Signs of Self-Consciousness: When the Mirror isn’t Your Friend

“That is the worst picture of me I’ve ever seen.”

You are looking at your new driver’s license photo, just after it has been handed to you.

It will remain the worst picture of yourself imaginable until you renew your license and get one that is even worse.

At some point, if you are inclined to look at old photos, you will realize that you were once actually better looking than you thought. Even though, back then, you spent enormous amounts of time considering all your visible shortcomings.

And, if you can bear it, the idea creeps up, that you look — right now at this very moment — the best you will ever look again. However low it is, you are at the top of your own personal ski-ramp of pulchritude. Gravity will have its way. The grave is at the end of the downhill run, the place where you will certainly not look splendid, although a few might comment on how life-like and peaceful you appear to be as a corpse.

The mirror is irresistible. Although a frequent carrier of bad news, it is like a siren calling you to it — beckoning, luring you.

“Look at me,” it says. “Look at me, so that you can look at yourself. See what others see before they see it.”

Even your reflection in a department store window can’t be ignored.

The scrutiny of skin texture, hair style, and unevenness of any kind can be a full-time job. How large are my pores? Were they always this large? Are my eyebrows even, my lips symmetrical? Is that a pimple? Did I miss a spot shaving? Is my hair losing its color?

To comb-over or not to comb-over. That is the question.

Unfortunately, omnipresent advertising reminds us of the importance of appearance and suggests that we are falling down on the job if we don’t look right, sound right, and smell right; if we aren’t clothed right and adorned right to the point of rewriting ourselves.

Would that one were more like Narcissus, who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love. Instead, the self-conscious are the opposite of Narcissus according to John Updike, seeing the disqualifying things that others don’t see or care to look for.


Because they are too preoccupied with their own mirror-image.

Each of us may be our own main-attraction, but to almost all others, we are but footnotes; either not viewed as important enough to look at or quickly forgotten.

Despite this truth, the insecure man sees the outer world as an anticipated audience for his one-man-show, having paid dearly for tickets and expecting a star-turn. “How will I look?” the performer says to himself. Implicit in the question is, “How will I look to them?” And, more to the point, “How will I rank?”

The mirror is like a ruler, telling us whether we measure up to both friends and strangers; and rules over us, sucking away our time as we stand before it. But then, many carry mirrors in their pockets or handbags, all the better to do some compulsive checking.

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…

Marcus Aurelius, the author of those words, like other Stoic philosophers, thought it important to remind oneself of what is valuable (like good deeds) and what is not (like the opinion of others). But we seem to be automatically drawn to “making an impression;” and we hope that it is not one of the wrong kind.

Take my mother, a surpassingly beautiful young woman, but confident of little more than her appearance. When age robbed her of that singular quality, she sometimes joked about looking at herself in the silvered-glass and asking, “When did this happen?” The loss left her all the more vulnerable to and preoccupied with what others might be thinking about her.

Although self-consciousness is commonplace, I have actually met people who seem to be totally un-self conscious and unaware of who they are, how they come across, and the impact they have on others.

We incorrectly assume that people universally understand the impression they make.

To illustrate the point, think back to the very first time you heard your own voice on a recording device. It was probably shocking. You didn’t sound the way you heard yourself inside your head.

The act of looking in the mirror is not a whole lot more reliable. And the mirror changes how we behave while doing the looking: the expressions we see as we examine ourselves are not necessarily identical to those observed by passers-by in our unstudied moments.

People with Asperger’s Disorder are among those who are unconcerned with and unaware of the effect of their self-presentation. Their social interaction is significantly impaired, in part, because the social cues that we commonly get from others — and that are instructive about how we are coming across to them — don’t seem to register. They miss signals that the person with whom they are conversing might be bored, impatient, indifferent, upset, or angry. Nor will they seem to care about shaping themselves to fit the prevailing social conditions.

Adults categorized as Narcissistic Personality Disorder are equally unaware of and unconcerned with the negative implications of the way in which they are seen by the world, except to complain about the unfairness of how they are treated. Their grandiosity and exaggerated sense of self-importance leads to arrogance rather than self-reflection or self-doubt. It is as if they have a Teflon-coated exterior that prevents criticism from penetrating to the heart.

File:C-band Radar-dish Antenna.jpg

If we set aside those people who are diagnosably paranoid, the personality trait of self-awareness causes problems at both of its extremes. Too little self-consciousness and you have Asperger’s and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. On the opposite wall are those hyper-focused souls whose radar is going full-force at all times.

Members of the latter group are so preoccupied with the need to detect rejection and disapproval that they mistake casual and meaningless comments for devastating critical opprobrium. Were their personal scanners instead used for national defense, like a giant radar antenna in the photo above, they would mistake birds flying overhead for incoming thermonuclear warheads.

At the same time that their own monitoring devices are being ratcheted up, these self-conscious individuals wish to fly under the radar of others, hoping that their imperfections will go unnoticed.

And they are drained trying to simultaneously make themselves invisible while watching for all possible personal incoming data.

For them, life becomes a performance and everyone else in life becomes a potential journalist reviewing that performance, imagined to be preparing a devastating and slashing critique for the next day’s blog post or NBC news broadcast.

The over-sensitive and insecure individuals of this world have lots of company, but don’t always think that they do. They are too busy comparing their “insides” to other people’s “outsides,” a game that is played on an uneven playing field designed to cause the person making the comparisons to feel like crap.

A 2011 study led by Dr. Alexander Jordan in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, supports the notion that people tend to underestimate the negative emotional experiences of others. In part, this is thought to be due to the fact that we see friends and neighbors (by definition) only in social situations, where research shows that people generally feel relatively good and therefore appear to be doing well. Since individuals are also somewhat hesitant to express suffering in social situations, the tendency is reinforced to see those folks as more satisfied with their lives than they actually are.

Thus, all of us (but particularly the self-conscious among us) can only observe the appearance (rather than the reality) of others’ lives, but have complete access to our own internal turmoil, especially during the time when we are alone and more prone to negative feelings than during periods of social activity. Almost inevitably, the contrast between the outward sunny appearance of our peers and our own private darkness (even if it is simply the commonplace trouble to be found in any life) contributes to a sense that we are not doing very well at all.

Life for the self-conscious person is a little like wearing glasses that look exactly like regular glasses, but have a silver coating on the inside. The glasses cause an automatic inward look — a claustrophobic view of a dark and suffocating place. Life satisfaction is to be found in an outward gaze, not an eternally internal one.

The excruciating inward focus makes it very difficult for “(Self)-Doubting Thomas” to realize that he is not as uniquely deficient as he is prone to believe. And since self-protective efforts inhibit sharing one’s personal insecurities even with friends, the holding-back robs him of their commiseration and understanding; not to mention the sense of identity that he might receive from others, fellow-suffers in particular.

Still, at least the self-conscious will sometimes go to therapy, while neither the Asperger’s clan nor the narcissists see much of problem requiring professional consultation. Each, in his own way, is content with himself. If there are troubles, others are blamed, not the person’s own inadequacies.

Unfortunately, there is no “cure” for self-consciousness, per se. But therapy can help to uncover the reasons for self-doubting and quiet the self-disparaging voices inside, shroud the mirrors, still the racing pulse, and eventually come to a point of self-acceptance. Treatment can make you feel better about yourself. Equally significant, therapy prepares you for the fact that there will, indeed, be no way to impress everyone, but worry less over the failure.

After all, even a wildly successful presidential candidate must confront over 40,000,000 votes for the other guy.

No, therapy won’t change your driver’s license photo into a professional “head-shot,” making you look like a movie star, but it just might do something even better.

You will see that card-carried image in all its horrific awfulness, and care about it much, much less.

You may find the following related post of interest: Signs of Insecurity: Behavior That Reveals a Lack of Confidence.

Also, you might want to look at The Upside of Insecurity.

The first photo is a Scan of An Expired Diplomatic Driver’s License by Foreignaffairsinfo. Next, a Woman Standing In Front of a Mirror by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg. The third image is a Statue of Venus in Mirrors by Nevit Dilmen. It is followed by Jeanette Stein (with the author, who was apparently sceptical of the camera even then) and A 50-Foot Radar Antenna at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Finally, a Self-Portrait by w.helwig. All of these with the exception of the family photo are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Signs of Self-Consciousness: When the Mirror isn’t Your Friend

  1. I see this is an older post but wanted to thank you for your very helpful insight here. The glasses metaphor in particular I found accurate.


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