"What do you think?" I asked another friend, Christine. "Do we see ourselves as accurately as those who care for us do?"
She didn't even need a moment to reflect. "When my father died 10 years ago, it was such a surprise to see the photograph that he'd kept of me in his wallet."
"Why was it a surprise?"
"Because it was a photograph of me at age 11, just before I became anorexic, and I was so round and smiling."
I heard the sadness in her voice, and I knew that it was many layered. It included the loss of her father, her long struggle with anorexia, and something else as well—a retroactive appreciation of her lost self. And though she didn't say the words aloud, I could hear them in the air between us: "If only I had known how endearing I was then, when I was round and smiling." If only...
Sometimes it's not a retroactive appreciation that's needed but the reverse. If we're nostalgic for a certain lost image of ourselves, it's important to remember the full context. One friend told me that, on her refrigerator, she kept a photograph of herself at her absolute thinnest. "When was it taken?" I asked. There was a long pause, and then she confessed: "It was taken after my trip to India, after I had dysentery that lasted for three months."
Saddest of all was the friend who showed me her favorite photograph of herself, thin as a rake and leaning against a tall oak tree. Remembering the context, I gasped. "But that's when you nearly died of heartbreak! Look how pale and fragile you were. Don't you remember how we had to feed you like a baby bird?" For weeks several friends and I had taken turns stopping by her house with soups and puddings and canned pears because nothing else could make it past the giant lump in her throat. Now I actually felt betrayed that she could possibly admire the photograph that was evidence of this desperate time.
Of course, we can't always rely on our family and friends to protect us from our distortions and reflect our true selves. Sometimes they, too, get attached to a certain image. My neighbor Susan, who's 65, complains that the only photograph her father keeps in his room is one of her as a teenager, in a bikini. Every time she encounters this photograph, she experiences it as a kind of reproach to the adult woman she's become. "It's like, for him, the teenager I haven't been for more than four decades now is the real me. He can't make a space for the person I am."