Turning yourself down and turning yourself up

Do you know someone who is self-conscious? Is that person shy? Quiet? Do they keep themselves to themselves? I bet the person you’re thinking of is exactly like that.

When we pair a person with the idea of self-consciousness, that’s what the image we automatically conjure. Someone who is quiet, shy, undemanding and intimidated in the presence of others.

But that’s just one side of self-consciousness.

Imagine a set of speakers playing. Your fingers are on the volume control. You can turn them down so that the sound coming out is equivalent to a whisper and barely audible. Or you can turn them all the way up to the point where the sound is overwhelming. 

Turning the speakers down is what we typically associate with the idea of self-consciousness. Someone turning themselves down. Muffling their personality, abilities, tendencies and desires. But the opposite happens too. People in the presence of others turn themselves up. They amplify certain parts of their persona. Both cases are a distortion of reality.

This gets interesting when you pair these ideas with Ray Bradbury’s line about self-consciousness. He says that “self-consciousness is the enemy of all art.” I took this to mine that shrinking, turning yourself down, being scared to show your true self and express your true feelings inhibits your art. But I didn’t realise that it can also mean playing up and putting on airs. Pretending to be something you’re not. 

The former is more passive than the latter. Shrinking, turning yourself down, dimming your light, is an act of submission. It’s an attempt to hide in plain sight. To try and become invisible. Playing up and putting on airs is an affectation. It’s trying to fit in by pretending to be something you’re not. Instead of invisibility, it’s about taking the form that you think the situation or your role demands.

You can think about it in terms of performance too. The presence of self-consciousness can manifest itself in two ways. The first is that you pretend to be less good than you actually are. In order to not endanger anyone’s feelings. The second is that you pretend to be better than you actually are. In order to save face and preserve an image around yourself. 

Ray Bradbury is right. Both forms of self-consciousness are destructive to art, authenticity and performance. Making yourself small and magnifying your persona are actions taken by different people with different aims. But they both have the same effect. They both stop people from seeing who you really are. Which is the antithesis to art, expression and authenticity.