The self-portraits we now cling to were once caricatures drawn with shaky hands, clenched fists and sweaty palms. We were being timed when we drew them. And we were blindfolded and people were laughing and yelling and pointing at us. And, though nobody in their right mind could expect an honest portrait under those conditions, we never said we were in our right minds, did we? So we’ve transformed our subjective little scribbles into objective truths that are not nearly as little, and we’ve internalized them. This is who we are, we say. Because this is who we must be.
Now, when we walk into a room all we can think of are the angles. How to avoid the unflattering ones and how to harness the ones that mask what we’ve decided are our worst features. Someone once told us that we don’t have to be a superhero to be brave, we just have to get up every morning and be ourselves. We decided not to be brave today. We decided to be PR reps instead. Our own Wizards of Oz, trying to contort our client as we hide behind a curtain. Pulling strings and pressing buttons, hoping people don’t pay attention to us. And, although we can never remember this, people rarely do.
When we look out the window of a train, we don’t focus on anything going on outside. Though we are quite good at appearing that outside is exactly where we’re focusing. No, our eyes are fixed on the reflection in the window. Because we can’t help it. Because we can’t look away. We like how contemplative we look, here in the window. We like how the dirty pane of glass creates a reflection blurry enough to wash out that pimple forming on our forehead and that one hair that won’t cooperate. We like how train windows have a way of dulling the parts of ourselves that are too sharp, the parts of ourselves that make us watch our angles. Sometimes we like to imagine that if there ever were a movie that documented our lives, a movie that told our story, then this image of ourselves looking out the train window, appearing contemplative, would be its opening sequence.
When we write all we can think of is how our words will be read, and when we speak it is how they will be heard. We have become much better at being our own readers and listeners than being our own writers and speakers.
When we laugh all we can think of is that here we are, laughing. When we cry all we can think of is that here we are, crying. We’re like the child who stays upright on her bicycle for the first time and thinks to herself look at me, I’m really doing it. And then immediately falls down.
We can no longer look in anyone’s eyes. Especially the eyes of the people we love most. Because it burns after only a second. And we must look away. We must touch the nape of our own neck to let the clammy warmth remind ourselves of our own insecurities. Remind ourselves that we must not get lost in any other person but ourselves.
Sometimes we want to turn it off. That voice in our head that screams to us exaggerated notions of what we are like. It’s the voice that makes it so hard to escape the couch most nights, our own personal sauna of neuroses. Netflix helps, if we’re looking for a brief escape from it. Booze sometimes too, though we always think that will help more than it actually does. But these are like Band-Aids for a severed limb. We know the silence they create is the brief exception, not the rule. It’s spending time with the ones we love most, the ones with which we’ve stopped bothering to watch our angles, that gives us our most peaceful moments. Though it is not silence that they give us, but harmony.
Sometimes we want to be more like how everybody else seems to be. Even though, deep down, we understand that they are only how they seem to be because we’re too caught up in ourselves to look a bit harder and closer. And, if we really let ourselves think about that then we can understand another thing too. That we’re not the only ones out there straining to preserve the differences between our insecure self-portrait and the more secure portraits others have created of us. And, once we realize this, maybe it doesn’t have to be such a selfish thing to be too self-aware. Because just like we once turned our overactive insecurities into internalized proofs, we can also turn them once more, into internalized empathy and understanding. Into awareness of what others must be going through too, the unique voices that have taken over their heads. It’s important to be aware of the fact that the same self-awareness that has the power to make us selfish and alone also has the power to do the exact opposite.