“Of course the sunrise doesn't care if we watch it or not. It will keep on being beautiful even if no one bothers to look.” —Gene Amole
I don’t know about you, but I am not as free as the sunrise. I don’t think I’m overly plagued with self-consciousness, but I am far from free of it. Self-consciousness manifests in many ways, and it usually interferes with a free expression of who we really are. In fact, it’s hard to see anything useful or desirable about self-consciousness. Awareness of one’s impact or potential impact on others is certainly very important to making good choices about how to act, but when that awareness is primarily grounded in self-consciousness, it is more about the stories the mind tells one that come from the past than about anything that relates to oneself and others in the present.
Sometimes self-consciousness is overt, like when I hold back from speaking up in a group for fear that others will disapprove of what I have to say and maybe even react sharply, which would leave me feeling bad. That’s the most obvious form of self-consciousness, of course, and most of us are very familiar with it. In many cases, I’m right about the risk of speaking up, because that self-consciousness derives from many past experiences that I have integrated into my sense of self in order to keep myself safe from getting hurt in a similar way yet again. But while that restraint may be effective at protecting myself from hurt, it also suppresses a more authentic, truer expression of myself that would most likely serve me even more than avoiding hurt. I live as if I am less than I actually am.
Sometimes self-consciousness is more covert, like when I don’t even consider doing something because I think I don’t like it, or I don’t think it will work, or I don’t think I have the skill or knowledge to do it well, or I don’t think the timing is right, or I think there’s some very good reason why I need to keep doing what I’m doing instead of doing something else, etc. Of course any of those concerns may be accurate, and to that extent there may be good reason for me to hold off. But often in my life when I have felt completely convinced that taking some new step was out of the question, when I looked much more deeply, I discovered a well of self-consciousness underlying all the other rational-sounding reasons. This has happened especially when I have gotten input from others whom I trust that I can succeed at the new venture, even in the face of whatever doubts I put forth. A wise advisor once told me that I had everything I needed to succeed in a new career, including a deep bench of support from others. She told me that, because of many relevant accomplishments and many ways in which I had served others well, I should “take a leap” and trust that whatever support I needed would be there for me. She even gave me examples of how others had done similar things with very positive outcomes. Nevertheless, as much as I trusted her, and even though I actually believed that she was right about all the support I could count on, I simply could not see it the way she did. I was so committed to the stories I was telling myself about why I wasn’t ready and all the learning, skills, and credentials that I lacked, that I couldn’t see that deeper down, I was just terrified that I would come across as arrogant and presumptuous, and that I would be faced with the disdain of others, which I couldn’t tolerate. It took several years of looking at that from many angles before I was able to risk taking that leap. I was right that I would face disdain—a lot of disdain—but without realizing it I had worked through my fear of that, so when it happened, I was able to keep my eye on what I really wanted and what I knew was right for me, and it turned out spectacularly well in every respect.
Sometimes, believe it or not, I don’t even need others to feel self-consciousness—I can do their dirty work all by myself. This is when I find an impulse I have to be so objectionable I can’t pursue it. It may come up as “I don’t want to be that kind of person,” or “Ugh, where did that come from?” Of course, sometimes that is both healthy and desirable, like if I have an impulse to lash out at someone, or thoughts of violence come in response to something offensive. In those kinds of situations, I’m glad I have an internal check. But my internal check, like many people’s, can overdo it, and that’s when it shuts me down. This form of self-consciousness is particularly insidious, because it usually lurks underneath more overt self-consciousness. For instance, when I was struggling to accept my sexuality, the biggest category of obstacles I focused on was how others would see me and treat me if they knew I was gay. I felt certain I knew how each important person in my life would react, and I could not tolerate those anticipated reactions. After years of thinking about this in every way I could come up with, coupled with the growing realization that there was no way I could have a happy life if I continued to reject my sexuality, something shifted one day, and the other-focused self-consciousness dissolved. I felt freer than I ever had; every day felt like a celebration. I told many people and got mostly supportive reactions. Within just a few months, though, I realized I was stuck—I was out to nearly everyone, I participated and made friends in a gay & lesbian law students’ club, and I had even gone on one date with a very nice guy. But the date was a disaster, entirely because of me, and I recognized that there was something holding me back and it was inside, since I had cleared away all the barriers outside. That led to many years of therapy, over which I came to see how deeply I myself objected to my sexuality having nothing to do with any others. That internal self-consciousness was far more destructive and far more tenacious than the external forms.
And sometimes, self-consciousness is not about fear of being judged, but rather about wanting recognition—I do something consciously or unconsciously to elicit praise or admiration or to secure some kind of reward. If what I do is true to myself, then of course there is no problem with also wanting to be recognized. But I have done many things thinking they are what I really want to do, only to discover later that I did them more to prop up my ego than as an expression of some genuine internal drive. Sometimes I’ve discovered that in the disappointment of not getting the recognition I had been seeking, whether I had been aware I was seeking it or not. Other times I’ve discovered that when I have gotten the recognition I wanted and then have to live up to whatever commitment I’ve made for the wrong reasons, which never feels good. And there is also self-consciousness in refraining from doing something I want to do because I sense that I won’t get any recognition for it. That usually comes up in the form of, “Why bother? No one will [come/care/notice] anyway…” That’s the kind of self-consciousness columnist Gene Amole observes the sun lacks in the quotation above.
Self-consciousness is exhausting. It saps energy from endeavors that could lead to greater satisfaction in life. It’s like a harsh judge hovering above us 24/7, and no matter how many ways and how many times we are able to silence the judge, it bounces right back like those knock down clown toys. The good news is that that judge can only reach the mind; it cannot reach the part of ourselves that exists independent of the mind. Meditation, yoga, and other similar practices can train us to connect to that deeper part. When we dwell there, any self-consciousness in the mind has no power to hurt us. When I am my authentic self, I shine like the sunrise, beautiful, true, and utterly unconcerned about the reactions of others or whether there even is anyone paying attention.