As I grew older, this reaction gradually diminished, until (luckily) by the time I'd met my wife, it had largely vanished. I'd always explained this to myself as a simple function of maturation, but recently I realized that while growing older does indeed often result in increased self-confidence (we experience more, handle it, and realize we handled it), age wasn't, in fact, responsible at all.
We are, all of us, fundamentally social creatures, able to function optimally, research and experience prove, when engaged to some degree in a community. Our community may be small, but having one seems to be what matters. (All we need do is observe what happens to inmates in solitary confinement for any extended period of time to recognize just how detrimental social isolation is to human beings.)
And yet at some level, interacting with other people makes most, if not all of us uncomfortable. Even the most gregarious and self-confident people remain aware of and influenced by the opinions of others—and specifically the opinions others have about them. Even if we tell ourselves such opinions don't matter to us, if everyone in our community turned suddenly against us at once, even the most hardy of us would have a difficult time remaining unaffected.
When in the company of other people, our minds automatically construct a map of the minds that surround us. That is, we're constantly imagining and theorizing what other people are thinking—and making judgments about and having reactions to those imaginings. If we think someone in the room finds us attractive, we judge them to have good taste and feel a buzz of pleasure (or perhaps, if we suffer from low self-esteem, we judge...