I have suffered in the past, and to some extent still suffer, from excessive self-consciousness. Public speaking is a nightmare, joining small groups of confident people a torment and even one-to-one encounters with people I like can occasionally turn me wooden.
Self-consciousness feels complicated and confusing. For example, today I was sitting on the Metro and a good-looking young woman was strap-hanging above me. My eyes were sore so I closed them and put my hands to my face. Though I was aware of the warmth of my hands I was at the same time imagining how the top of my sun-mottled, bald head must look to the girl above. The two consciousnesses kept switching: warm hands, bald head, warm hands, bald head, flipping like one of those pictures that looks like a vase one moment and the face of a pretty woman the next.
As an aside, I like holding my face in my hands; it’s comforting. I don’t indulge in it often because people occasionally ask me what’s wrong. I don’t know if I do it as a respite from being on show, like some animal in a zoo looking for a spot away from the visitors, or because I feel I live just behind my face and need more protection than my eyelids and facial skin. Or maybe it’s just soothing with no deeper psychological reason.
Self-consciousness hit me suddenly at the age of 28 and since then I have half-heartedly looked into philosophy, Buddhism, meditation and even tried out some attitudes that were never likely to suit me. None of them did any good and the feeling of being ‘me’ has stayed with me. I became a teacher partly in an attempt to overcome this aversion to being looked at; to imagining myself an object in the eyes of others. Feeling like an object is unpleasant but I think self-consciousness, within limits, is healthy; I really can’t imagine a normal human being who is never conscious of themselves. That said, it’s easy to have too much of it.
There are many things I don’t understand about the feeling of self-consciousness: Is it caused by embarrassment at the gap between who you would like to be and who you actually are? Is it a kind of inverted vanity, believing everything you do to be of supreme importance? Are some people averse to being looked at per se or is that they don’t like being looked at critically or sneeringly? Do people who adore themselves enjoy moments of self-consciousness? Is it other people looking at you that triggers self-consciousness or can you be self-conscious when you are all alone? (I’m sure you can). Is there something inherently confusing about a person looking at himself, as when an animal sees itself in a mirror? Do we somehow split into two people, the observer and the observed, the hunter and hunted when we become self-conscious?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions but I do know there is something bad about tailoring your behaviour to suit those around you, ‘to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’, as T.S. Eliot put it in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. When I ‘prepare a face’ I seem to split into two people, the watcher and the watched. Then action becomes unnatural, contrived and overly complicated.