Thursday, April 25, 2019

Me, My Self-Consciousness, and I

The other night while my husband and I were out for a walk, holding hands, I experienced a few seconds of not being self-conscious. It wasn't until I was briefly free of this self-consciousness that I realized how constant and pervasive it is. We live in Orem, Utah, where more than 93% of the population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that same-sex marriage is a "serious transgression" and that pretty much everything else about our relationship is just plain sinful, and I have a hard time not focusing on this while out with my husband. As each car passes, I wonder whether the people in the car are bothered by our hand-holding, and when we pass other pedestrians I watch their faces for signs of annoyance, anger, disgust, or judgment. We've made a conscious choice not to let our public behavior be determined by rules that would not also apply to straight couples, and I feel pretty strongly that's the right decision for us, but at the same time I do not like making people uncomfortable, because I typically feel their discomfort as strongly as if it were my own.

Self-consciousness is a funny thing. On the one hand, it forces me out of my own head, making me experience life through the imagined perspectives of those around me. It's like my mental camera is floating somewhere out there, looking back at me, not on the inside looking out. Rather than just being me, I'm performing for an audience, with each choice a decision to cater to their preferences or not. Instead of holding my husband's hand when I want to, I'm either not holding his hand because I'm worried about offending someone, or I'm holding his hand in spite of my concerns about that imagined offense.

On the other hand, self-consciousness keeps me locked within my own head because I'm not really responding to the people around me, but rather responding to the versions of those people that exist in my imagination. People around here are polite to an extreme, so any judgments they make of us are silent. Hypothetically, it's possible that not a single person is judging us at all, if I'm to base my interpretation on actual words exchanged. I suspect the reality is somewhere between this hypothetical scenario (no one is judging me) and my imagination (everyone is judging me), but at the end of the day I'm better off reacting to the reality I can observe than reacting to a reality that exists only in my head.

This is Judgy Joe. He lives in my head and judges me. Stop judging me, Judgy Joe!

It's healthy, of course, to be aware of one's place in the world and one's impact on others. But the healthy version is self-awareness, not self-consciousness. Self-awareness puts the camera back in my own head, focused outward on the observable reality around me. Self-awareness recognizes signs of discomfort in those around me and feels compassion, but does not take personal responsibility for discomfort in others caused by their own belief systems and unrealistic expectations. Self-awareness recognizes that to most people, I'm just a stranger passing by, spending no more time in their consciousness than I do in their field of vision. If that's not the case, then it's because of unhealthy thought patterns on their end, and there's nothing I can do about that. I can only fix my own brain.

It would be nice if, having made this realization, I could now declare my self-consciousness defeated, never to plague me again. For better or worse, that's not how brains work. But recognizing an unhealthy thought pattern is a good start. Next time my husband and I are out in public and I notice myself fixating on the imagined discomfort of those around us, I'll remind myself that those thoughts do me no good and try to focus on something else--for instance, how much I enjoy holding my husband's hand. The next time after that, I'll remind myself again. And the next time, and the next time. Eventually, my brain will get the message.