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Source: The Freedom Of Life
SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS may be truly defined as a person's inability to
get out of his own way. There are, however, some people who are so
entirely and absolutely self-conscious that everything they do, even
though it may appear spontaneous and ingenuous, is observed and
admired and approved of by themselves,--indeed they are supported
and sustained by their self-consciousness. They are so completely in
bondage to themselves that they have no glimpse of the possibility
of freedom, and therefore this bondage is pleasant to them.
With these people we have, at present, nothing to do; it is only
those who have begun to realize their bondage as such, or who suffer
from it, that can take any steps toward freedom. The self-satisfied
slaves must stay in prison until they see where they are--and it is
curious and sad to see them rejoicing in bondage and miscalling it
freedom. It makes one long to see them struck by an emergency,
bringing a flash of inner light which is often the beginning of an
entire change of state. Sometimes the enlightenment comes through
one kind of circumstance, sometimes through another; but, if the
glimpse of clearer sight it brings is taken advantage of, it will be
followed by a time of groping in the dark, and always by more or
less suffering. When, however, we know that we are in the dark,
there is hope of our coming to the light; and suffering is nothing
whatever after it is over and has brought its good results.
If we were to take away the prop of self-approval entirely and
immediately from any one of the habitually self-satisfied people,
the probable result would be an entire nervous collapse, or even a
painful form of insanity; and, in all changes of state from bondage
to freedom, the process is and must be exceedingly slow. No one ever
strengthened his character with a wrench of impatience, although we
are often given the opportunity for a firm and immediate use of the
will which leaves lasting strength behind it. For the main growth of
our lives, however, we must be steadily patient, content to aim in
the true direction day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. If we
fall, we must pick ourselves up and go right on,--not stop to be
discouraged for one instant after we have recognized our state as a
temptation. Whatever the stone may be that we have tripped over, we
have learned that it is there, and, while we may trip over the same
stone many times, if we learn our lesson each time, it decreases the
possible number of stumbles, and smooths our paths more than we
There is no exception to the necessity for this patient, steady
plodding in the work required to gain our freedom from
self-consciousness. It is when we are aware of our bondage that our
opportunity to gain our freedom from it really begins. This bondage
brings very real suffering, and we may often, without exaggeration,
call it torture. It is sometimes even extreme torture, but may have
to be endured for a lifetime unless the sufferer has the clear light
by which to find his freedom; and, unfortunately, many who might
have the light will not use it because they are unwilling to
recognize the selfishness that is at the root of their trouble. Some
women like to call it "shyness," because the name sounds well, and
seems to exonerate them from any responsibility with regard to their
defect. Men will rarely speak of their self-consciousness, but, when
they do, they are apt to speak of it with more or less indignation
and self-pity, as if they were in the clutches of something
extraneous to themselves, and over which they can never gain
control. If, when a man is complaining of self-consciousness and of
its interference with his work in life, you tell him in all
kindness that all his suffering has its root in downright
selfishness, he will, in most cases, appear not to hear, or he will
beg the question, and, having avoided acknowledging the truth, will
continue to complain and ask for help, and perhaps wonder whether
hypnotism may not help him, or some other form of "cure." Anything
rather than look the truth in the face and do the work in himself
which, is the only possible road to lasting, freedom. Self-pity, and
what may be called spiritual laziness, is at the root of most of the
self-torment in the world.
How ridiculous it would seem if a man tried to produce an electric
burner according to laws of his own devising, and then sat down and
pitied himself because the light would not burn, instead of
searching about until he had found the true laws of electricity
whose application would make the light shine successfully. How
ridiculous it would seem if a man tried to make water run up hill
without providing that it should do so by reaching its own level,
and then got indignant because he did not succeed, and wondered if
there were not some "cure" by means of which his object might be
accomplished. And yet it is no more strange for a man to disobey
habitually the laws of character, and then to suffer for his
disobedience, and wonder why he suffers.
There is an external necessity for obeying social laws which must be
respected, or society would go to pieces; and there is just as great
an internal necessity for obeying spiritual laws to gain our proper
self-control and power for use; but we do not recognize that
necessity because, while disrregarding the laws of character, we can
still live without the appearance of doing harm to the community.
Social laws can be respected in the letter but not in the spirit,
whereas spiritual laws must be accepted by the individual heart and
practiced by the individual will in order to produce any useful
result. Each one of us must do the required work in himself. There
is no "cure," no help from outside which can bring one to a lasting
If self-consciousness makes us blush, the more we are troubled the
more it increases, until the blushing may become so unbearable that
we are tempted to keep away from people altogether; and thus life,
so far as human fellowship goes, would become more and more limited.
But, when such a limitation is allowed to remain within us, and we
make no effort of our own to find its root and to exterminate it, it
warps us through and through. If self-consciousness excites us to
talk, and we talk on and on to no end, simply allowing the selfish
suffering to goad us, the habit weakens our brains so that in time
they lose the power of strong consecutive thought and helpful
If self-consciousness causes us to wriggle, and strain, and stammer,
and we do not recognize the root of the trouble and shun it, and
learn to yield and quietly relax our nerves and muscles, of course
the strain becomes worse. Then, rather than suffer from it any
longer, we keep away from people, just as the blushing man is
tempted to do. In that case, the strain is still in us, in the back
of our brains, so to speak--because we have not faced and overcome
Stage fright is an intense form of self-consciousness, but the man
who is incapable of stage fright lacks the sensitive temperament
required to achieve great power as an artist. The man who overcomes
stage fright by getting out of his own way, and by letting the
character he is playing, or the music he is interpreting, work
through him as a clear, unselfish channel receives new power for his
work in the proportion that he shuns his own interfering
But it is with the self-consciousness of everyday life that we have
especially to do now, and with the practical wisdom necessary to
gain freedom from all its various discomforts; and, even more than
that, to gain the new power for useful service which comes from the
possession of that freedom.
The remedy is to be found in obedience to the law of unselfishness,
carried out into the field of nervous suffering.
Whatever one may think, however one may try to dodge the truth by
this excuse or that, the conditions to be fulfilled in order to gain
freedom from self-consciousness are _absolutely within the
indidivual who suffers._ When we once understand this, and are faced
toward the truth, we are sure to find our way out, with more or less
rapidity, according to the strength with which we use our wills in
First, we must be willing to accept the effects of
self-consciousness. The more we resist these effects the more they
force themselves upon us, and the more we suffer from them. We must
be willing to blush, be willing to realize that we have talked too
much, and perhaps made ourselves ridiculous. We must be willing to
feel the discomforts of self-consciousness in whatever form they may
appear. Then--the central point of all--we must know and
understand, and not dodge in the very least the truth that the _root
of self-consciousness is selfishly caring what other people think of
us,--and wanting to appear well before them._
Many readers of this article who suffer from self-consciousness will
want to deny this; others will acknowledge it, but will declare
their inability to live according to the truth; some,--perhaps more
than a few,--will recognize the truth and set to work with a will to
obey it, and how happily we may look forward to the freedom which
will eventually be theirs!
A wise man has said that when people do not think well of us, the
first thing to do is to look and see whether they are right. In most
cases, even though they way have unkind feelings mingled with their
criticism, there is an element of truth in it from which we may
profit. In such cases we are much indebted to our critics, for, by
taking their suggestions, we are helped toward strength of character
and power for use. If there is no truth in the criticism, we need
not think of it at all, but live steadily on, knowing that the truth
will take care of itself.
We should be willing that any one should think _anything_ of us, so
long as we have the strength of a good conscience. We should be
willing to appear in any light if that appearance will enhance our
use, or is a necessity of growth. If an awkward appearance is
necessary in the process of our journey toward freedom, we must not
resist the fact of its existence, and should only dwell on it long
enough to shun its cause in so far as we can, and gain the good
result of the greater freedom which will follow.
It is because the suffering from self-consciousness is often so
intense that freedom from it brings, by contrast, so happy and so
strong a sense of power.
There is a school for the treatment of stammerers in this country in
which the pupils are initiated into the process of cure by being
required to keep silence for a week. This would be a most helpful
beginning in a training to overcome self-consciousness. We should
recognize first that we must be willing to endure the effects of
self-consciousness without resistance. Secondly, we should admit
that the root of self-consciousness lies entirely in a selfish
desire to appear well before others. If, while recognizing these two
essential truths and confirming them until they are thoroughly
implanted in our brains, we should quietly persist in going among
people, the practice of silent attention to others would be of the
greatest value in gaining real freedom. The practice of attentive
and sympathetic silence might well be followed by people in general
far more than it is. The protection of a loving, unselfish silence
is very great: a silence which is the result of shunning all
selfish, self-assertive, vain, or affected speech; a silence which
is never broken for the sake of "making conversation," "showing
off," or covering selfish embarrassment; a silence which is full of
sympathy and interest,--the power of such a silence cannot be
If we have the evil habit of talking for the sake of winning
approval, we should practise this silence; or if we talk for the
sake of calling attention to ourselves, for the sake of winning
sympathy for our selfish pains and sorrows, or for the sake of
indulging in selfish emotions, nothing can help us more than the
habit of loving and attentive silence.
Only when we know how to practise this--in an impersonal, free and
quiet spirit, one which is not due to outward repression of any
kind--are we able to talk with quiet, loving, helpful speech. Then
may we tell the clean truth without giving unnecessary offence, and
then may we soothe and rest, as well as stimulate in, wholesome ways;
then, also, will our minds open to receive the good that may come to
us through the words and actions of others.
Next: The Circumstances Of Life
Previous: Nervous Fears