psychology of optimal experience | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Beyond “Self-Image” (Part Two)

A while back, I wrote an article on the oft-revisited issue of how to deal with a negative “self-image.”  I suggested we’re actually at our most joyful and empowered in moments when we’re not conscious of any self-image, or mental picture of ourselves, at all.  In my experience, self-images, whether negative or positive, are a source of frustration and distraction.  I’ll expand on this issue here by discussing ways to transcend our self-images, and allow our full awareness to enrich what we’re doing in each moment.

When your attention is on your self-image, it’s as if, while you’re doing whatever activity you’re doing, someone is videotaping you and you’re watching the video on a screen.  In other words, it’s like you’re watching yourself doing what you’re doing in real time, as you’re doing it.  If you’re having a conversation with someone, and your attention is fixated on your self-image, it’s as if you’re simultaneously having the conversation and observing it from a third-person view.  Not surprisingly, this diverts your attention from what you’re doing and makes you less effective at accomplishing your goals.

For example, a while back, when I was rock climbing with some more skilled climbers, I’d occasionally worry about falling on relatively easy courses in front of my friends.  In other words, I was paying attention to the image I was projecting to my fellow climbers while I was trying to climb the rock.  Of course, watching this mental movie distracted me, and had me fall in exactly the embarrassing ways I wanted to avoid.

Sometimes, we get so accustomed to holding our attention on our self-images—to trying to get a sense of how we look from the outside as we go about our lives—that we forget we’re doing it.  Recently, a friend told me a story that nicely illustrated this point.  She’s been taking a yoga class for a while, and for a long time she was frustrated with her lack of progress at mastering the poses she’s learning.  This changed when, one day, her yoga instructor half-jokingly reminded the students to pay attention only to their own movements, and not to how they looked to others.

When her teacher said this, my friend suddenly realized how self-conscious she’d been about the way her yoga poses appeared to others in the class.  She’d become so accustomed to worrying about how others saw her that she’d started doing it constantly and unconsciously.  Once she gained this awareness, my friend started practicing holding her full attention on nothing but her movements.  Ever since, she’s been surprised at how quickly she’s been learning.

My friend’s experience calls to mind psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s theory in his well-known book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  People enter a state of flow, or peak performance and fulfillment, when their attention becomes so focused on what they are doing that they temporarily forget they’re the ones doing it.  They lose all concern, in other words, for others’ opinions of them and what they can get for themselves by doing the activity.  As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, in a flow state,

One of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place: people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.

Similarly, because my friend shifted her focus away from how her yoga poses looked to others, and brought it entirely to her body’s movements, she greatly improved her performance.

How do you become aware of those moments where your fixation on your self-image is harming your joy and fulfillment in life?  One meditation technique has helped me develop this awareness, and it’s pretty simple.  I sit in silence with my eyes closed, and carefully observe the thoughts that arise.  At certain moments, my thoughts become absorbed in my relationships with other people, and I find myself wondering what another person thinks or feels about me.  In other words, I wonder what image I’ve projected to the other person in my interactions with them, and thus focus my attention on my “self-image.”

I’ve noticed that, when I place my attention on my self-image, I feel a mild, ugly sensation in my upper back, just under the shoulder blades.  It’s not just distracting for me to focus on how I’m appearing to others—it’s actually unpleasant, and has a specific uncomfortable feeling associated with it.  When I’m going through my daily routine, I’ve got too much on my mind to notice those moments where I slip into “image-consciousness.”  But when I’m sitting alone in silence, those moments stand out very clearly.

As I practiced, during meditation, noticing when my concerns about my self-image came up, I started becoming able to observe when my attention would fixate on that issue during my daily life.  I began noticing that the same unpleasant sensation I’d felt in my back while meditating arose in specific situations out in the “real world.”

When I went to the gym, for instance, I started noticing that ugly feeling creeping into my back—probably because, like my friend the yogini, I was unconsciously fretting over how my body looked to others.  The good news was that, as with my friend, my image-consciousness quickly began to dissolve when I became fully aware of it.  By becoming conscious of the situations where I’d start fixating on my self-image, I’ve brought much peace and focus to my life.

To do this exercise, simply find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed and close your eyes.  As you sit there, your thoughts may drift to what the people in your life think of you, and how your actions and inactions may have affected their opinions.  When this happens, notice any sensations you experience in your body.  Perhaps you will feel tingling, tightness, pain or something else.  These sensations, you’ll find, are signals that your mind is drifting into self-consciousness—that you are putting your attention on your self-image.

As you reenter your daily life, pay attention to how your body feels in the various situations you find yourself in.  On occasion, you’ll likely notice the same sensations you felt during meditation coming up.  When you feel one of these sensations, gently remind yourself that you are becoming absorbed in your self-image, your appearance to others.  This awareness is often enough to loosen your self-image’s grip on your attention, and return you to a state of composure and concentration.  As meditation teacher Rohit Mehta says in The Secret of Self-Transformation, “to see the self-image for oneself in the mirror of life is to see its destruction.”