The Burden and Blessings of Self-Consciousness



tumblr_inline_o0ncrnZpFm1tcj1i4_540A few months before my father died, we went to visit him in another town where he was working. I was outside with several other girls and boys having a carefree time diving, racing, and showing off in the motel pool when my parents called me inside. They had been watching and talking about me, and now they had something to say. Receiving personal attention from either of my parents was rare enough, but to be called into their joint presence was like being summoned to an unexpected audience with the Queen and King. I knew the matter must be of utmost importance, and I listened intently.

I was a natural leader with gifts and talents many children lacked, my father said. I should be careful, he warned, about not showing off, being bossy, or dominating situations. A little girl out there by the pool was having trouble keeping up with the rest of us. She seemed shy and maybe lonely. I should notice her, think about her feelings, try to include her and make her feel better about herself.

This was a crucial moment in my development. My eyes were instantly opened to an entirely new way of looking at myself and others. Suddenly I knew people were watching me, perhaps even feeling bad about themselves because of me. I should think about their feelings instead of my own. I should hide my own strengths so as not to intimidate them. I was strong enough to make these kinds of sacrifices for others. Believing I had received a valuable piece of wisdom, I left the motel room a very different little girl from the one who had innocently pranced in. For a moment I deliberated carefully, then casually walked up to the little girl in the faded brown bathing suit and tentatively lied, “I like your bathing suit.”

She grinned widely and said something like, “Really? This old thing?” Then she bounced off happily to the diving board while I sat quietly in the nearest chair to avoid notice. At the age of 11 I was stunned by my new awareness and uncomfortable about what I had just done. I had said something that wasn’t true, but apparently with very good effect. The things I said and did could make a difference to others! I could help people or I could harm them. What if in my ignorance I had spent the whole day out here playing with these children, innocently enjoying the competition, being such a good swimmer and diver that I made some of them feel terrible about themselves?

My God! The mistakes I could have made. As I sat musing, my self-consciousness inflated to encompass the universe. Suddenly the world was filled with eyes, and I knew that all of them, including God’s, were watching me. I felt as if I were being dissected, cell by cell, beneath a critical, cosmic microscope.

Practically everyone becomes self-conscious by the teen years. Like all psychological potential, it can be healthy in some ways, harmful in others. As social animals, we need to be able to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Noting our behavior, hearing our words and tone of voice, seeing the expressions on others’ faces, reflecting on how they’re responding to us, then altering our behavior in more suitable ways help us create loving relationships and a social conscience.

But there’s also a down side to self-consciousness.  For whatever reason, perhaps it was partly genetic, after Daddy died my self-consciousness morphed into self-flaggelation. I remember sitting next to a date in the choir loft at church around the age of 18 worrying about bad breath and trying to stifle the sound and frequency of my breathing until I got dizzy. Oh, God, don’t let me faint, I prayed as I pictured scandalized ladies and leering old men staring up at my exposed underwear as I was carried down the stairs!

Yet, my youthful torment was redeemable.  Mindfulness and self-reflection are keys to personal transformation.  Only now does it occur to me that my painfully self-conscious adolescence might have predisposed me for an adult passion for self-discovery and practices like meditation and dreamwork that would aid it……or maybe it was only an early symptom of a soul born to walk that path. Either way, knowing myself better has brought not only great relief, but great joy. Growing into a more conscious being is not always fun, but it’s well worth the suffering.

Do you have a story about painful self-consciousness or growing self-awareness?

Photo Credit:  Google Images

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0 Responses

  1. Hi Jeanie, I’m not sure it’s the same thing but I do remember being vigilant with others around the age of five. I can clearly recall being able to predict my father’s mood based on how much alcohol he had or had not drunk. I would have these conversations with myself at school, go home and then tip a certain measure of spirits away because I had worked out the quantity that moved things from ‘fun to frightening.’ This watchfulness, and wariness I realise developed as a teenager into something I didn’t have a name for. Subsequently, in my thirties I learnt it was called ‘Intuition’ … for in some way I was able to not only see solutions, but able to predict to myself, things that were going to happen without any prior knowledge.
    Oh what a freak I felt as a young woman growing up and did nothing with these intuitions until my early thirties when my formal training began … only then did many jigsaw pieces start to fall ever so slowly into place. Thirty-three was a real aha year for me! I still don’t know to this day how intuition works, yet it happens all the time. Interestingly, my work as a psychotherapist for these past twenty years has always felt deeply vocational in that sense … like the profession chose me, not the other way round and initially, I was very much the quintessential, reluctant ‘light worker.’
    Similarly, any personal attention from my parents was extremely rare and I do wonder if this also prepared me to be able to focus intently on others, and subsequently my own inner journey. I can relate deeply to your ‘waking up in childhood to a new way of looking at myself and others’ and most especially feeling watched, and therefore judged by God. This is a deeply fascinating, and most thought provoking article Jeanie, thank you so much for posting and sharing your thoughts with us. Blessings, Deborah.

    1. Thank you for your always thoughtful and equally thought-proving comments, Deborah. It feels to me as if your intuition is a core part of your personality (I assume you’re an intuitive type, an “N” on the Myers-Briggs?) that has been with you always. I’m also a very strong “N” and functioned from my intuition constantly without having any idea there was a name for what comes so naturally to me. I just assumed everyone was like me in that way and it was very perplexing as I got older to see the blank looks on peoples’ faces when I would mention something I “knew” that they didn’t have a clue about. I got pretty good at covering up that part of myself until I finally realized it was a natural, normal function that is simply stronger in some than in others. Yes, I felt like a freak in that way too.
      I would suspect that those of us to whom this way of seeing is natural are indeed drawn to understanding the ‘otherness’ in ourselves and others to which we are so very sensitive. I, too, feel that my inner work and writing are vocational in that sense. It’s as if I’m doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing all along. As if I’m not good for anything else but this. Like you, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have finally recognized that I always had the potential to manifest everything I wanted to do and be in my life…..that it was, indeed, all within me. I just had to respect who I am and engage fully in the practices and training that would prepare me to do what I always had it within me to do.
      It occurs to me that our youthful awakening to the sense of being watched must also mark the first conscious step toward building a persona. Until then most children are so free to simply be who they are. Then, “Wham!” Something suddenly knocks some self-awareness into their heads. Perhaps it’s the strength of the “Wham” combined with the core personality that determines how obsessive one’s natural self-consciousness and persona will become. Everybody builds a persona, of course, but for some people it becomes such a powerful part of their personalities that they can never get past it to peel away the layers to the real person inside. I greatly admire your ability to do that with such courage and integrity.
      Blessings, Jeanie

      1. You, Elaine and Susan in particular … you’re all my inspiration and spurs! 🙂 🙂 🙂
        Thank you so much Jeanie for your splendid reply, much appreciated dear lady! I shall be feasting on your words for days. In pure synchronicity, last night as I returned to my Shadow work I was exploring the anxiety, stress that is provoked in a person who over-identifies with their Persona … so your last comments are really hit home. Similarly, if a person over-identifies with their Shadow, they become a slave to their passions alone. I bless the day I found Jung, and your blog! Oh happy days! Blessings, Deborah.

  2. Thank you Jeanie for this powerful post which I read before setting off for the morning, and it is only now, mid-afternnon, that I can give it my attention though I thought a bit about it in these last several hours. There is no question that my early wounding had an effect on me and I’m glad that I learned too in my journey the value of self-consciousness. From my wounding I learned that others, just about everybody, is wounded in some way. I was extremely shy as a child suffering from a terrible stutter. And I know I think the hows whys and wherefores of how the inability to speak arose!
    Youthful torment is indeed re-deemable! I’m glad that I discovered R.D. Laing at a young age: Knots – already that got me questioning … I was 18 so that was a long time ago! Plus other books such as Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand .. also 18 I think.

    1. Hi, Susan. Thank you so much for your comment, “From my wounding I learned that others, just about everybody, is wounded in some way.” It seems to me that this ongoing awareness is probably the greatest gift of self-consciousness because it births empathy and compassion. Until we actually FEEL these things, we humans are just naturally such selfish, uncivilized, self-absorbed creatures. And unfortunately, just recognizing this and feeling compassion once or twice in our lives isn’t enough to make a lasting difference. We have to constantly remind ourselves of this truth, to keep calling back the FEELING of compassion, or we just fall back into our unconscious little self-absorbed worlds where our immature egos can bask in the feeling of being the center of everything! Such a tough job, this growing into consciousness. It’s as much about feeling as it is thinking. I’m still learning that.
      Your shyness and stuttering are a great example of how our wounding can lead to our strength. You I are apparently alike in that we’ve found the best use of our voices in writing, not speaking.
      I never read Laing but discovered Ayn Rand about the same time you did. I admired her work but it wasn’t life-changing for me at that age. My transformation didn’t begin for about 20 more years. I’ve always been a late bloomer. 🙂
      Many thanks for writing.

  3. This was great. If one is alive and truly living in an open world we have stories of self awareness. It is part of growing and realizing that our words have an impact on others. Words are powerful. As actions are

    1. Hi Joan, Thank you for writing. It’s always so lovely to re-connect with you here. 🙂 Yes, we all have stories of self-awareness that we can discover with a bit of reflection. And sharing them can be helpful to others who might not otherwise realize the power of their words and actions. Blessings, my friend.

  4. Great example of a Threshold moment, Jeanie. I have a few as well. One that stands out is a statement my father made to me when I was 14. He was angry at me for something that has now slipped my mind, but his words were burned indelibly into my heart and soul: “Your sister Judy has my work ethic. Your sister Jan has a kind heart. You, you are the selfish one.” Whoa! I carried those words around like a millstone for decades until I realized that, sure, I was probably selfish at 14 (who isn’t), but that I would no longer define myself in those terms, because the reality of my life presented a much different picture. I no longer bend over backwards to prove to myself and others that I’m not ‘selfish’ by doing things that are not in my best interest and have learned instead that the most important thing we can give the world is self-love. Once we love ourselves, we can truly give love to others In the best way possible.
    Hugs, Jenna

    1. Oh, my, Jenna. That’s a tough one. It must have been devastating to hear that from your father and believe it for so long. But then, as both our stories show, it was our pain that motivated us to change. it’s true what Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” If people really understood that, maybe they’d find it a bit easier to face and accept their pain instead of continually running from it. This truly is, as you so appropriately note, the key to learning to love ourselves and others. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It was a perfect complement to mine. 🙂 Jeanie

  5. Do I have to, Jeanie? OK, I’ll tell. My first year in college, my mother left for Europe, my brother was 3000 miles away, and my father was dead. I had relied on being a smart kid, a scholarship girl, an achiever, and suddenly I couldn’t remember anything no matter how hard I studied. I was humiliated and embarrassed as I floundered my way through classes trying to hide my struggles and my ignorance. After my first semester, I got a letter from the school saying I was in danger of losing my scholarship. It was full tuition, room, and board. I panicked. I drank too much beer. I read Camus and Sartre (introduced to me in a philosophy class) and sat in the window of the top floor of my dorm room looking six floors below at students coming and going. I imagined their wonderful happy lives. All of them together and me alone. I had no one to help me through and felt invisible. The assassination of John Kennedy that year added to my despair. I felt a darkness I had never experienced, not even at my father’s death. I can explain it now in Jungian terms and in astrological ways, but then it was a big drop into the Great Below. I had to shift my most fundamental beliefs and values. The timing was right because it was 1963-4. By 1965, I found my footing, learned to thrive without parents with the help of my big brother.

    1. Wow. That was a tough time, indeed. A huge blow to your ego’s self-image. I can see how a crisis like that would have been a huge turning point, especially since it involved feeling humiliated, which is always a sign the ego has been “put down a peg” from a previous inflation. Been there. Felt that. Recently, in fact. Ouch. Thank you so much for sharing your story here. I think these sorts of new awakenings into greater self-awareness are probably essential to individuation. There’s little else powerful enough to get a young ego’s attention.

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