My wife pointed them out to me; a couple in their late fifties, dressed for the Easter sun, walking hand in hand, obviously happy together. “They look wonderful. You can see who they used to be,” she said, “They still dress as if that is who they are.”
Immediately I could see the man, twenty years earlier, when that haircut would have been a fashionable length and the cashmere v-neck would have emphasised the width of his shoulders and not the softness of his belly. I wondered if he still saw that younger man when he looked in the mirror or if perhaps that image only became real when he was reflected in his wife’s eyes.
I think few of us see as ourselves as we really are.
When I look in the mirror, it takes an effort not to see what used to be there or what I told myself was there or what other people told me I would become.
Our brains are hard-wired for facial recognition. We process faces faster than any other image, recognising friend or enemy and rapidly reading their emotions. But this processing speed is gained by not really looking. The image we process is partially produced by our imaginations filling in the gaps. We see what we expect to see and we believe it because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.
What we see is reinforced by what Lou Tice of The Pacific Institute called “Self Talk” the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Self Talk is about belief rather than fact. It is an interpretation rather than a reality.
The other day, I had to update my CV/Resumé. The statements in it are factually correct and yet, reading it, I realised that it creates an image of me that I don’t share; someone with high potential who built a successful career.
Reading the CV, no one would guess that I remember my working life as a series of attempts to cope with the situation I was in without losing too much personal freedom and without having actually to join something.
To me, the gap between the page and the reality is so wide that I am in frequent danger of tumbling into it and never being seen again.
At the moment I’m feeling a bit over: over-worked, over-weight, over fifty, overwhelmed.
My strengths – concentration, persistence, dispassion – have started to become my weaknesses. I am so focussed on where I’m going that I can only see myself in the rearview mirror. I travel in a straight line, like a wind-up toy, until I collide with something I can’t go over, under or around. The harder I have to push to move forward, the more tired I become and the less able I am to see anything but obstacles.
When I try to look at myself through my own eyes I see a man who defines himself mainly by the shadow he casts: what he is not and what he will not.
I tried to follow Burns’ advice and see myself as others see me.
My clients see me as calm, logical, bright, good with words but a little awkward in social settings.
My young ambitious team sees me as combative, persuasive, maybe even devious. I march to the beat of a different drummer but I get them where they need to be. Recently, one of them asked me if I’d ever worked as a bouncer/doorman. It took this as a sign that my demeanour is not as open and approachable as I had assumed.
My wife, who has known me for more than thirty years, has been trying to tell me that I spend so much energy battening down my emotions so that I can cope with my work, that I live in a fog of unhappiness, illuminated only by flashes of disproportionate anger.
I am becoming a difficult man to love.
I was raised as a Catholic. I was always fascinated by the instruction to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”. It seemed to me, that to do this well, I had first to learn to love myself as much as possible.
So, I’m trying to reshape my life, to step out from the shadow of who I am not so I can embrace who I want to be.
The e e cummings poem at the start of this post tells me that I am far from the first to try to do this and that it’s unlikely to be easy.
I’ll let you know if I make any progress.