Image: Or How to Kneecap Yourself in 1 Easy Step
I really need to pee. I’m in a restaurant with a friend, and the restroom is single-occupancy. My friend has left the house with wet hair. She looks somewhat like me but has curls that are different than mine, more self-directed and less fragile to care. She wants to diffuse her hair in the bathroom, because she doesn’t like how her hair looks now, quite wet.
She agrees to let me pop in first before she sets up. But she’s uncomfortable with the way she’s looking. Other people might stare, they might notice her hair looking terrible! So she races into the bathroom ahead of me. I’m left pounding on the door, begging her to let me in. She opens the door a crack and tells me she’ll be out when she’s done, she CAN’T be seen as she currently is.
We learn from Carl Jung that people in dreams are aspects of ourselves. From my own patterns, I know that I can get caught feeling “wrong” or “ugly,” or like I don’t know how to behave like a “kind” person. If I perceive other people reflecting a warm and flattering view of me, I’m ELATED. That shows me I’m really on the right track. If I perceive them reflecting a negative view, I’m crushed, because they know better than me. They are seeing the true lack within. I try to adapt, because both that crushing and shameful feeling and that void where I just don’t know feel so terrible. The elation is so much better! Enough of it surely will lead to confidence and not having to look outside for the boost!
The pain is real for both these aspects of me. Except it’s not that simple. Pain exists to signal peril to self, so we can make adjustments: pull our hand out of the fire, relieve our bladder to cleanse toxins or avoid infection. The pain of that feeling of shame and wrongness is conditioning to avoid something else. Because the pain isn’t what it appears, the solution is also not a solution. But the soothing feels real, and the behavior becomes a reward circuit.
Image comes at the expense of needs. If we’re invested in looking a certain way, if the only way we can feel good about ourselves is if we see approval reflected around us, it harms us. We lose track of our actual needs, we do things that harm us, and we’re more likely to ignore our self-preserving pain signals.
Understanding this has been pretty groundbreaking for me, because so many habits sound like: “oh, that’s nice.” I should drink more water and do kind things for myself like exercise and eat well. Yes, my bad habits aren’t helpful; at best they are kind of neutral, though, right? But even things that seem harmless can have real downsides for me and for others.
The real solution, I have found, isn’t willpower, bumper stickers, and mantras, it is compassion. I admit to myself that, yes, sometimes I am NOT kind. Sometimes I appear aloof, because my internal world is pretty compelling and focusing out requires effort. These aren’t things to bathe in shame over, they are just a part of being human. Perfection isn’t possible, for anyone. I try to adjust and do better and assume everyone around me is doing something similar, which helps me extend compassion to them, too.
My hair, that site of vulnerability, where people can form opinions and react: I learn to enjoy it, in every single form it presents, good days, bad days, frizz, and popping curls. The result of doing this is not that I “accept” myself and then secretly discover that I am the swan: my hair is or becomes objectively awesomely curly, the hair that other people wish they had. The result is that my hair is so cool to me that other people having opinions are just… other people having opinions. Often, these opinions are about their own issues and have nothing to do with me.
My friend in this dream has resilient hair. It will take its shape and look perfectly fine in no time. The people she feels silently judging her are enjoying their meals and their own company. A key part of my loop up there is the word “perceived.” Maybe the approval is a reflection from something else. Maybe the disapproval is a glimpse into someone else’s shame.
SHE should be enjoying her own experiences. She is more than the image, and what she gains by risking infection is.… nothing except a bit of respite from the voices in her head.