Many of us have had experiences of walking into a social situation and feeling shy, awkward, hesitant, and even fearful. Other times we can feel that people are scoffing at us because we apparently said something silly or foolish. We can also believe that our physical appearance or clothing is drawing critical attention, or that everyone was laughing at us when we played ineptly at the picnic volleyball game.
In self-centeredness, we typically exaggerate the degree to which people notice us or think critically about our appearance. Mentally or intellectually, we know that people have better things to do than to make us the center of their attention. They’re often too preoccupied with their own lives to even pay us much notice. Emotionally, though, our impression can be very different: We can feel that others not only focus their attention on us but also think less of us.
This feeling of being judged negatively comes and goes. Sometimes it seems to live inside us like an intestinal worm feeding off our entrails. We tell ourselves we’re as worthy and good as anyone else. Yet our emotions often say otherwise. Our subjective impressions don’t correspond to objective reality. Why is that?
Many of us are encumbered with an emotional attachment to the feeling of being seen in a negative light. This problem stems from an unresolved inner conflict. In our conscious mind, we want to be liked, admired, and respected. However, in our unconscious mind where our irrational emotions are rooted, we can expect to be seen in the opposite manner, as if we’re unworthy of being liked, admired, or respected. As it happens, that’s exactly how our inner critic (superego) usually treats us—or how we allow it to treat us. This part of our psyche, by way of an inner voice or feeling, frequently alleges that we’re weak, unworthy, and foolish.
Even though our unconscious expectation of being regarded negatively is irrational, it’s still a powerful attachment in our psyche. We “know” ourselves through that feeling. This means that, in part, we identify with ourselves through the feeling. It’s as if the negative feeling is an essential element of who we are. We won’t be able to recognize ourselves without this feeling. We feel lost, disoriented, and even panicky without the reassurance of our familiar identity. Deep down, we remain emotionally unresolved with a sense of being unworthy, badly flawed, or just plain bad. Guilt and shame are usually associated with this painful sense of self.
When it comes to being seen in a negative light, we’re first in line to do it to ourselves. Our inner critic is a dependable backstabber, while our self–doubt keeps supplying it with knives. When we’re watchful, we can see this conflict in ourselves. I had my own attachment to being seen in a negative light. One day 20 years ago, working on my first book, I wrote a few thousand words that I felt were creative and insightful. That night I had a dream in which I was promoted to the rank of general and sent off to an overseas war-zone. Crowds cheered me on the way to the Tampa airport in an open-air limousine for my flight to the Middle East. In this dream (called “a dream of refutation”) I tried to establish a defense (that I wanted to be cheered and admired) to cover up my unresolved attachment to being judged critically and, as it related to my book, having my work rejected. My identification with the general and my thrill in waving to the cheering crowds were intended to “prove” that I really wanted acceptance and admiration. By seeing through this defense and others like it, I’ve acquired the insight that reduced this inner conflict, and I’ve been able to achieve a higher degree of writing proficiency.
Unless we turn the tables on our inner critic, we cling anxiously to a passive sense of who we are, even when doing so entails considerable suffering. We may also be physiologically entangled in this identity. Many neuroscientists say that our sense of self emerges out of the staggering complexity of our brain’s component parts. So our identity, our sense of self, can be described as our brain’s “software”. That software is now outdated. It’s too prone to self-sabotage, and it can’t handle the modern world’s complexity. It needs upgrading, as occurs when inner conflicts are resolved. Typical conflicts consist of wanting to be admired while expecting to be belittled, or anxiously seeking approval or validation while painfully anticipating or experiencing disapproval or rejection.
We know how to upgrade computer software, and now we’re being challenged to upgrade our brain’s software so that our inner views correspond with objective reality. This “enhancement” of brain function involves raising the level of our consciousness. This means that we acquire pertinent self-knowledge concerning the nature of our inner conflict and emotional attachments.
Incidentally, neuroscientists seem to me to be fixated on the brain’s “hardware,” its synapses, neurons, and other organic features. I think the hardware is less relevant than the brain’s software, particularly the irrational, emotional, and negative impressions we produce. Our greater destiny is linked to our consciousness, meaning the synthesis of our intelligence with reality and psychological truth, not to the organic complexity or features of our brain. For the sake of our destiny, we must strive where we can each make a difference, with our brain’s malleable software more so than its intractable hardware.
We can become more conscious, for instance, of why people make such a cultural sport of seeing others in a negative light. Malicious gossip—along with florid media coverage of dishonorable, disgusting, and dopey behaviors—captures our attention because the subject provides us with some inner relief from self-criticism. “You see,” our unconscious defenses claim, “I’m not nearly as bad as that person.”
Remember, too, that any tendency we have to seeing others in a negative light dovetails with our own emotional attachment to being seen that way. When we stop being judgmental or comparing ourselves to others, we step out of the shadow of negative light.