You Looking at Me? Being Self-conscious.

July 23, 2012

Edouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass

I am sitting on the subway train, minding my own business. A woman wearing sunglasses(yes, in the underground) is staring at me.  I mean a full-on, relentless stare. It leaves me uncomfortable. All kinds of thoughts go through my mind. I feel threatened, I feel self-conscious. Why is it that being stared at is so darned uncomfortable?

Everyone has had that classic stress dream: you are naked in a crowd of clothed people. That maybe why Manet’s painting is so powerful.  Psychologists says being stared at makes you remember your vulnerability. We cringe from such reminders. We don’t want to think how fragile our bodies really are, we would rather forget the smallness of our status, our utter lack of power. No wonder we cringe. But what might happen if instead of cringing we dived into it and investigated it? What if instead we observed our own reaction to being vulnerable? Is it possible to shift our attention away from the starer and focus upon process of being self-conscious? What might we discover about ourselves?

On my next subway trip I decided to be vigilant and receptive to this idea. Curiously, when someone did stare at me, I did not feel self-conscious or vulnerable. It seems that we are only self-conscious when we are caught unawares. Perhaps that is the secret: Our vulnerability resides in our very inattentiveness. In another words, whatever it is within us that is weak and vulnerable, exists only in the grey area between awareness and distraction.
 Of course, it is not only being stared at which makes us self-conscious, we feel self-conscious and similarly vulnerable when someone draws attention to us with an insult or a taunt, both of which get their sting from making us self-conscious. If you are a visible minority, or are old, or fat or too thin or short, reminders of why we are different from others always feels wretched because they make us self-conscious. It is deeply lonely, you feel profoundly isolated and utterly vulnerable.  Each of us reacts differently to being made self-conscious, sometimes we turn shy, at other times we get defensive and snap back. Bullying and being bullied are both maladies of self-consciousness. The bully is reminded of his weakness and lashes out, the victim is reminded of his lack of power and withdraws. This type of self-consciousness is different from staring at yourself in the mirror (which is pleasing, or at the very least non-threatening). Or the spiritual exercise of ‘looking within'(which is profoundly peaceful and empowering). Self-consciousness requires others, and one needs to be not expecting it to happen. The moments happen spontaneously.
Of course feeling self-conscious is not always unpleasant. Whenever we are showered with praise, say when we are on stage accepting an award, we are self-conscious in a pleasing way (or are we?). During another shift at the hospital a patient said to me that I was a miracle man, that she was in awe of me. While initially this type of self-consciousness is seductively joyful, beware, it bites too. If you observe keenly, praise also separates you from others, it is also a lonely, isolating feeling, not much different to an insult. And of course, if you take the self-consciousness of  praise too seriously, it will smart when next it is deflated. But if we remain attentive, we can see self-consciousness for the phantom it really is. In fact full attention interferes with self-consciousness ever arising.

What happens when we inhibit or reject self-consciousness? Take the example of a public crisis, say an earthquake, a fire, an auto accident. We notice that our minds stops chattering. We naturally focus on only the most necessary task. No one has taught us this, it is a simple consequence of being not self-conscious. What if we could be not self-conscious all of the time, how would that feel? Perhaps we would always be focussed, doing the needful without fuss, our minds may not chatter incessantly. We may actually always be content.

Then there are those moments of forced self-consciousness. I saw a young woman walking along the sidewalk, a group of construction workers were sitting on a half-wall, eating their lunch. They whistled, made cat-calls. It was obvious from her face that the woman was acutely humiliated. I think it was akin to a punishment by stockade in olden days. As a writer I have sometimes been invited to read aloud on stage. Many people find that kind of public scrutiny to be deeply disturbing. I find that I do not have stage fright because I give attention of the process of being self-conscious.

When we are attentive to moments of self-consciousness, we see they happen more often than we imagine. They are not always dramatic. In conversation when someone humorously defines you: “But that’s so like you,” he might say. For a second you feel numb, uncomfortable, you might feel like withdrawing from the conversation. In fact, this is the surest way of ending a conversation dead in its tracks: just mention something deeply personal about him or her. Sometimes we do it inadvertently and ruin a perfect good rapport. Other times, when stuck with bore, it is a good way to get him or her to move along.

You can’t stop others from drawing attention to you, but what you can choose is to accept or reject being self-conscious. In my opinion, it never feels good.


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