A 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?