Mirrors, Masks, Field-Dressings, Guts, Hearts, and Our Minds

Is it all these things that tell us who we are?

REFLECTIONS IN RETIREMENT

I have been thinking.

We are continuously in the process of growing into, becoming, and forever fine-tuning our Selves and sometimes, of course, taking a break and spacing out or simply tuning out. Actually, it is more complicated than that.

Our Mirrors

We are forever noticing and monitoring what we believe others are seeing in us and thinking or feeling about us. We are forever mindful of such connections with others, so we seek out and gather the facets of ourselves that they seem to notice or admire, registering and processing our appearance and manner from their point of view. All this is important to us. At very least, it allows us a guide for course-correcting.

But what is remarkable is that all this can take place without our planning it. We find ourselves automatically accepting what we see about our Selves through another’s eyes as if viewing ourselves in a mirror. And most remarkable, it is all happening to the other guy regarding us at the same time.

Adding to this, of course, are those never-ending communications we have with our Selves.Here is where we note how we are doing vis-a-vis those wordless conversations with our Selves—conversations usually in the form of feelings. Naturally, it can seem as if our lives are totally filled with our Selves, but that is misleading—even though true—because we do not really “decide” to have those never-ending conversations with our Selves. They just happen. They are always happening—all the time.

Our Masks

Then, of course, there are the masks we put on in our never-ending process of becoming, while at the same time being our Selves. These masks are usually what we put on in the company of others, probably because we know that whatever they see and feel bounces back to us, not unlike looking in a mirror. We are either concealing something via our masks (something private) orpromoting something like as an exaggerated virtue, and these masks become like paddles. They help us paddle our canoes, as it were, and contribute to our staying on our imagined course and in our preferred direction.

Brian Andreas, the American writer-artist who carries his own version of this reality, gives it a voice through one of his art-characters who comments: “I’ve always liked the time before dawn because there’s no one around to remind me who I’m supposed to be, so it’s easier to remember who I am.” We smile reading this, of course, because it resonates.

And naturally, sometimes the opposite is true. Knowing our complete Selves can be a burden to us and troublesome, or sometimes not only weak and disappointing, but destructive and deadly. Approaching such moments, we occasionally turn to the phone and get in touch with somebody, anybody, whose voice will distract and help us re-envision and reconnect with our preferred Selves. This is actually how many of us routinely renew ourselves. We rely on the voice of another, not our own voice, because the other’s is a healthy mirror-variant of who we are and thus a supportive and reassuring option.

Our Field-Dressings

I cannot overlook one occasional third contributor to who we are. It is that rare behavior that is spontaneous and protective and appears to be instinctive. I view this feature as a field-dressing because it is applied in the field by a warrior we call “bully.” It has a “half-life” in the sense that it can lose its punch over time. Its downside is that its relief-providing benefit interferes with the foundation of that bully’s natural and real self-awareness.

I have never treated bullies or even studied them, but I do remember them from my childhood. I assumed their self-awareness was inside them just like ours, but I was wrong. Their self-awareness, it turns out, was likely in someone else. (Actually, it was likely inside a rash of “someone-elses.”) In bullies, their operational “self-awareness” was now no longer centered on their insecurity, neediness, or fears—it was surely centered on the rush of energy, excitement, and relief the bullying behavior provided. To uncover their natural and real Selves, I would have to turn myattention to bullying victims, or those suffering from being forced back into their own (and earlier) insecurities, neediness, or fears—that role-reversal. It was in those brief moments and inside those innocent victims that bullies’ natural and real Selves—their insecurities, their neediness, and their fears—were exposed.

I have mulled this over. Colleagues viewed bullies as babies crying for attention, but I always preferred viewing them as kids caught between a rock and a hard place, given that, if the bullies were not bullies, they were babies, and if they were not babies, they were bullies—neither being socially acceptable and both being dead-ends. In short, as a professional, I always preferred putting myself in the bully’s shoes rather than imagining myself in the role of a parent because it was only in the bully’s shoes that I could relate to what was evidently, for the bully, a comfort zone.

I also remember how that mask of “bully” would be countered by schoolteachers. Bullies would be assigned chores as teacher’s assistants, not just to help the teachers keep an eye on the bullies, but to let the bullies experience capability and worthiness even as they objected and groused. It was the baby in them, after all, that was being treated here, and that part of them needed time to absorb those new experiences.

Our Guts, Hearts, and Minds

And then there are the 3 other categories that do not need introduction. One is our guts, another our heart, and the third is, of course, our mind—all 3 being pretty well-known to everyone reading this.

My Quiet and Private Takeaway

Moving on now, what is so interesting to me about all this is how rare it is for those 6 contributors to be cognitively acknowledged all at the same time, and I do not think this is because we do not remember or forget how to pay attention. I think it is because we have no reason to do either. We are too busy living our lives.

It was in retirement, I found, that I had the time. It was in retirement that memories would spontaneously resurface into my awareness. It was in retirement that I began to realize that, when my musings included my personal trash-basket of guilt, remorse, and regret, it was only during those moments I was able to feel most complete—the most healed, as some would say.

Dr Climo is the author of Psychiatrist on the Road: Encounters in Healing and Healthcare, an account of his Locum Tenens experience.

Do you have thoughts, reflections, or lessons learned to share with early career psychiatrists? Write to us at PTeditor@mmhgroup.com.