women see in third person
are you watching yourself through others' eyes?
I can’t pinpoint exactly the moment I realized I was watching myself all the time. Suddenly I was hyper-aware of the way I filtered everything I thought, felt, and said through how you’d hear it. When my mental model of you was less complete, I felt extremely constrained in what I could say and as a result, said very little at all. “You’re quiet, aren’t you,” you said. Mm not really, I just wasn’t sure which parts of myself were safe to show. What Mary Oliver would call the soft animal inside me was sulking in the corner of my stomach, refusing to reveal what she wanted yet demanding she be paid attention to all the same.
What the rational part of me wants is internal consistency — some might call it control. It’s a stringency around my self-image that I’ve grown more aware of over time. It makes me good at self-narration, brand-building, and “putting myself in others’ shoes,” but also stubborn, sensitive, and highly impressionable to the feelings of others.
I know I’m not alone. In fact, I think most women are like this. From my observer seat, women seem to generally be much more comfortable living life through anyone else’s lens but their own. Which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: seeing in third person unlocks a woman’s ability to appease, making for an excellent survival strategy. As Joyce Benenson puts it in “Warriors and Worriers,” “a major part of being a female to be self-protective. Because the bottom line is if you are not healthy, your children in most environments wouldn’t have survived.” Watching ourselves was a strategy that quite literally kept the human race alive. John Berger understood this dynamic best:
A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.
I call this living life in third person. It’s mostly hardwiring that has the side effect of self-erasure. Modern feminist rhetoric would lead you to believe that this was programmed into us via the patriarchy and while I don’t doubt that’s one way this dynamic is amplified, I’m unconvinced that’s the root source of it. Women are simply much more inclined to strategies that guarantee safety than men.
Which is all great and good until you realize how far these strategies distance you from your desires. See, that’s the catch about living life in third person: it makes it very hard to know, much less act on, what you want. From an outsider’s POV you only feel vague sensations that something is missing, but get barely any indication of what that thing you’re missing actually is.
Which is something we’re all probably familiar with. Everyone has experienced some vague sense of “not right”ness that usually boils down to emotional needs not getting met: connection, acceptance, feeling seen, to name a few. If you’re anything like me, after a couple of times getting burned you learned to bury the desires instead of facing the pain of trying and failing to get them satiated. I learned at a young age that I couldn’t depend on people to be there for me consistently, so, for efficiency purposes, it only made sense to turn off all parts of me that desired to depend on anyone but myself. I became a micromanager of my wants to mitigate the shame of having them. Granted this didn’t feel particularly fulfilling — but at least assuming such an active role made me feel like I had a choice in the matter.
I adopted a similar mindset when interrogating my feelings — constantly asking myself questions like: is this thought defensible? Are you sure? These are good questions to ask yourself in any scenario except the one where they’re not thoughts and instead feelings. Questioning and then discounting feelings prematurely tends to have the opposite effect of its hyper-rational intention — leaving a person in a loop of confusion, uncertainty, and unmet needs.
Which is all to say, dear friend, I was quiet around you at first not because I didn’t have things to say but because I’m still struggling to trust the integrity of my own voice. Living life in third person means the possibility space of things I allow myself to say and feel are constrained to the aesthetics of how I want to be perceived.
At risk here is ownership of the little thing I call my life. The worst case scenario is that by always living through lenses, I reach fifty having only ever felt success through the eyes of others — the lens permanently tinged by the residue of resentment that comes with realizing other peoples’ desires.
“Women” is too often a broad, blanket term for the opinions of a writer who happens to be female. So, again, in a way, I am hiding. I’ve been pretending, in some way, all along. I knew what I wanted, I just didn’t know I was allowed to want it.
I feel like that a lot as well. It's a hard thing to keep the gift of being able to think in perspectives, but try to get rid of the burdens.
Particularly bad is that this way of living means you avoid new contexts where you don't have a good understanding of how to behave in or how you might be perceived. Just because your control might be at risk. And that's a lot of missed opportunities.
Its a hard pill to swallow for intellectual types when your life might be better with less awareness.
At least it's the one thing people seem to universally get better at while getting older.
girl I thought seeing the world this way was a mental disorder and it's literally the reason I started therapy! thank god!