Relationships. They’re important. They define and guide us. They provoke and becalm us. They diminish and inspire us. They enchant and destroy us. They can as easily be razing fire as empowering foundation. And so much store is set in those primary relationships in our lives: parents, siblings, confidantes, teachers and various others. And from about eighteen months of age another relationship begins that will be with you until the day you die – your relationship with yourself. For it is at about one and a half that most of us begin to possess self-awareness, and what a journey that can prove to be.
Psychologists talk about public and private self-awareness, the former referring to our sense of how others may perceive us and the latter concerned with how we perceive ourselves in the comfort (or otherwise) of our own solitude. When public self-awareness becomes excessive this becomes self-consciousness (private and public here, too) and can lead to us being disproportionately sensitive to the opinions and judgement of others and we may seek solace in conforming to social and cultural norms to deflect attention. Being privately self-conscious can mean increased private self-awareness which in turn can result in general over-sensitivity and heightened sensations of self. In this state we may feel perpetually misunderstood, undervalued and unappreciated. So from where do we seek understanding, esteem and appreciation?
There is no neat and tidy answer to that one. Mentors, role models and peers, perhaps. That would be for those who choose counsel, advice, words of wisdom as their tonic. For others, addressing corporal needs can provide answers whether through building the body, or altering it via other means. That is to say, one person may locate their self-worth in a regimen of discipline and exercise making the body strong and unyielding, resistant to life’s many slings and arrows. Others however, may favour more hedonistic paths revolving around stimulants and substances of one kind or another. A combination of the two is not unthinkable either. And other options are available too just in case you were worried that it was only either sport or drink. Intellectual rigour and philosophising could be a valid alternative. Others go for aesthetic and artistic immersion, as either practitioner or student, proponent or aficionado, dilettante or don. Goal-setting and goal-getting are out there too as means of self-fulfilment.
But those are merely available roads, ones that have been considered before footfall commences. Once the road is being travelled it is inevitable that fellow travellers will be encountered and then the issue of self raises itself again because a relationship will be in the offing. Do you engage? Or ignore? Open yourself or remain aloof? To what end? What are you protecting? What are you happy to share? That last one is a good question. What are we happy to reveal of ourselves, and why? I think we present versions of ourselves to suit the recipient. To suit the time and the place. Indeed, we will often project what we hope to see reflected back at us. In this way our relationships are like mirrors and are therefore places we either very much like to be or would rather avoid at all costs.
Old mirrors can show us old truths. Relationships with family members can be mirrors that say “I am loved, therefore I must be lovable.” Alternatively they might say “I can never get close, why am I so distant?” Mirrors can become safe places where we are comforted by seeing what we expect to see, greeted by an old friend, a longtime companion. Staying with the metaphor, new mirrors can reflect new truths, new desires, new aspirations but also, when the new reflection closely resembles the old (and depending on which paradigm of reality you are currently living with), constancy or stagnation.
New mirrors and old mirrors are not that scary but something that can be genuinely disturbing is when a mirror breaks. When that mirror is an established and trusted relationship in your life, its breaking can be a very violent thing. A fragmented reflection results. Something distorted and unreliable. A broken thing. Pieces missing, parts of us there and parts of us not. The effect is disorienting, discombobulating, disaffecting. And disenchanting. A version of your reality breaks and a spell is broken too. For are not all relationships dependent on a necessary symbiosis? A relationship does not exist in a vacuum. There is an exchange. A frisson. An unspoken dynamic and energy even when terms are dictated. And most of us are intuitive, sensitive beings and that energy that passes between us is the mercury of human intercourse. Quicksilver, subtle, unpredictable, telling, palpable and yet forever unwieldy and intangible, all we have then is history, familiarity and self-knowledge as a guide to help us negotiate this hall of mirrors (unless you’re Bruce Lee). That in itself is a tricky and precarious proposition. How much harder does it get when there is a shattering of glass?
To reiterate: if our sense of self is largely built upon the strength of our relationships and the ways in which they reflect what we believe about ourselves how do we overcome the often traumatic event of the fracturing of one of those relationships? Our world is suddenly turned upside down. Our first instinct may be to try and fix the world in its place. “Don’t anybody move! I need to check everything is in order. This could take a while…” But that won’t work because the world doesn’t stop for anything, or anyone. How to proceed? Accept that we have no control over the new world order? Easier said than done. Lose ourselves in frenzied historical revisionism as we try to trace the pathway that led to the schism? Possibly. Probably. That will most likely compound our sensation of insecurity as we struggle to reconcile the history we believed we had with the alternate history the price of which is our new state of loss and bewilderment. The hardest thing to do is the one which will most likely bear fruit – have faith.
But in what? This where our dynamic of relating comes back into it. We have to try and trust that stability will return to our fractured world. Like the epilogue to an earthquake and its aftershocks, a settling period is essential before we can trust the earth again. Our journey forth begins anew, one tentative step at a time, as we embark on a quest for rediscovery. A little-by-little engagement with any points of stability we can find until we trust our own feet again. I am quite literally in the middle of this process right now as I have been receiving some ongoing chiropractic treatment that has been leaving me feeling disembodied and physically dissolute. My body is re-learning itself and nothing feels quite right. What I see in the mirror is not how I feel. I am mechanically alienated from myself and the consequence are feelings of unease and displacement. Yay.
My faith is located in routines. Doing things that have worked before and trusting that they are not suddenly redundant just because my body has stopped recognising itself. Just because my world has spat me out like a child launched from a high speed carousel. Radical change is too much of a pendulum swing one way or another.
Stay calm. Stay the course. Find a little security. I was hit by a car on my bicycle a few months ago. The incident happened at speed. The driver’s door window was smashed when I was spun into it en route to my crash landing in the middle of the road. I had a similar experience to others who have been in accidents in that I saw the events unfold as if in slow motion and my memory of the impact and the moments before and after is the same. I lay on my back immediately afterwards and quickly did a mental inventory of body parts and pain sensations. It was shock. It was trauma. But I quickly realised I was fine. I had a tiny scratch on my arm but no other visible injury was incurred. I slowly got up on my feet, located my damaged bicycle, and walked away.
The brief moment of looking at the sky as I listened to concerned voices around me and heard glass falling from the car was my moment of taking stock. My little security check. And maybe that is what we should do when glass is falling around us. Check our vitals. Check for blood. And step carefully when we start moving again.
Smashed any mirrors lately? How are your own security checks going?