The Burden of Feeling Self-Conscious

When my 9-year-old son Patrick was three, we went to a concert at Pottery Barn Kids. A folk artist sat in the back of the store, guitar in hand. In front of him was free space for children to dance in, surrounded by their parents sitting in a semi-circle of chairs. My son and I sat in the front row of the almost-empty audience. As the musician started his show, singing children’s songs, my son got up and started dancing. But, after a few minutes, he noticed no one else was dancing, he looked around self-consciously, and he sat down next to me.

I was heartbroken because I knew that it was the end of his carefree, not-aware-of-anyone-else’s reactions world. He had entered the realm of wondering what other people think–and tempering his true self, his natural instincts (as in, to dance) because of fear of repercussions. What if someone thought he was weird, dancing alone? What is he wasn’t a good dancer?

This morning, my four-year-old son Luke thought he “looked embarrassing.” It’s raining, and I put on his fireman raincoat, new to him, because he just grew out of his shark one, which he felt was super-cool. He had a complete breakdown, trying to rip it off his body. He slumped to the floor, refusing to go to school. He repeated, over and over, that he “looked embarrassing.” I just pulled him up to his feet and sent him out the door, so we wouldn’t be late for school.

But, once we were in the car, I had a talk with him. I told him how cool firefighters are–how they fight fires and save lives. I told him that the raincoat used to be Patrick’s, who thought it was the coolest coat ever. I said that Patrick is upset that he grew out of it, because he’d love to have it still. (At this point, Luke looked at over Patrick, who gave him a jealous look.) I said that he should never be embarrassed because he is a great kid. I said that, if anyone says anything negative to him about his raincoat, that person is mean. I said that some kids think firefighters are so cool that they dress as firefighters for Halloween.

He had silently for a few minutes, then asked, “Do you know what Owen is going to be for Halloween?”

“No.”

“A fireman.”

“You see,” I said. “I bet Owen is going to love your raincoat.”

Luke seemed unembarrassed when I dropped him off, but we’ll see…

One of my first memories, from age three or four, is of feeling self-conscious. And I was burdened with feeling self-conscious–often–from then on. It’s a terrible feeling, not feeling confident, feeling nervous that I’m being negatively judged.

But I don’t act as if I’m self-conscious. I act confident. It’s the philosophy of acting “as if.” If I act “as if” I’m self-confident, I will eventually grow into self-confidence. And it’s worked a bit.

But I’d better perfect my solution to self-consciousness quickly. I have to pass it on to my kids.

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