How Self-consciousness Misleads Us: The “Rock” Guitar Story

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Everyone will know. Everyone will know how you embarrassed yourself. Friends and strangers, both. They will see the perspiration and hear the stammering. Your face shall transform into a tomato-like ball of redness. It might as well get sold at a fruit market.

Yes, someone will make a video, too, making you an international laughing-stock. Forever.

We fear the worst and fear takes us over. We become hostage to worry. We crawl inside the fear and are devoured. Fear surrounds us, breathes into us, and binds us. We are trapped.

Only it’s not true. We’ve all lived moments like the one in the story I’m about relay. Not identical to this event, but just as excruciating and permanent, we thought. Not so bad after all, I hasten to say.

“Rock” was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. A remarkable scholar, a shining academic star. Black wavy hair already flecked with gray — he made an impression. He was gifted with words on paper and with words he spoke. “Rock,” a nickname belying a less than chiseled physique, would come to win two awards for teaching at another prestigious university. Rich Adelstein, his real name, remains one of the few people who is eloquent without a script.

Playing the guitar, however, is something else. Always was. And music is what his friends asked him to make at their wedding. “Just for a few minutes; anything you want. You’ll be a star!”

How could Rock say no? He chose a Bach transcription, not more than three minutes long.

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The day came. A torrid day in a sweltering summer. Rock knew the piece by heart, had played it many times in the privacy of his apartment. There, Bach was effortless, fluent. But at a wedding, in front of lots of people?

You sweat the anticipation. You count the time. The sands of the hourglass push down and the hands of the hooded hangman place the noose. Tightening, tightening. There is no escape. Your expected participation is public knowledge. You can’t claim illness without betraying cowardice, conscience, and comrades.

The moment arrived. Rock sat in the chair in front of perhaps 200 wedding-well-wishers. His fingers, unlike his voice, were not the part of himself he trusted.

The perspiration began even before the first note. More notes, more perspiration. Our boy’s arm pits oozed. His winter-weight, flannel suit – the only one he owned – was soaking through. The sweat came in waves, like the kind that sweep you off your feet and carry you out to sea. The guitarist’s mind was overwrought with the terror of public humiliation. His brain buzzed. The shining brilliance of Rock’s head, always full of ideas, was now brilliant and shining for an uncustomary reason. My friend was barely above water, caught in a whirlpool, capsizing in a feverish river of illuminated perspiration and panic.

Rock’s fingers moved on their own, to the good. They were, however, getting harder to motivate. “A little while longer. If I can go on for a little while longer,” he said to himself. His digits seemed to get larger, like plump sausages; unbendable, heavy. Stiffening. And then, the unimaginable: his fingers went on strike. The unreliable labor force stopped laboring.

True, a single moment of silence was not inappropriate. But a moment is not 15-seconds, or 30-seconds, or a minute. Time transformed, became timeless. Rock stared at the stationary digits.

No vibration. Eternity. Strain. Second upon second upon second. How many?

Finally, the music began to sound. By sheer force of will the piece was finished.

The audience applauded. No shouts or cheers. Surely everyone knew. How could they miss a suit doubling as swim wear? Surely they were talking about him, giggling about Rock, feeling sorry. Surely people would remember.

A reception followed. The man of words had no words to describe his mortification. Yet, no one looked at him more than anyone else. No comment on his dampness. A few even told him they enjoyed the performance. Not a soul asked “What happened?” or “Are you OK? We worried about you.”

A woman appeared. Middle-aged. A stranger, well-dressed, with a cultured, intellectual aura.

“Oh, God,” Rock thought.

“I really enjoyed your performance,” she said with enthusiasm. “The dramatic pause, in particular!”

She wasn’t kidding. The disqualifying paralysis – the moment of ruin – was to her the creative highlight.

Life went on: a life of accomplishment, good works, and recognition. An admirable life, untouched by momentary catastrophe. Indeed, a catastrophe in one place alone: the mind.

Most of us have had some version of this experience. And survived. People usually notice less than we think. Most disasters are temporary. Even when the audience does recognize a difficult situation, they tend to forget. The event is replaced by another, newer story. We are much more concerned with our own lives than the lives of others. Thus, our daily tasks, relationships, victories, failures, deadlines, and distractions allow little room for concentration on another’s momentary discomfort.

A few rules for the next time you have a “Rock” Guitar experience:

  1. Remember, “This too shall pass.”
  2. Your internal emotions and what others detect are not the same. You probably don’t look or sound as bad as you think.
  3. Don’t proclaim your inexperience, nervousness, or troubled state. Do not cue the audience to search for problems they would otherwise likely miss. Do not apologize afterward.
  4. However bad the day, you will soon be yesterday’s news, replaced by some other event. More probable still, the crowd’s preoccupation returns to what we all spend most of our time thinking about: ourselves.
  5. Remind yourself that you are not unique. Even professional athletes drop baseballs in front of 50,000 people in the stands and millions watching on TV.

Not convinced you will live to fight another day? That your bad moment will go unnoticed or be forgotten? Then I am forced to tell you about the most inappropriate, politically incorrect, embarrassing experience of my life. This is a story you can’t top. No one ever has: Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness.

The top image is called  Guitarist Little Girl (Dorothy Takacz) — Budapest, Hungary by Takkk. The second photo is entitled Drops of Sweat by Bibikoff. Next comes Finish Line by Thomas Sørenes. The final image is a photo of Musician Third Class Gabriel Brown, at the Jerudong International School, 2011. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This post is a revision of an earlier essay publish on this site.

How to Assert Yourself: A Guide to Dealing with Unfulfilled Promises

The knob fell off my hotel room door. The room had the wrong number of beds, the mattress sagged, the shower would have made an Eskimo’s teeth chatter, and the restaurant included pieces of glass and wire in the food. A nearby hospital demanded payment for an expensive test they improperly submitted to my insurance company.

OK, not all events were on the same day or in the same place, but these unpleasantries happened over a period of years at a variety of locations.

They were opportunities to become assertive and I became pretty good at taking on poor service and unfulfilled promises.

I had not always been adept, however.

I did not deal with such matters from strength as a young man, but I learned by doing. We don’t become confident waiting for the emergence of the ability to assert ourselves, we become confident by asserting ourselves. We get better gradually. That said, this particular kind of “training” isn’t fun.

In all the cases described – and more – I received compensation, usually enough to satisfy me.

I’ll share some thoughts on the potential trepidation of this type of challenge, as well as what I learned about the best way to succeed in dealing with these difficulties.

ATTITUDE (YOURS):

  • You are paying for a service. You are entitled to the service for which you are paying. The company is not doing you a favor by providing it. Indeed, you have been inconvenienced by needing to prompt the vendor to fulfill his obligation to you.
  • Think of your relationship with the provider (the merchant or hotel or restaurant) as if it were a written contract: they do something for you and you pay them for what they do.
  • You are providing the owner or CEO with valuable information: what is wrong with his business. Consultants earn high fees telling ailing companies about their mistakes. Some of the organizations to whom you complain will, indeed, be grateful for the information provided. Example: a restaurant that is over salting the food needs to know its patrons don’t like it or will soon have empty tables .
  • Self-assertion doesn’t make you a bad person. Requiring things be put right shows self-respect. You can be a good man or woman and also stand up for yourself.
  • Be direct, but civil. Don’t lose your temper, but speak unequivocally. Your tone should convey seriousness. Phrases like “I think” and “I’m pretty sure” undercut your complaint.
  • The person who you are talking to is not always the one who failed to provide adequate service. Be direct and strong in dealing with him, nonetheless. Consider saying, “I realize this is not your doing, but I am unhappy with your company’s failure to _____.”
  • If you admit error when the failure is not yours, your argument will not succeed.

BE PREPARED:

  • Read any signed contract with care. Even if the document suggests the service was not unconditionally guaranteed, websites and sales staff often convey the sense that the service will be provided, thereby implying an assurance or promise. Read the website and come prepared to quote from it, if necessary.
  • Try to manage the issue face-to-face, if possible. It is easier to be told “no” if you use email or phone.
  • Write down what you want to say. You can even read from your notes or script, though it is best to look at the representative most of the time.
  • Your written material should include the dates and times when events went wrong, the names of those with whom you spoke, whatever they said, etc. These details convey veracity (truthfulness) even if one cannot prove what happened.

MEETING WITH A CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE OR MANAGER:

  • Make and keep eye contact. My adult children call this, “the Stein Stare.” You needn’t display the controlled ferocity and x-ray vision my kids seem to imply in this “tribute” (a sort of family joke, both exaggerated and true), but people do take me seriously when I want them to.
  • Introduce yourself by name and, if possible, shake the agent’s hand firmly. You are attempting to establish a relationship, convey civility, and demonstrate the importance of the matter. Looking down most of the time will not help your case.
  • Since you may be speaking to a person with little authority, ask him to follow through on reaching a “decider” and request follow-up concerning the company’s intentions with regard to your complaint. Ask when you should expect to hear back and whether notice will come in writing or by phone.
  • If you don’t get satisfaction, request the attention of someone still-higher in the chain of command. A Vice President of Customer Satisfaction or similar individual stands on the top rung. You can find his name on the company website.
  • At some point you may need to ask for what you want. For example, a poorly cooked dish should be sent back to the kitchen and prepared to your liking or removed from the bill. A hotel problem might require you to request a room change, a reduced rate, or both. In hotels I’ve received a free day, a free meal, free parking, etc. Sometimes you will be offered a form of compensation without asking, but be prepared whether to accept the proposition or ask for more. Don’t say, “that’s OK,” unless you mean it.
  • Be persistent. Multiple contacts are often required. It took me six-months to get a hospital to submit a corrected insurance claim. I spoke with a nurse, a doctor, obtained the proper procedure code for the test that had been performed, wrote emails, and made regular telephone follow-ups with the hospital’s billing department.

A FEW OTHER CONSIDERATIONS:

  • You needn’t always make an issue of things. Pick your fights. The world is imperfect and you can drive yourself batty demanding justice at every turn. Some problems are best allowed to pass unchallenged.
  • Be aware of what your “default” tendency is when it comes to the kind of assertion described here. Some of us demand perfection as customers and enjoy fighting. Some are meek, prone to cowering in the face of anyone in authority. Others are easy-going and accept life’s occasional disappointments with a good-nature and plenty of tolerance.
  • If you are prone to fighting you might need to ask why. If you are avoidant of anything portending conflict, confrontation, or disappointment, you risk transforming yourself into the world’s doormat. Think about who you wish to be and how much emotion you are willing to spend in obtaining the service you expected or compensation for a failure or delay.
  • Most service providers hope to satisfy you, want your return business, and look forward to word-of-mouth advertising from you.
  • The vendor dislikes negative publicity. It is sometimes necessary to let the company know of your intention to tweet or blog your story to others if you aren’t satisfied.
  • If you do make such a threat, recognize this is the only “arrow” in your quiver. Once you have used it and tweeted your unhappiness to the world, your leverage with the vendor is gone. If at all possible, keep any such actions in reserve unless negotiations reach a dead-end

FINAL THOUGHTS: 

  • Consider all that I’ve said as free advice, with the usual warning: no guarantees and you get what you paid for it.
  • You will feel better about yourself if you challenge some of the personal injustices life offers and stand up to those who might take advantage of you, whether intentionally or due to incompetence or negligence.
  • What you prove to yourself is more important than proving anything to others. Knowing you can face difficult situations is worth the unpleasantness required to obtain such knowledge. You won’t always get what you want, but you will build an internal psychic muscle. Like the proverbial 99-pound weakling who enlarges his body by lifting weights, your newly found internal strength will be worth the hours spent in the gym of life.

The top image is A Snowball Fight in China by 大雄鹰. The second photo is a Giant Snowball, Oxford by Kamyar Adl. The final painting is Three Lawyers in Conference by Honoré Daumier. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Dying to be Seen, but Afraid to be Seen: Where Insecurity and Invisibility Meet

The quiet ones envy those who are sociable. Not always, but often. They wish for an ease of contact which is not theirs. Too many hunger for understanding, for a kind person to recognize them, accept them; even love them. They are dying to be seen, but afraid to be seen.

Anonymity is the preferred choice. Many escape to the shadows, at least if they can.

Don’t raise your hand, says Mr. Anxiety, even if you have the right answer. Too risky. Your voice might quiver, your hand might shake, and there could be a follow-up question which leaves you speechless.

The insecure ones make a trade. They take the apparent safety of invisibility at the price of being ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten. They leave no mark on the world, hoping to avoid criticism and ostracism. Better to take yourself out of the competition for attention than be told to go away. Of course, you wind up alone, but you persuade yourself this is better than rejection.

Instead of belittlement you opt for the shrubbery, hiding behind the bushes. True, sometimes you get wet when the lawn sprinklers go on. Occasionally a kid throws a ball that hits you or a dog sprays you, but you get used to it.

Group conversations are the worst. When might I jump in? My face will flush. They’ll think I’m an idiot, too boring. I’ll just sit tight or stand and nurse my drink.

Who would have thought a man could dive into his glass, hide behind its opacity? Or imbibe enough to shed his disguise and turn into a more outgoing, confident version of himself?

Once you sober up, you will still be like a person with a fire inside who is afraid of venting a smoke signal. The result? You are consumed from within and your glorious flame is unnoticed.

Mark Twain said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” Change two words and the sentence becomes: the man who does not speak has no advantage over the man who cannot speak. Will you be thought of as the latter? Are you already?

Or have you become someone who is told what he thinks, afraid of challenging a rude or wrong idea? You will be outdone by those with half your intellect. They, the half-brained, are kings and queens in the land of the mute.

You remain unknown, even if others think they’ve sized you up. Many believe you are stuck-up because you avoid them. Some say you are kind, several imagine you lack “personality,” others reckon you stupid, a few timid: an easy mark to be pushed around. Most strangers form no opinion. Not one of them will be completely right, know the whole package. You won’t even be seen in full by yourself.

Your attempt to vanish is exhausting. The task is like running a race, trying to escape the eyes of others, but distancing yourself from yourself. If all escape routes close you will grab your throat and squeeze, stifle your emotions and ideas so as not to offend anyone.

Do you wish asphyxiation by your own hands?

I hear you gagging.

Do I know you? Not completely. But I’ve seen you and I might have been you a long time ago.

It wasn’t fun.

It’s not as if everyone else is completely visible. No one is. One might display an eyebrow or an ankle, even a heart: that most precious portion of ourselves when offered as a present. Such a one is trying, practicing, gathering momentum.

A gradual path toward self revelation can grow on you.

In the end, however, if you are seen but unseen, dying to be seen but afraid to be seen, you should realize something: you cannot be both.

You must choose or remain in torment.

The therapist’s door is waiting, but even there you can try to be invisible.

A pity.

Counselors, you understand, don’t do their best work blindfolded.

The top image is a photo of the cover of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. The cover was illustrated by Ludvik Strimpl and the photo taken by Gallica/Sudoc. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances

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We try so hard to make a good impression, don’t we? No one enjoys a disapproving audience. We dress well, hide our inner turmoil, and smile. We comb our hair, clean our clothes, and wash pretty often. Why do we care so much about the opinion of onlookers?

The simple answer: because it was historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked; dangerous to survival and damaging to our chances of finding a mate. Most importantly, those historical facts continue to influence how we live today. They have major implications for the type of person we seek in a partner; why we compete in business and games; why loneliness feels so terrible and why personal insecurities are widespread. Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists think about us in terms of the qualities that enabled our survival through thousands of years. Of course, our long process of descent from prehistoric ancestors required them to complete two missions: staying alive until sexual maturity and making babies who lived beyond them. Whatever innate preoccupations and skills enabled early humans to meet these two criteria were passed down in their genes as part of the never-ending chain of life, like a relay race in which the baton has now been given to us. The inborn talents or defects of those who didn’t survive didn’t get handed off. Those folks aren’t our ancestors.

Now, you may be saying, OK, but I’m pretty smart and I make my own decisions. I don’t need to be like people who lived in caves and wore animal skins.

Not so fast. Think about anger. It helped our forefathers defend against attack by enemies and hungry carnivores. You live with their capacity to defend yourself. And some of us blow-up at those we love, commit murder, and make war.

Or let’s say you are a guy. Remember back to your childhood when girls were yucky? Then one day you had an erection. I doubt this was a well-reasoned and much-desired gift you put on your Christmas list — unless your parents were more liberal than mine, that is. Not everything you do is a matter of thoughtful choice, unmotivated by Mother Nature.

We are wired to survive and to mate with a member of the opposite sex who is capable of producing and supporting a new life. So whom do we choose? A woman at the dawn of human existence had to be especially concerned with finding a man who could defend her and provide for her when she was pregnant and vulnerable. Evolutionary researchers believe several qualities signaled such ability: physical strength, intelligence, stamina, the capacity to work in groups, leadership, etc. Thus, when a woman is in the market for a man rather than a fling, she is influenced by her ancestors’ inherited tendency to find one who can make a living and create a safe residence. Yes, I know women are no longer uniformly dependent on men, but the ladies’ genes didn’t receive the memo.

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What about physical appearance? Women notice handsome men as much as men recognize the beauty of the fair sex. Unlike men, however, who place physical appearance at the top of their wish list, attractiveness is further down her tally of desired attributes in a permanent sexual partner. Why? Again, because of the historic vulnerability of women carrying and bearing their children. A female can only afford to be picky about noble features and hot bodies if she has a choice among men who first can accomplish the things she and her future children will need. Thus, a lady cannot allow the luxury of opting for surface qualities over those more essential to her safety and her child’s well-being.

Men are more likely to be motivated by just one thing: a healthy and fertile appearance (which is correlated with youth and beauty). Nature permits them to indulge themselves because the physical cost of producing a child will be borne by their partner. As the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “There is no such thing as justice — in or out of court.”

Of course, few of us think about these things when we are on the prowl. Remember, too, I am simplifying the story for the sake of brevity.

Now, on to the origins of insecurity. Competition is built into the system. Should you want the most attractive female (the best potential mom in evolutionary terms or the hottest mama in your feverish dreams) you must stand out from the crowd of other men in some way suggestive of your superior ability to be a provider. Thus, men have historically tried to make lots of money (even more than necessary to live), achieve high status, display their excellence in the performance of an activity (business or sports) and impress with their intellect and cleverness. Men size up the competition to get the best of them. Insecurity — the preoccupation with where you stand in the pecking order — necessarily follows.

Females compete for males as well. The cosmetics and fashion industries thrive on the genetically fixed desire to catch the eye of a husband. Again, however, when out shopping you aren’t likely to think, “those jeans will improve my chances of getting my genes into the next generation.” Instead, you say to yourself, “Wow, those jeans look good on me.” Only people like me think of genes, not jeans. And, if you repeat similar questions often enough — what looks good on me, what doesn’t, how do I compare with the others — the insecure background of one’s thought becomes the norm.

Earlier I said it has been historically dangerous to be unattractive, unsuccessful, and unliked. If humans of antique times couldn’t find a sufficiently enterprising and healthy sex partner, that person’s genetic line would end. Those who didn’t make friends found their chances of survival on their own were poor. Thus, whether looking for a mate or a group affiliation to increase their odds (against other tribes, animals, and nature) they needed sensitivity to any word, expression, element of body language, or deed signaling another person’s disinterest, dislike, or disaffection from them; in addition to those indicators communicating they were welcome or pleasing to the crowd. Unfortunately, the ability to determine how they were coming across to others required a preoccupation with other people’s opinions: a recipe for insecurity and self-consciousness. Those who didn’t care how they were being received didn’t hand down their genes successfully.

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How does loneliness fit in? A soul contented in his isolation didn’t mate. Women and men satisfied just with the company of their sexual partner reduced their chances of survival compared to couples who had alliances with others. Individuals who were happy when alone, therefore, didn’t pitch their genes forward into the next generation. Men and women discontented when by themselves, however, would have wanted to join up with other creatures. Since group participation increased the chance of surviving, procreating, and raising a child, their unhappiness when separated from humans is a quality we now have: it motivated them to take an action useful to staying alive.

There are other factors beyond evolution influencing you today. Your upbringing, your own life experiences, and the individual set of incidental personality traits nature handed to you. But, back there somewhere is the long reach of the instincts that survived the evolutionary relay race. The ways in which we react, think, and act are more determined by the successful tendencies of our ancestors than (I suspect) most of us consider or believe.

In short, having a mind drawn to thoughts of both friends and strangers comes naturally. Our preoccupation with status and money, even though it can create misery, is a quality that long ago began to improve the chance of survival and is still in us. We operate according to a program written by nature on the men and women who lived here an eternity before we jumped out of mom’s womb.

The aim of evolution was never to make us happy. We can only challenge ourselves to deal with the insecurities and preoccupations it deposited in our genes. Those instincts don’t always work well in a world that, for the most part, is much different and safer than the natural state of man’s life, described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish, and short.”

In our search for satisfaction we must grapple with a biology that often makes us discontented and wary, replicating what our ancestors did to live. Understanding this gives us a better chance of remaking ourselves the best we can to suit not their time — but ours.

The top image is Toilette der Venus by Peter Paul Rubens. The second painting is The Persistent Suitor by Frederico Andreotti. The cartoon was created by Welleman and is called Lonely Guy, Shadow as Friend. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

Why We Choose to Look the Way We Do

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We are perceived, objects beheld, lab specimens under a microscope. A human being is akin to a car in a showroom window. While you can drive yourself batty worrying about the opinions of those who are watching you, ignoring them completely is usually a recipe for loneliness. Equally, your own evaluations have consequences for those you observe. Sometimes you can tell a whole book by its cover, sometimes a few pages, and every so often you mistake a Donald Duck comic strip for Anna Karenina. 

When a person enters our field of vision we receive a rush of incoming data: clothing, jewelry, hair style, hair color, and portable objects (phones, purses, brief cases). We might notice what is in the mouth (gum, food, tobacco), head coverings, and exposure of skin. Aids to movement (walking sticks, bikes, wheel chairs) and facial hair are hard to miss.

Even what people are looking at is sometimes obvious. Gait, posture, and facial expressions are clear. Passersby text and talk. The physique itself is part of the visual array. Let’s not neglect eye contact, body punctures, tattoos, glasses, headphones, and backpacks.

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Individually or in combination, intentionally or not, all these create an impression. What conclusions might others draw from what they see of us? What might we surmise from what we notice of them?

  • His tribe. In other words, group affiliations such as nationality, school, sports team, and religion.
  • Whether he is a friend or a foe. 
  • Attitudes toward sexual allure and modesty. Advertising sexual availability is as simple as a bare ring finger or as obvious as a leer.
  • The transmission of fear from the terrifying one being inspected to the watcher.
  • Signs of wealth or power.
  • An attempted disguise (for example, makeup, wearing a beard to cover a weak chin or a combover).
  • Physical fitness. Attitudes toward food and diet are inferred from this. Conclusions about self-control or its absence might also occur.
  • Information about values, as reflected by religious symbols or clothing identified with a particular culture. For example, a green wrist bracelet with the words “Save Darfur” declares support of a cause. The surveyor may further conclude something about the wearer’s politics.
  • Adherence to social convention is demonstrated by unremarkable, mainstream attire. Conversely, unconventional appearance rejects those same standards.
  • The importance of clothing itself is implied if the person dresses in finery.
  • A wish for attention or for anonymity, the latter by blending into the crowd. Equally, an attempt to generate attention by those who have become “invisible” due to advancing age: a war with time fought in retreat. Past a certain age, it is harder to draw the eye of the audience. Instead, we fade into it.

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  • Encouragement of social contact from others or simple openness to such contact. (As easy to convey as a smile, a wink, or a frown).
  • A uniform (literal in the case of soldiers or those required to wear work attire; figurative, in the case of a business suit or the tuxedos sported by symphony conductors).
  • Subtle intimidation. The “power” tie of a litigator, perhaps. Or outfits chosen to minimize intimidation and reduce anxiety in the other. (Therapists are motivated to make themselves approachable. Some select casual, unostentatious clothing to accomplish this).
  • Confidence or its absence. The insecure risk transforming themselves into targets without even wearing a “kick me” sign. Their combined characteristics create a kind of metaphorical bullseye sensed by potential tormenters.
  • Other values. Perchance, a preference for comfortable clothes over expensive or impressive ones.
  • Habit (particularly true of older people who wear their hair in styles long out of fashion, or clothes unbecoming to someone past his body’s “use by” date). In effect, these people are also informing us they either don’t see themselves as they are or don’t care what the onlooker thinks.
  • Incidental information. On occasion you witness such things as whether a person is aware of his literal impact on neighbors, as when he clobbers another with his backpack or purse. Perhaps you will note how tied he is to his cell phone while at dinner with a companion, etc.

When a fellow human passes in review we instinctively size him up. We control many (but not all) of the characteristics of appearance leading to the impression we are trying to project.

It is worth knowing how people read you. Indeed, this is just as important as recognizing what self you’d like onlookers to see. Introverts often believe their shyness is obvious, when in fact they are frequently misidentified as arrogant. The failure to “join in” is interpreted as being “stuck up.”

Unless a good friend delivers difficult feedback or you have heard unflattering commentary in a therapy group or from your boss, you might not recognize your impact on others. Not even your counselor will be frank with you unless he believes it is in your interest and that you can take the pain of such a message without dissolving on his office carpet. Messy, by the way.

Not everyone works hard to manage his impression, but you leave clues whether you are making the effort or not, aware of what the impression is or not. You are a kind of walking, talking advertisement.

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Regrettably, many spend more time (and money) putting a brand on their “package” than improving what is inside it. Frequently, the person conveying characteristics required to get a job or spouse anticipates disaster when time exposes his true self. In the end, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, no matter how velvety and enticing the dish looks.

On the other hand, some qualities are only on the surface. Attempts at finding their depth is the equivalent of fishing for tuna in a desert: they are not there to be found. If, for example, “I am beautiful” is the intended message of the one drawing your eye, there is nothing but the outside — nothing more below the surface with respect to that characteristic. And qualities like intimidation also depend on the exterior of things, at least in part. Competence, intellect, morality, and companionability are less likely to be correctly and completely inferred from how we look.

All of us, at one time or another, try to sell the product named “me.” Best, of course, if the underlying goods are worthy of the value suggested by externalities. Making it so can be a lifetime project. Do remember, however, that the object inside the gift-wrapped box needn’t be perfect to do the job.

The shine on everything wears away. The ideal is to possess something underneath more worthwhile and lasting than an alluring glow. Time is going to alter the package. Few grow up wanting to look like a 60-year-old as fast as possible.

Some of you doubt that you have much extraordinary under the surface — or any idea how to obtain such qualities as you wish were present. Yet they may already be there, in which case all you lack is confidence in what you offer.

A pleasant surprise is in store if only you can recognize what is in the package. The bubble wrap might safeguard the tender contents, but can also obscure what is protected.

Here’s hoping the container, like a box of Cracker Jack, holds a prize you want and tastes as sweet.

The gift box icon is the work of Zeus Box (kuswanto) and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Shopping for Confidence

512px-Trashy_Smart_Bag

I found myself in a sketchy part of town, although the people were handsomely dressed. No idea how I arrived. The unsavory, but well-groomed types walking the streets triggered my instinct for self-protection. I stepped into a store of a strange kind. Indeed, all the other businesses were full of commodities and people, but felt empty. This one was empty, yet the atmosphere was different.

“Ah, you found us!” said the middle-aged manager, looking pleased. “You seem troubled, but you needn’t be.”

“I was only trying to escape the — uh — neighborhood, if you get what I mean,” I responded hesitantly.

“Oh, they never come in here. We don’t sell what they want. They all want stuff. Everybody wants stuff. Fools.”

“What do you offer?” I replied. I’d not even looked at the sign in the window before I entered, and there was nothing inside to give away the nature of the store’s wares. No shelves, no showcases; plain powder blue walls, unadorned; furniture consisting of a chair, a table, and a sofa. Oh, yes, there was a large book on the table: The Discourses, by Epictetus.

“I sell confidence and I can tell you need some, young man.” Indeed, I was a naïve 20-year old. How did I become twenty again?

The manager had enough self-assurance for a small army. He stood as straight as a military officer at attention, with a bit of gray in his wavy hair, and the square jaw of a GQ model.

“Confidence? How can you tell I need such a thing?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? The doors don’t open unless you require our help. We had special sensors installed. Cost us a fortune.”

I decided not to ask about the technicalities. He was right of course. I did need fistfuls of bravado. I was doubtful about my future, had no clear idea what being a psychologist might entail, and was uncertain with the ladies. My mother was always reminding me I lacked the good-natured qualities of my younger brothers and my buddies. I offered no rejoinder to her comments about Ed and Jack, but when she brought up my friends I’d reply, “Yeah, easy for them: they don’t live with you.”

“OK,” said the manager. “What kind of confidence would you like?”

“You offer different kinds?”

“Yes. For example, you might enjoy some slightly used self-assurance, only utilized by a little old widow at church on Sundays. We can let you have it for a song. Can you sing?”

“No.”

“Well, then. We market a babe magnet variety which we call BMBM makes you appear taller and better looking. This is our best seller. Or perhaps you’d like political confidence. You know, the kind statesmen use to send young men into ill-conceived wars. Actually, we’re not supposed to sell the product any more because it got a bad name during the first George W. Bush administration. For you, though, I’ll make an exception.”

“How about some general confidence. Something all-purpose, to help me say no, stand up for myself, worry less, make phone calls, give speeches, not care about what people think of me. What do you say?

“Oh, that’s very expensive. Too pricey for you, for sure.”

“How much?”

“Well, first off, you must understand what we are selling. We offer only the appearance of things. So, you’ll still be troubled by uncertainty and anxiety, but nobody will recognize what you are feeling. We call the package fake it to make it confidence.

“What would the real thing cost?”

“Years of your time. You’d have to fail a lot. A lot. Over and over, until you succeed. Courage, too, which we can’t give you. The law doesn’t permit us to sell strength of character. Taking on new things would be required of you. Truth telling is necessary — not trying to fool people. Repressing fake smiles is one of the hardest tasks, along with looking into the eyes of those you talk to. So is recognizing that others are much more preoccupied with their own lives than they are with yours. Maybe the most awful thing of all is realizing you don’t matter in the big picture. People don’t want to think someday they’ll die, leaving ‘not a rack behind,’ as Bill Shakespeare used to remind me. Like I said, though, we don’t sell what you’re looking for.”

“I understand. But are you suggesting if I did all the things you enumerated, took risks, got shot down, perhaps found a cognitive-behavior therapist, fell and picked myself up, looked hard into the mirror, and recognized the shortness of life — if I did all those things, I’d eventually find real confidence — perfect confidence?”

Now, for the first time, the manager frowned. Indeed, he no longer resembled the man I thought he was, a stud-meister of complete self-possession. After another moment’s silence, he spoke.

“Oh, no. Gee. Perfect confidence, what a novel idea. I never considered the possibility. But, no, even after all the labor I mentioned, you can’t attain such a lofty state.”

“Why?”

“Simple. Nothing in life is perfect.”

The top photo is a shopping bag made from recycled materials by Trashy Bags, in Accra, Ghana and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. And, a tip of the hat to Rosaliene Bacchus, a much devoted protector of the environment: https://rosalienebacchus.wordpress.com/