Do I See Myself as Others See Me?

Illustration: Sari Cohen

14 of 20
Do I See Myself as Others See Me?
When I was a teenager, I kept an unframed chunk of mirror tilted up against the wall on my desk, and when I sat there with my books I would look into the mirror, pulling faces, trying different angles, standing up to peer over my shoulder at my butt in my jeans. "Don't be so vain," my mother would scold if she caught me. "She doesn't understand," I would think, flipping the mirror facedown. I knew what I was looking for in that mirror—a glimpse of something valuable that others might see in me, a clue that I was worth loving. Mostly, I'm sad to say, I thought: "Not thin or pretty enough."

In the three decades since, I've gained confidence, but that hasn't stopped me from striving for perfection in hopes that my imagined audience will judge me good enough, worthy. How do others see us? We can never really know, but I'm certain the view from the outside is far brighter than the one from inside our own brains. We are all our own worst critics.

I am a mother and wife, a teacher and writer, a colleague and friend. In these roles, I am alternately smart or dull, funny or tedious, patient like a saint or on my own last nerve. The facts of my life are that I'm (fairly) successfully managing to do it all, and yet there are still those days when I feel as if I've done none of it well enough. I want to be seen as a woman who can teach an inspiring class, submit a prize-winning essay, hit the gym and still have time to bake vegan cupcakes for the class party—but sometimes my lecture bombs, the words won't come, I skip the workout to make the cupcakes and the frosting comes out thin.

However small these failings may seem, they do make me feel like a failure. But I'm guessing no one else would see me that way. Writing is all about revision, the gym will still be there tomorrow, and let's face it, kids prefer gooey cupcakes. We think others are judging our gaffes ("Did I really say that?" and so on), too-snug jeans, the pimple on our nose, but of course those people are likely too busy considering their own imagined deficiencies even to notice ours. And if they do? They don't care. Seriously. What would the world be like if we all gave each other a break, starting with ourselves?

Here's what worries me: Our 6-year-old son, Henry, is showing early signs of my perfectionism. He wants to color in the lines, build the best LEGO robot and spell all the words right on quizzes. "I'm not good enough," he says, and my heart cracks. Why doesn't he see the brilliant, loving, funny boy the rest of us see?

As a mother, I am responsible for more than just my own self-image. To what extent am I the mirror into which Henry peers? And how do I want to use the power of this reflection?

Long after my treacherous teen years, I learned to stop turning first to the mirror for evidence of self-worth, but while my methods have shifted, Henry has reminded me that my new measures are no less ruthless: Did I sound like a fool? Could I have been more generous? Was I patient with my kids today? For Henry, and for myself, I am practicing being gentler with my answers.

"It's hard to be human," I said to Henry this morning at breakfast, still smiling when he got a smear of butter on the book he maybe shouldn't have been reading at the table. He nodded. If I want him to turn a more forgiving lens on himself, I need to model self-kindness. Together, I want us to make mistakes—cut a crooked line, spill the juice, fall down from tree pose—and laugh. I want us to practice imperfection, not sweating the small stuff on the much bigger journey of living a full, rich, compassionate life.

—Jill Christman, author of the memoir Darkroom