This is what my average workday looks like: I wake up instantly hating alarm clocks and mornings in general, while calculating how many times I can afford to hit the snooze button and still be on time (which depends on whether I am going to wash my hair and whether I am willing to skip breakfast in favour of grabbing a sandwich somewhere between classes). I eventually get up, check my messages and quite possibly facebook (who has posted wedding pictures or had a baby while I slept?). I then stand and stare at my cupboard and consider the pros and cons of doing my laundry when I get back from work. I put on shoddy makeup and lope off to work with my hair still wet, wondering what I look like and also grateful I can’t see myself. I say thank you to cars that halt long enough for me to cross the road, hoping I am friendly enough (someone once screamed at me “you didn’t even say thank you!” from their car, even though I was at a zebra crossing. I can now never cross a road without feeling self-conscious.)
At work I grab a coffee and sneak in a cigarette outside the cafeteria building in the weak morning sun, while wondering if my colleagues think I’m being unsociable for preferring smoking to exchanging morning pleasantries with them. I head off to class with my half-cup of coffee dripping periodically on my cleanish pants, dragging my interpreting equipment behind me, thinking rather smugly about the biceps this must eventually result in. I greet the lecturer somewhat bashfully, get his or her signature on my forms and in the process drop half my papers on the floor. We exchange some inane small talk about the weather and the general awfulness of having to be at work at eight. I greet the students somewhat less bashfully, wondering about them – to be honest, wondering what they think about me. Wondering, too, what the lecturer thinks about me. I wonder if I’m too awkward. Too standoffish. Too forward. Too messy. If my makeup is spotty. How some of the students manage to look so radiant so early in the morning. If people can see my tattoo and whether or not that’s a good thing. When last I plucked my eyebrows. Whether my hair is still wet and whether my fringe is falling to the side the way it should. Whether I smell like smoke. Whether that’s unprofessional.
I proceed to interpret a variety of classes for the next few hours. I would like to say that while interpreting, at least, thoughts of myself do not feature, but that’s not even close to being true. Interpreting, in my experience, is an action which demands a great level of self-awareness and which can also easily lead to acute self-consciousness. I worry that people (non-interpretation users) can hear me mumbling. I wonder whether I make sense. I worry that I am breathing too loudly on the mic. I wonder if I really sound Australian when I speak English. I wonder if I like that.
To be fair, while I interpret most of my worries are about the students – are they getting the message? Are they coping? Is it at least okay for them to hear my voice, instead of the lecturer’s? Other people and myself become so entangled in my mind, it’s incredibly complicated to extricate the one from the other. Ever thought about how one never does a good deed without thoughts of oneself featuring rather heavily too? I am in the business of providing a service. I cannot remove myself from the equation. This causes an almost painful awareness of my own importance while also an embarrassing awareness of the fact that I am placing too much emphasis on myself. I would like to be entirely free from myself but I never am. To the students I am a disembodied voice, a person they barely register unless I am making a mistake. Yet to myself I am everything.
After work, or during my empty hours between classes, I hang around on campus. Sometimes I sit somewhere in a corner, smoking, writing down random thoughts or texting, intermittently looking at the trees and the mountains that loom over me both friendly and aloof (mountains, next to language and music, are the most beautiful thing ever created. And also, they’re so gloriously unselfconscious). I look at the students walking around. And always, in my almost every thought, incessantly, tiringly, fragments of myself peek out. I wish my legs were as pretty as that girl’s. Did that guy just check me out? Oh no, here comes the beggar who always sits with me for half an hour. I don’t want to be rude but I also don’t want to chat with him today (cue the mini existential crisis). I wonder if those people think I’m odd sitting here by myself, staring at the trees. I’m bored. I’m tired. Should I have another coffee? I should read more about what’s happening in Ukraine while I’m sitting here doing nothing – not reading about it means not caring about anything besides my own small world. It also means I’m not informed enough and other people can talk about stuff I know nothing about. But if I read news just to look informed, does that not miss the whole point? (Cue another mini existential crisis).
Or I while away the hours with friends, drinking coffee while moving strategically away from or into the sun, depending on the weather. I smoke self-consciously (I am probably the world’s most apologetic smoker, though that doesn’t stop me from puffing away frantically). I talk and enjoy myself and laugh and drown myself in more coffee. And always, always, grinning at me around the edges of conversation, I find myself. Self-referential jokes. Being sympathetic to other people’s stories and then wondering whether my sympathy appears fake or too little or over-empathetic. Wondering whether I laugh too much, or complain too much. Interjecting a story with my opinion and then feeling rude. Being quiet and wondering whether I look glum. Wondering whether people can see my leg-hair stubble when I stretch out my legs. Wishing I had prettier legs (that thought happens a lot). Wondering whether anyone is noticing I am today wearing the loveliest earrings in the whole wide world.
Don’t get me wrong – I am neither acutely self-conscious nor more self-obsessed than anybody else (I think). Most of these thoughts of myself are only fleeting (though constant), not at all as glaring as I have now depicted them. I don’t sit around counting how many times I’ve thought of myself in the past hour. I don’t sit around feeling excruciatingly awkward or shy. Yet I am always on my mind. And I think these thoughts are what happens to anybody, everybody, all the time. I think true spontaneity (in the sense that no thought of oneself is involved in the action) is rare, and the moment that spontaneity is past it is replaced by awareness of having been spontaneous, which nullifies the moment to a certain extent. We are caught in the trap that is ourselves, our own bodies that we can never escape from, our need to be liked, to be respected. I want to be kind, but at least half of that wanting is because I want other people and myself to perceive me as kind. I want to be interesting. I want to be smart. To be thought beautiful (it embarrasses me how often I think of that, but I do).The list is endless. Basically I want to be worthy. I want to be worthy of affection, of respect, of love.
I once spent the whole afternoon changing love songs titles from “you” to “me” – I called it ‘honest titles’. My favourite is “Love the way I lie”, though “Someone like me” is also pretty high on the list. Some titles don’t even need changing, like “Give me love” and “Call me maybe”. In light of that, another honest title: I am everywhere to me (Michelle Branch – oh, high school!). I cannot escape this being everywhere. Yet I have found that there are two ways of going about living with this incessant self, poking, prodding, seeking constant attention and affection. I think that it is very easy to live a life which is dominated by fear. “Was I rude?” “Do they still like me?” “Do I look odd?” “Am I too self-obsessed?” “Are other peoples’ minds equally awful?” “I wish I were as spontaneous/gentle/bad-ass/smart/wise as her/him” – all of these thoughts are basically grounded in fear of being found lacking. Needing something exposes one to the very real possibility of not obtaining this thing – needing acceptance exposes one to the possibility of not obtaining this acceptance, or of not retaining it. Therefore fear is a constant shadow, always looking for a way in, ready to take over.
And it loves the spotlight. Solely looking at my fears does not chase them away. I can tell myself countless times to stop being afraid of rejection, or of being alone, or of being ugly, but fear just grins at me and wiggles itself ever more snugly into my mind. Punishing myself for thinking of myself only leads to more thoughts of myself, and they become nastier and nastier thoughts. I end up being this highly self-conscious self-monitoring being, constantly doubting my every word, constantly berating myself, waking up sweaty from nightmares of being exposed as the selfish being that I am or of being rejected by those I love the most.
The only way to counter fear is to give it no place in my mind, by replacing it with love. And this has to be both a decision and a constant action, a constant re-steering of the ship, a gentle adjustment in focus. I find that once I start actively practising love, towards both myself and others, thoughts of myself fade into context, they become nothing other than reminders of the fact that I am human.
It starts by refusing to be ashamed. I shall not be ashamed that the most important person in my life, as seen from the frequency of my thoughts, is myself. I shall not be ashamed that even my love of others is inextricably linked to my need for them. I shall not be ashamed that I cannot do one good thing, not one single good deed, without benefiting from it as well (even if only from the self-satisfaction that follows). I shall not be ashamed that I need others to like me, to an excruciating extent. Sometimes I wish I could escape my own mind, but I cannot, and therefore I will not be ashamed of my own neediness, because being ashamed of this is denying my own worth, it is denying the validity of my emotions, of my needs.
And then I can start appreciating. I can look at kindness and intelligence and pretty legs with appreciation, and I can look at weaknesses with grace. This also applies to myself – I can look at my impatience and my absent-mindedness and at the inappropriate comments that keep slipping out my mouth, and at the godawful shoddy cutex on my toes that I suddenly became aware of, and my tired face, and accept this. And it feels really really nice, because all of a sudden there is all of this space where fear used to be, and it can be filled up with nice things like being genuinely interested in others, and developing an awkward kind of comfortableness with my own hangups, and patiently growing my sense of humour.
It’s easier practising love towards others – I’m not sure why yet, though maybe it’s because I can’t read others’ minds. So that’s what I do – I practise it. Consciously. I remind myself of the fact that they are as weak as I am (and while my own weakness makes me cross, others’ makes me feel kind. Probably because it makes me look better, but still, small victories.) I appreciate what they have that I don’t, and I appreciate what we have in common. And what’s nice is that you can’t really love others without loving yourself, so in loving others, loving myself ends up slipping up on me unawares.
It’s so much fun how just allowing myself to be in awe of the world (because this in fact goes much wider than just loving people) ends up making me happy. Of course, then I come home and catch myself wondering what all these myriads of people think of me in turn. At the very least I sit contemplating my day, rerunning conversations and compliments I both gave and received, until eventually I catch myself and feel stupid for needing to confirm myself so very often. But then I laugh it off, because this is me being human. And I won’t let the fact that I need love prevent me from loving. I won’t let the fact that I am weak and flawed and needy prevent me from reaching out. In the end, how I act changes my thoughts subtly, and they end up changing how I feel. I can keep re-steering and refining my actions and my thoughts, and in this constant back-and-forth between love and fear (as fear does not, as far as I know, ever die a quiet death), I am carving out a life of which I am not ashamed.