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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Why?

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.

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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.

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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.

Parenting: When Love is Not Enough

madame roulin with her baby marcelle by vincent van gogh

Well meaning parents don’t always do well.

Or, to put it more bluntly, you can mess up your children without really trying.

Take the following example: two caring, well-educated, good people. They were in love with each other and loving toward their children.

One child was handsome, outgoing, and had a sunny disposition. Other children and adults were drawn to him. He awoke every morning with a smile on his face and brought cheer to those around him. Although not a great student, this boy was certainly bright enough; he made his way more than adequately in the world of friendship, study, and eventually, work.

His brother, however, did not have it so easy. To start, his body was ungainly. Even as a kid, he lumbered and lurched in locomotion. His cumbersome, block-like (not overweight) form caused him to stand out. Because of  a lack of refined adroitness in matters of balance and dexterity, he was always the last boy picked in the choosing of teams on the playground and in the gym class.

To the good, he was astonishingly bright and intellectually curious, but this only fueled the separateness he felt, to which his graceless body also contributed. Outgoing though he was, peers tended to shun and ridicule him. Social skills did not come instinctively and this young boy’s efforts at outreach neglected the usual questions that facilitate social contact: queries like “How are you?” or “What did you do over the weekend?”

Monologues rather than conversations were the result, further emphasizing this kid’s peculiarity and securing his status as an outsider.

His parents were at a loss. Certainly, they treated their dear son with kindness and affection, and applauded his prodigious intellect and curiosity about the world. But, when they saw his unhappiness and discovered that peers marginalized and ridiculed him, each of the parents tried to put a good face on things. While they defended him when they actually witnessed the cruelty he received, the boy’s hurt was not discussed very much at home. The parents minimized or ignored his pain, believing it best to encourage him to believe that things would soon get better and telling him not to let the ill-treatment of the other children bother him.

Soon enough, this child tended to his wounds by himself, confiding little in his parents, as if he instinctively realized that they would not or could not offer him any response that would feel good. Those times late at night, often just before bed, when a child is most vulnerable and open to spill his pain, passed without the flow of consolation. Thus, like many children (especially boys) who find themselves feeling empty and alone, deadening his emotions was preferable to exposing his heart to further injury.

To be fair, mom and dad figured that their boy would come to them if he needed or wanted to talk, and read his attempts to kill his emotions as a lack of need for the solace that can be achieved by having a shoulder to cry on. Indeed, they thought that he would be angered by any attempt to invade his privacy and bring up uncomfortable topics.

Nor did the elders provide guidance in how to be more reciprocal with people or give him direction in how to create conversations rather than monologues. They never pointed out that it was important to show interest in what others were doing or saying, despite the fact that both of them routinely displayed this with their children and in their own social lives. Instead, the parents reasoned that their son was already feeling hurt and rejected; and they feared that they might injure him further by telling him that his conversational style could be improved.

By the time of his adulthood, our subject had become what one might expect based on his early life. Surpassingly bright, he went to an elite college and had a coterie of those who admired his intellect and creativity, but no real friends. The pain of rejection had long since been pushed down deep inside, to the point that he might not have recognized the need or value of “closeness.” He was as out of touch with the emotional side of his own life as he was with the feelings of his conversational partners. Our young man seemed to have little need to find out about what was going on “inside.” Nor did he understand that his failure to ask questions to peers could be seen as arrogance, indifference, or peculiarity.

Still, our youthful gentleman led an interesting life because he sought out intellectual stimulation and threw himself into numerous activities within the world of the sciences and the arts. But, it remained a solitary existence, even if it was no longer clear to what extent he felt marginalized, so cut-off did he seem from the matters that connect head and heart.

His parents still tried to put a good face on their son’s way of living, as much as they knew about it, since they continued to be hesitant to ask him sensitive questions. But deep down they wondered whether he could possibly have any close friends (not to mention lovers) given his way of talking to people. Even now they felt that it was too late to bring up things that might cause him pain or trigger his anger at them for prying into his life.

Instead, the parents would occasionally comment to friends about their unusual son, make good-natured jokes about him, and simultaneously take enormous pride in his considerable intellectual and vocational success in the very stimulating, if strangely disconnected life he had fashioned for himself.

In defense of the elders, it should first be said that they could have done much worse. Their son didn’t do drugs, steal cars, embezzle money, or trip old people crossing the street. They parented him instinctively, as most of us do with our children. They certainly did not want to hurt him but, in their tiptoeing around his emotional pain, they failed to recognize opportunities to provide needed consolation and guidance concerning the social skill he lacked.

One can imagine that things could have been different. Had the parents been comforting and validating of his early humiliations rather than choosing to minimize them, perhaps he would have felt less isolated and not cordoned off his feelings even from himself. Had mom and dad gently guided him in how to converse, he might have had more social success and seemed less odd because of his penchant to prattle on about himself. If the parents encouraged their child to salve his own and others’ unhappiness by first providing that soothing themselves, maybe intimate relationships would have flourished.

It is impossible to know for sure. Child-rearing isn’t like a laboratory experiment, with an experimental and a control group. The “what if” questions are never answered with certainty. Sometimes nature has its way, no matter a guardian’s best and most understanding efforts at nurture.

Raising children isn’t easy. If you are lucky, you have a child like these parents’ first born, who responded well to the instinctive default parenting style of mom and dad.

But, for those of you who have more than one child, it quickly should become clear that they do not come out of the womb as identical sprouts, each needing just the same amount of sun, temperature, water, and nutrition. No horticulturist would treat a tropical plant in the same way that we would care for one that can only flourish in a more temperate climate.

And yet, even today, parents too often believe that “one size parenting” fits all children, and that it is the child’s job to adapt to the parents’ approach to upbringing rather than the other way around.

Put another way, you can be a good parent to one child and a less-than-good parent for another, simply by taking the identical approach to each of them.

The rule is simple: be the parent your child needs you to be.

Search yourself. Ask what your offspring requires. What will work best for this particular little human being?

Then, if you discover that the required approach to child-rearing doesn’t come easily to you, learn and stretch yourself.

You are responsible for a human life.

No job in the world is as important.

The above image is Vincent van Gogh’s Mother Roulin With Her Baby.