The Perilous Depths of Self-Perception

We’ve all seen that picture of a little kitten staring into a mirror and seeing itself as a big ol’ scruffy lion… you know the one. Followed by the quote, “What matters most is how you see yourself.”

Well, I’d like to challenge that idea. It’s reversed: I am the lion(ess) but see myself as the runt of the litter (the cutest automatically but also the least likely to survive). Why? Freud could probably explain a thing or two about my childhood. Fortunately, I recently received a personal revelation… It came in a vision—a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them—Oh whoops, nope, that’s John Lennon on the christening of the Beatles. Short attention span. Ok. The revelation:

How you see yourself is utterly and ridiculously different from how others perceive you.

Some of you are thinking, “Well, yeah…” but this epiphany blew my mind. These ideas I have about myself, the way I see myself in a mirror, my attributes —they’re all so distinctly separate from how the world views them. It’s like the Rorschach test. And that’s ok. In fact, it’s brilliant. Why? Because I tend to be wildly self-critical: I’m too skinny, I’m not helpful enough, my (damn Akhtar family) nose (that doesn’t skip generations) is too big, I’m passive-aggressive, I have no tangible “talents” (like playing the ukele or parkour), I sure as hellfire can’t cook—shit, I can’t even sew on a damn button. And apparently I can’t spell ‘sow’ because I had to Google that. But it’s Saturday, so I’ll cut myself some slack because I won a lot of spelling bees as a runt. But I digress… these are sincere perceptions I have about my own self. Again, you have my full permission to call upon the spirit of Freud to ask why, but only if you report back your findings.

A mentor of mine is world-famous, inspires positive change in people’s lives and has met countless world leaders and celebrities. You’d imagine this guy feels mighty crisp, right? Well, he recently revealed to a group of bewildered Stanford kids something deeply personal and baffling: every single time before he goes on stage, he curses at himself saying he’s an idiot and that he’s going to fuck everything up (yes, exact words) in front of everybody. He sincerely verbally kicks himself in the ‘nads. And yet every time he gets up there, his serene, powerful, and hilarious presence just blows everyone to smithereens. This is a man that spreads world peace through teaching inner peace, a best-selling author who is revered worldwide. To know that somebody of that caliber has the internal self-critical dialogue of a girl entering the perpetually insecure world of puberty is a really humbling experience in the bizarre and obnoxious phenomenon that is the human condition.

Most of us have been wired to tell ourselves we’re not good enough—by our families, society, our peers… this list isn’t new knowledge to you. But lately, by some stroke of brilliance, I’ve realized that it is the people who interact with you, who see you from literally an outsider’s perspective, who can tell you how fabulous you really are.

I’m blessed to have acquired this two-way mirror perspective of the disparity between the outside view and my self-perception. I think I’m going to start listing it as one of my talents. I’m involved in this incredible personal development program in which people praise each other anonymously at the end: the only rule is you can only look at the slew of praise when everyone’s done writing it. You’re hit with a monstrous freakin’ avalanche of praise. I’ve had the immense honor of participating in this over a dozen times, and what people write often makes me weep. They make you realize truly how cool, special or beautiful (or all the above) you really are.

The things I hear about myself most often are how beautiful my eyes, hair and smile are, how hilarious I am and how comfortable others feel divulging any information about themselves to me because it’s safe from judgment. Really? Because my brother’s greenish-grey eyes are way more beautiful than my hazel ones, my hair has a frizzy, semi-straight/semi-curly/semi-can’t-even-be-categorized mind of its own (thanks mom and dad, for shaving my head and letting me be the bald little girl in a frumpy dress), and I have crooked lower teeth but hate dentists so much I kicked one in the face when I was 11 so forget that. I’ve been in crowds that certainly did not care to laugh at anything I had to say even though I thought it hysterical, and I’m petrified solid of having people be uncomfortable around me and feeling like I can’t help someone who needs it: it is my number one fear to lose someone I cherish because they felt they had no one to turn to.

And what’s even more perturbing is these are genuine thoughts that feel like facts; I don’t say them to seek validation or fish for compliments. They feel real. Here are some more ‘facts’ about me just to really drive the point home…

Physically: As a kid, I tried to cut off the mole above my lip with scissors… with scissors, folks! Kids used to tease me that it looked like a fly was on my face, because children can be horrible little shits. And as I’ve grown older, people have told me it’s a beauty mark and have compared it to Madonna’s and Cindy Crawford’s… Not that I see it any differently, but what on Noah’s legendary Ark? How did it just graduate from a fly on the face to celeb status?

Professionally: When asked about my current job, I say I do a lot of event coordination, communications and management (among numerous other things) at a compassion research center. But the last time I was saying this, my dear friend Abhishek interjected, “Oh man, she gets to hang out with enlightened beings for a living.” Which is also partially true: I’ve had the honor of hosting some inspiring leaders like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Eckhart Tolle, but it’s such a small portion of what I do that I don’t even think of it first. But for my first job right out of college, I’d like to hope that’s not shabby at all.

Emotionally/Socially: It’s been a gnarly beginning of the year (apparently for many), and I’ve been gouging my emotional eyes myself feeling like I’m the bad person in recent fall-outs. Empathy can be a big ol’ stick up the wazoo. Luckily I have a support system that reminds me I’m not a sociopath and that I am doing the best I can while listening to my intuition, which should never be ignored. Even though it’s been a rocky start, I’ve already experienced so many moments where my love organ (that would be the heart, you twisted beings) has literally felt swollen and heavy with all the gratitude for the people in my life. From those who let me crash at their homes and took care of me, who helped me move and provided free services, who connected me to others and gave me a support system that is unmatched by any other: I’m lucky to have these people in my life who see me in a wholly different, positive light. And I should just shut up and accept that.

So, what’s my point?

Let people praise you, damn it. Let them reflect you so that you, the lion(ess), finally can see the lion reflected back at you.

Only the Walrus himself can explain this with grace: I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. This idea that we attract goodness because we are good is all too new to me, because lately I sincerely feel the best thing about me is the people in my life. And, when I say that out of gratitude to my friends, they say lightly, “Oh, we are just a reflection of you.” And I just want to bash them over the head and say, No, goddammit: I’m amazing because of YOU; just let me be! And we get into a ‘You’re awesome!’ ‘No, you’re awesome!’ tiff for days. I now realize why these are the Tool lyrics I gravitate most toward always: Overthinking, overanalyzing separates the body from the mind. The mind tends to cling to the negative, so you need to tell it to bugger off and let you do your thang. Don’t let your self-criticism get in the way of what you want to achieve. Meditation helps (ooh, smooth plug!)

Ok that’s not the only point. Here’s another:

Don’t disregard your life experiences.

I’m stoked to live a pretty easy life, but when I tell people my story—lived in a third world country half my life, have moved over a dozen times in the past 8 years alone, survived a 12-year long family separation and my father in a coma for a month without health insurance, etc.—they tell me, holy shit… you are a strong person. Well, I don’t feel strong because I’ll cry at a traffic light but I only realize what I’ve endured when I think of the emotions associated with those events.

So take Tool’s advice and learn to swim so you can navigate these perilous, murky depths of the ocean that is your being, and let those who love you tell you what you truly are: a fucking awesome creature, a brilliant collective of billions of cells. Goo goo goo joob.

Photo by Gali Levi-McClure
Photo by Gali Levi-McClure
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