just crawled out of a grease trap. Pretty soon, people would get to talking, and that made me madder than a hornet in an old dirty Coke can. 

Things began to change when I earned the title of United States Marine. 

In boot camp, we learned how to pay attention to detail when dressing in the uniform of the day. Spit-shinning boots, starching our cover (hat), rolling our sleeves, trimming wayward threads, and lining up our gig line (lining the belt buckle to match our trouser fly and shirt seam) all made a difference in the overall presentation. Whether we wore field cammies or formal dress blues, we were always expected to be inspection ready.

In the rare event of traveling on military orders, we were supposed to adhere to the same standards. 

On the day I completed Avionics Common Core training in Pensacola, Florida, my class had to travel to Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

That morning, I stuffed everything I owned into my sea bags and threw on a baggy pair of frayed American Eagle jeans, a yellow long-sleeve shirt, and some flip-flops. To top it all off, I wore a baseball cap turned around backward, my shirt was untucked, and I wasn’t wearing a belt. One of my classmates commented that I looked like a bonafide shitbird. But I didn’t care. I was free of Pensacola and on my way to my next adventure. 

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I didn’t know that as a newbie Marine, I was easy to identify.

Our flight had a layover in Charlotte. When the plane landed, I got about ten steps inside the terminal before one of the most embarrassing moments of my life began to unfold. Out of nowhere, two senior Marines jumped right out in front of me, screaming and shouting. They were on me like a pack of wild dogs fighting over a three-legged cat. I could tell they were lifers (career Marines) because one had a horseshoe haircut, and the other was rocking a shitty pornstache. 

Oh crap, I’d been through this before. Knowing full well what was about to go down, I locked my body into the position of attention in preparation for the verbal assault that was about to be unleashed. They then went full drill instructor mode on me smack dab in the middle of the airport for everyone and their granny to witness.

People's perceptions of our appearance matter.

It turned out they were a Sgt. Major and Lieutenant Colonel just arrived from the war in Afghanistan. They’d been on a six-month deployment in the sandbox, and there I was, displaying an ugly image of a United States Marine. I had now been through one of the worst imaginable social situations regarding my appearance and learned an invaluable lesson.

"The well-dressed person's appearance says positive things. It tells people, "Here is an important person: intelligent, prosperous, and dependable. This man can be looked up to, admired, and trusted. He respects himself, and I respect him." - The Magic of Thinking Big, David Joseph Schwartz PhD

Our presence is built on how others perceive us, not our intentions. 

As we go out into the world, our appearance is the first basis on which others gauge the sort of person we are. A first impression is a lasting impression. In 2018, a OnePoll survey on behalf of Dollar Shave Club found that nearly 70 percent of respondents form a first impression of someone before they even speak. 

This research is backed up by experiments conducted by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, who found that it takes about a tenth of a second to form a first impression of someone from their face.1

When I look good, I feel good. And when I feel good, I’m more confident. 

Think about it, when you’re confident, you’re more likely to raise an eyebrow, look people in the eye, and smile. That’s why perceived confidence is commonly cited as a primary factor for forming a positive first impression.

You want others to see that you respect yourself, are worthy of their respect, and can be trusted with greater responsibility.

In a paper published by the Consulting Psychology Journal, authors Gavin R. Dagley and Caderyn J. Gaskin found that 89 percent of 400 senior executives and professional development managers credit executive presence with helping achieve career advancements. At the same time, 78% believe reduced leadership presence to be a hindrance to advancement.  The authors cited five characteristics that signaled strong executive presence in initial encounters: status and reputation, physical appearance, projected confidence, communication ability, and engagement skills.

My friend Jalil's wife, May, was recently interviewed for an operations role supporting a successful entrepreneur. She felt anxious before the day of the interview, so Jalil took her to buy a suit. She showed up to the interview wearing a black single-breasted jacket with matching trousers cut smartly to conform to her body. Because the suit jacket was cut to highlight her waist, she felt taller, boosting her image. Because she felt better, she had greater presence and spoke more confidently when answering interview questions.

If you struggle with social anxiety.

Dress like you’re someone who’s important. You’ll feel more confident. The people you meet will treat you differently because they won’t see you as the person you are now. They’ll perceive you as the person you have the potential to become.

Life After Social Anxiety
  1. Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face. Psychological Science, 17(7), 592–598. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01750.x
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