I’ve been thinking a lot about self-image. I’m still being inspired by Kresley Cole’s latest Immortals After Dark offering, Sweet Ruin. In the book, about which I’ve written previously, the protagonist, Rune, is limited by self-imposed restrictions because he can see himself only in one way. He has not been able to break out of the prison of his own self-image and is therefore crippled in what he believes he can and cannot do. As with so many of the characters in my beloved fantasy novels, art imitates life, and Rune’s dilemma mirrors that of so many of us. I’ve written before about how others see us, but today I’m contemplating how we see ourselves, and the myopia within which it can cage us.
Our self-image is a construct of the messages we receive… from society, the media, our parents, our peers and authority figures like teachers and counselors. Unless we are introspective and prepared to do the work to uncover our authentic selves, we will be who others tell us we are. And what a mess that is. Women are told we need to be femme fatales who maintain bikini bodies, while breaking through glass ceilings (it’s on us to break them, not the idiots who put them in place to remove them). Then there’s the expectation that we become supermoms—who neither hover nor neglect—and perfect wives. Are we living in Stepford? Or amongst pod people? If not, no can do on all of this. These mixed messages come from everywhere but inside ourselves. They are not only crazy-making, but impossible—and ubiquitously pernicious.
And how sad is that? Not only do we not know who we really are, we aren’t even encouraged to look! And if we have some inkling that there might be something underneath the expectations of others, like rippling muscle under layers of unsightly fat (that any number of gurus are eager to tell us how to eliminate), we are too afraid, lazy, skeptical or apathetic to do the work necessary to unmask those muscles.
Our self-image is created through distorted mirrors—mirrors that exaggerate our weaknesses or our strengths. What we see is not necessarily what’s there. To take a simple example, when we’ve over eaten, we tend to feel fat the next day (I have fat on the brain today, can you tell?). It’s probably not possible that the chocolate cake I ate yesterday has already plastered itself to my ass by today, but it certainly feels that way. Or take an opposite example—just because our parents (well, your parents, not mine, but stay with me here) tell us we are special and we’re gonna change the world doesn’t make it so. We have to want to change the world, yes, but we also have to take the action to make that happen. Yes, stupid is as stupid does, but that applies to smarts, too. It’s not enough to be smart, or to see ourselves as smart—we’ve got to put in the time—intelligently. Smart is how hard smart works.
One of the most difficult tasks of a life well lived is to know thyself. I’m all about authenticity, but it’s impossible to be authentic if we have no idea who we really are, which possibilities are available to us. And which aren’t.
One can simply look around to notice those who clearly think well of themselves (without obvious reasons) and those who don’t (again, erroneously to the outside observer). I would dearly love to understand what creates true humility—the ability to embrace both our strengths and weaknesses with neither false modesty nor hubris. If someone could bottle that shit they’d be gazillionaires.
We tell ourselves stories—or, more accurately, someone tells them to us, and then they become our truth. We may not realize that it’s a false truth for quite some time, if ever. When I was little, I often heard my mother tell anyone who would listen how uncoordinated I was. She made me take ballet lessons to help me be more “graceful.” Turns out, I’m not particularly uncoordinated—but I believed myself to be for so long that I eschewed activities that might highlight my clumsiness. And while I doubt I would ever have been a star athlete, I missed out on even trying fun things I might have enjoyed because I internalized what someone else decided was true about me.
I have a mug that says, “Imagine what we would do if we knew we could not fail.” It’s a sobering thought. What bullshit do we tell ourselves about who and what we are that stops us from being who we want to be and doing what we want to do. In Sweet Ruin, Rune sees himself first and foremost as a whore, very much the same way Zsadist sees himself in the Black Dagger Brotherhood books. This false self image dictates almost all aspects of their beings. For Rune, he can’t see himself as anything but a spy who trades his body for secrets. Zsadist can’t get over feeling dirty and unworthy, because he was a blood and sex slave. As a result, both almost lose the loves of their almost-immortal lives.
What have we lost or almost lost through a distorted self-image? What could we do if we stopped believing we can’t? Which doors do we close off from ourselves because we refuse to turn the handle and walk through? These are the thoughts swirling around my brain these days. Along with the fat, of course. For now, I see through a glass darkly. But I’m always searching for the light.