SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS may be truly defined as a person’s inability to get out of his own way. There are, however, some people who are so entirely and absolutely self-conscious that everything they do, even though it may appear spontaneous and ingenuous, is observed and admired and approved of by themselves, — indeed they are supported and sustained by their self-consciousness. They are so completely in bondage to themselves that they have no glimpse of the possibility of freedom, and therefore this bondage is pleasant to them.
With these people we have, at present, nothing to do; it is only those who have begun to realize their bondage as such, or who suffer from it, that can take any steps toward freedom. The self-satisfied slaves must stay in prison until they see where they are — and it is curious and sad to see them rejoicing in bondage and miscalling it freedom. It makes one long to see them struck by an emergency, bringing a flash of inner light which is often the beginning of an entire change of state. Sometimes the enlightenment comes through one kind of circumstance, sometimes through another; but, if the glimpse of clearer sight it brings is taken advantage of, it will be followed by a time of groping in the dark, and always by more or less suffering. When, however, we know that we are in the dark, there is hope of our coming to the light; and suffering is nothing whatever after it is over and has brought its good results.
If we were to take away the prop of self-approval entirely and immediately from any one of the habitually self-satisfied people, the probable result would be an entire nervous collapse, or even a painful form of insanity; and, in all changes of state from bondage to freedom, the process is and must be exceedingly slow. No one ever strengthened his character with a wrench of impatience, although we are often given the opportunity for a firm and immediate use of the will which leaves lasting strength behind it. For the main growth of our lives, however, we must be steadily patient, content to aim in the true direction day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. If we fall, we must pick ourselves up and go right on, — not stop to be discouraged for one instant after we have recognized our state as a temptation. Whatever the stone may be that we have tripped over, we have learned that it is there, and, while we may trip over the same stone many times, if we learn our lesson each time, it decreases the possible number of stumbles, and smooths our paths more than we know.
There is no exception to the necessity for this patient, steady plodding in the work required to gain our freedom from self-consciousness. It is when we are aware of our bondage that our opportunity to gain our freedom from it really begins. This bondage brings very real suffering, and we may often, without exaggeration, call it torture. It is sometimes even extreme torture, but may have to be endured for a lifetime unless the sufferer has the clear light by which to find his freedom; and,, unfortunately, many who might have the light will not use it because they are unwilling to recognize the selfishness that is at the root of their trouble. Some women like to call it “shyness,” because the name sounds well, and seems to exonerate them from any responsibility with regard to their defect. Men will rarely speak of their self-consciousness, but, when they do, they are apt to speak of it with more or less indignation and self-pity, as if they were in the clutches of something extraneous to themselves, and over which they can never gain control., If, when a man is complaining of self-consciousness and of its interference with his work in life., you tell him in all kindness that all his suffering has its root in downright selfishness, he will, in most cases, appear not to hear, or he will beg the question, and, having avoided acknowledging the truth, will continue to complain and ask for help, and perhaps wonder whether hypnotism may not help him, or some other form of “cure.” Anything rather than look the truth in the face and do the work in himself which, is the only possible road to lasting, freedom. Self-pity, and what may be called spiritual laziness, is at the root of most of the self-torment in the world.
How ridiculous it would seem if a man tried to produce an electric burner according to laws of his own devising, and then sat down and pitied himself because the light would not burn, instead of searching about until he had found the true laws of electricity whose application would make the light shine successfully. How ridiculous it would seem if a man tried to make water run up hill without providing that it should do so by reaching its own level, and then got indignant because he did not succeed, and wondered if there were not some “cure” by means of which his object might be accomplished. And yet it is no more strange for a man to disobey habitually the laws of character, and then to suffer for his disobedience, and wonder why he suffers.
There is an external necessity for obeying social laws which must be respected, or society would go to pieces; and there is just as great an internal necessity for obeying spiritual laws to gain our proper self-control and power for use; but we do not recognize that necessity because, while disrregarding the laws of character, we can still live without the appearance of doing harm to the community. Social laws can be respected in the letter but not in the spirit, whereas spiritual laws must be accepted by the individual heart and practiced by the individual will in order to produce any useful result. Each one of us must do the required work in himself. There is no “cure,” no help from outside which can bring one to a lasting freedom.
If self-consciousness makes us blush, the more we are troubled the more it increases, until the blushing may become so unbearable that we are tempted to keep away from people altogether; and thus life, so far as human fellowship goes, would become more and more limited. But, when such a limitation is allowed to remain within us, and we make no effort of our own to find its root and to exterminate it, it warps us through and through. If self-consciousness excites us to talk, and we talk on and on to no end, simply allowing the selfish suffering to goad us, the habit weakens our brains so that in time they lose the power of strong consecutive thought and helpful brevity.
If self-consciousness causes us to wriggle, and strain, and stammer, and we do not recognize the root of the trouble and shun it, and learn to yield and quietly relax our nerves and muscles, of course the strain becomes worse. Then, rather than suffer from it any longer, we keep away from people, just as the blushing man is tempted to do. In that case, the strain is still in us, in the back of our brains, so to speak — because we have not faced and overcome it.
Stage fright is an intense form of self-consciousness, but the man who is incapable of stage fright lacks the sensitive temperament required to achieve great power as an artist. The man who overcomes stage fright by getting out of his own way, and by letting the character he is playing, or the music he is interpreting, work through him as a clear, unselfish channel receives new power for his work in the proportion that he shuns his own interfering selfishness.
But it is with the self-consciousness of everyday life that we have especially to do now, and with the practical wisdom necessary to gain freedom from all its various discomforts; and, even more than that, to gain the new power for useful service which comes from the possession of that freedom.
The remedy is to be found in obedience to the law of unselfishness, carried out into the field of nervous suffering.
Whatever one may think, however one may try to dodge the truth by this excuse or that, the conditions to be fulfilled in order to gain freedom from self-consciousness are absolutely within the indidivual who suffers. When we once understand this, and are faced toward the truth, we are sure to find our way out, with more or less rapidity, according to the strength with which we use our wills in true obedience.
First, we must be willing to accept the effects of self-consciousness. The more we resist these effects the more they force themselves upon us, and the more we suffer from them. We must be willing to blush, be willing to realize that we have talked too much, and perhaps made ourselves ridiculous. We must be willing to feel the discomforts of self-consciousness in whatever form they may appear. Then — the central point of all — we must know and understand, and not dodge in the very least the truth that the root of self-consciousness is selfishly caring what other people think of us, — and wanting to appear well before them.
Many readers of this article who suffer from self-consciousness will want to deny this; others will acknowledge it, but will declare their inability to live according to the truth; some, — perhaps more than a few, — will recognize the truth and set to work with a will to obey it, and how happily we may look forward to the freedom which will eventually be theirs!
A wise man has said that when people do not think well of us, the first thing to do is to look and see whether they are right. In most cases, even though they way have unkind feelings mingled with their criticism, there is an element of truth in it from which we may profit. In such cases we are much indebted to our critics, for, by taking their suggestions, we are helped toward strength of character and power for use. If there is no truth in the criticism, we need not think of it at all, but live steadily on, knowing that the truth will take care of itself.
We should be willing that any one should think anything of us, so long as we have the strength of a good conscience. We should be willing to appear in any light if that appearance will enhance our use, or is a necessity of growth. If an awkward appearance is necessary in the process of our journey toward freedom, we must not resist the fact of its existence, and should only dwell on it long enough to shun its cause in so far as we can, and gain the good result of the greater freedom which will follow.
It is because the suffering from self-consciousness is often so intense that freedom from it brings, by contrast, so happy and so strong a sense of power.
There is a school for the treatment of stammerers in this country in which the pupils are initiated into the process of cure by being required to keep silence for a week. This would be a most helpful beginning in a training to overcome self-consciousness. We should recognize first that we must be willing to endure the effects of self-consciousness without resistance. Secondly, we should admit that the root of self-consciousness lies entirely in a selfish desire to appear well before others. If, while recognizing these two essential truths and confirming them until they are thoroughly implanted in our brains, we should quietly persist in going among people, the practice of silent attention to others would be of the greatest value in gaining real freedom. The practice of attentive and sympathetic silence might well be followed by people in general far more than it is. The protection of a loving, unselfish silence is very great: a silence which is the result of shunning all selfish, self-assertive, vain, or affected speech; a silence which is never broken for the sake of “making conversation,” “showing off,” or covering selfish embarrassment; a silence which is full of sympathy and interest, — the power of such a silence cannot be overestimated.
If we have the evil habit of talking for the sake of winning approval, we should practise this silence; or if we talk for the sake of calling attention to ourselves, for the sake of winning sympathy for our selfish pains and sorrows, or for the sake of indulging in selfish emotions, nothing can help us more than the habit of loving and attentive silence.
Only when we know how to practise this — in an impersonal, free and quiet spirit, one which is not due to outward repression of any kind — are we able to talk with quiet, loving, helpful speech. Then may we tell the clean truth without giving unnecessary offence, and then may we soothe and rest, as well as stimulate in ,wholesome ways; then, also, will our minds open to receive the good that may come to us through the words and actions of others.