What If Nobody Was Looking?

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We talk about self-awareness as this gorgeous thing. But, it has a dark side…


To know who we are, to be aware of our presence, gifts, desires, strengths, values, traits, tells and smells. All the yadda yadda yadda that makes us uniquely us. How others affect us, and we them. Knowing these is a good thing, right?

Self-awareness gives us the raw data to better align our actions with our essence, to step into and bring that gorgeous, essential self to the world. To see and be seen, as we are. For who and what we are.

Then, why do many “self-aware” people still live flatlined lives?

I’ve wondered about this for years. I’d see it all the time when I was more deeply embedded in the world of meditation and yoga. How can we know ourselves deeply, yet walk through life largely unexpressed and disconnected from a life of purpose and potential?

Turns out, awareness is the precursor to a realized life, but it’s not the entire answer.

In fact, there’s a potential dark side to becoming self-aware that nobody talks about. It sets in somewhere around late toddlerhood. We move from something akin to pure, in-the-moment consciousness to becoming aware that we exist as separate beings and sweet mother of gluten-free honey-nut cheerios, someone might be watching…and judging.”

Self-awareness comes with an evil twin, self-judgment, which, for many, tips into fear, censorship and self-loathing with stunning efficiency.

The same thing that allows us to see ourselves as unique humans and choose to craft decisions and actions that light us up, also breeds near mortal fear of choosing and being “wrong” and being cast out for our violation of the perceived conformist norm.

So we just choose not to choose. Or, we choose based on what we think others want us to choose. It’s not that we lose our self-awareness, it’s that we subjugate its expression in the name of fitting in.

Self-awareness, alone, does not necessarily breed self-expression. In fact, without the third leg of the awareness “Self Stool”—self-esteem—it often breeds contempt, repressed emotion and all the gut-wrenching the comes along with these angsty bedfellows.

Awareness is the seed of expression, but esteem is the water that allows it to flower.

Then, how do we “get” esteem? How do we arrive at a place where we take ourselves importantly enough, love ourselves enough, validate our inner workings at a level that fuels the courage to wear them on our sleeves?

There are tomes written on the topic, especially in the context of kids. And, a debate rages on about the building of esteem based not on demonstrated merit, but on lavish and universal praise. No doubt, one-side of the esteem puzzle is the process of building ourselves up.

But, I wonder about the other side of esteem. The thing rarely explored. What if part of it is building ourselves up, but another part is building ourselves down? Bundling self-love with a healthy dose of self-levity. Rather than elevating ourselves to the level of demigod worth watching, what if we actually stepped into the fact that, very often, nobody is really looking.

What if our gloriously developed sense of self-awareness forgot to tell us that we may be the center of our universe, but not so much “the” universe. That if we screw up, and we will, over and over and over, there might not be a whole lot of people hanging around to judge us?

And, even if there are, with the average attention span ranging somewhere between that of a bat and a gnat, that judgment will very likely be whisked into judgment lost sock land long before we ever realize nobody cares any more, if they ever did.

What if we discovered that the real altered reality was the one where we freaked out about being judged and the true reality was the one where it just didn’t matter anywhere near the level we feared. Nor, for better or worse, do we? That we are a beautiful moment of consciousness in a vast sea of humanity and maybe it’d be okay to take ourselves just a little less seriously? That we can still be respected, loved, do great work, but still not be center-of-the-universe important in the lives of every person in existence.

Can you even imagine what you might do or try or make if you knew nobody was looking?

Yes, the self-love/building-up/taking yourself seriously part of self-esteem helps equip us to see them looking, but just not care. But, what about the other part?

What if part of the answer was less about building ourselves up, and more about lightening up?

It’s funny, for some odd reason, when I think about the embodiment of this, Kate Hudson’s character, Penny Lane, from the movie Almost Famous comes to mind. Maybe it was the whole free-love, just roll with it hippie thing.

Maybe it was the sense that, “I’m gonna dance like nobody’s watching, because life is too short not to.”

Maybe it was the moment Penny turned to the 16 year old “journalist” on the band bus who’d been trying like hell to be “respected,”and now just wanted to be home, when she gazed deeply into his eyes, the corners of her mouth rising into that Muse-like grin as she fanned her fingers out before him. “Poof,” she offered, “you ARE home.”

What if it was just that easy?

What if home was this place, these people, this moment, minus the stifling self-importance?

As the great philosopher, Dr. Seuss, once told me, and yes, I know for a fact he was talking specifically to me when he wrote it because I’m that important (#kidding), “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

What if, just for a day, we could point the spotlight somewhere else, like nobody was watching? Even if they were? What if we could take ourselves just a bit more lightly?

We just might discover something.

Unedited, unadorned, unfiltered.

You. Are. Enough.

As always, just thinking out loud, working ideas in realtime. What do you think?


The image accompanying this essay shows a stunning 3D-printed “Dreamer Mask” that was created for me by the incredibly kind and gifted, artist, designer and technologist, Melissa Ng. It’s a mask designed not to hide, but rather to embolden you to step into your dreams, the ones you rarely ever share, for fear of being judged.

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20 responses

20 responses to “What If Nobody Was Looking?”

  1. Jennifer says:

    Amusing coincidence. I just saw Almost Famous for the first time last night, and then this in my inbox this morning with your mention of Penny Lane from the movie.

    Some good points here about how self-awareness not being all that we need to live authentically. What if no one were watching? For some reason, my mind sees this as a sad thing. That this would require being utterly alone in the world, and then what would our work, or expression be for?

    As social animals, there’s always going to be a dance between our need to be authentic to ourselves, and the need to feel belonging within our tribes.

    As Willa Cather puts it: “One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbor’s household, and, underneath, another — secret and passionate and intense — which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them.” (as seen on Brainpickings this morning).

    So it seems one of the tasks of life is to figure out how to work with that tension between self and other, how to blend it such that we are not lost to ourselves in a constant tug-of-war.

  2. Gail Mooney says:

    Thank you! You brought me home.

  3. Heather says:

    Just as your great philosopher wrote for you, I often feel you are writing for me. People tell me that I am “so smart and understand myself so well”. I have grown cynical of self discovery at times. I’ve been waiting for years for the sense of enlightenment that I assumed came from knowing and accepting ones self…. Without adding esteem and removing more judgement, I won’t progress. Thank you so much for this! Perfect timing as always.

  4. Wayne says:

    This. Is. Beautiful.

  5. Jim Mondry says:

    Thank you Jonathan, your writing is always inspiring.
    I would like to add a third dimension to what you are considering – the gift of self-compassion and self-confidence. To me, these are also critical in helping us step up and into the spot-light: the self-confidence in that we have something worth saying/speaking/creating, and the self-compassion to be willing to do it in an imperfect way. Yes it is a matter of seeing yourself in the balance between “in the center of the universe, but not the universe”, AND a willingness to fulfill yourself through your effort. Based on my experience over the past two years, it’s a matter of practice in being willing to see that as an individual, I (and every other individual) am responsible for my own sense of self-worth, regardless of the accolades (or lack there of).
    I have to make a daily choice to believe that I can create/speak/write something worth saying, and doing so is a gift I give. I intentionally use the word “gift”, because like a true gift, I haven’t “earned” it, or purchased it, or done anything else to be deserving of it, other than by nature of my existence I can choose to acknowledge my worthiness.

    I hope that made some sense.

    Thanks for everything you do with GLP/RevU, etc.

  6. Kevin says:

    I quite like the way you’ve written this; enjoyable to read.
    I also am intrigued by the idea of your 3 legged stool – awareness, judgment, and levity.
    I will be pondering this stool and it’s implications for the next few months I’m sure.
    Thank you.

  7. We are all on a different playing field when it comes to our self awareness level, confidence and self love.

    I appreciate what Jennifer wrote above as she explains how sad and lonely it would be if no one was looking. The self expressions of dance for example is a gift that I personally would be sad about if I could not watch. It is after all so beautiful. I think this is too literal.

    I see life not solely from my own eyes but also from my teen daughter’s perspective and how she is struggling at sharing her inner self with the world. For myself, a kid in an adults body, I need to continue to pretend that nobody is looking. It was a revelation that I came to me in my 20’s. I saw some young adults having fun while I was always on my best behavior, never wanting to draw attention to myself. What I noticed is they were smiling and I was not. It was then that I began my journey into the bright side of self awareness but realized like Jonathan that there was indeed a dark side that existed in the same dimension.

    As the years have gone by, I wanted to understand why I was so shut off to expression. It was a conscious decision coupled with inspiration that ignited within me to go through life as if nobody was watching. It was after all out of judgement that I was shut off. I judged myself. I wondered “what would if feel like to live life like I didn’t care what people thought of me.” To experience that, I needed to love myself and feel that the full expressions of life should not be judged by anyone. I would commit to shutting off the dark side of self-awareness. It lingers still some times and pulls me in it’s clutches.

  8. Thank you Jonathon for this beautiful piece of writing. I muse at the timing and application to my life right now. Perhaps it is worthwhile opening up a curiosity around the conserving nature of being human. To live within our communities there is always an element of conserving our place in that community. While humans also have a natural tendency to transform, which is why we are so progressive as a society, we don’t necessarily activate that natural tendency. Perhaps choosing not to choose, or choosing based on what we think others want us to choose stems from only being able to observe from the narrow view of our community of practice. When we begin to observe differently, when we become aware, transformation becomes possible – doesn’t mean we’re always going to transform though. I for one am in my own tug of war around making some life decisions that will change things not only for me, but for family and friends. So as I sit in a mood of confusion, it is not my self-awareness that stifles me, it is the tearing away from what’s always been and what will change, when I change. To make this change I must not only recognise but step aside from the story I have have run for a long time that “I must be everything to everyone”. If I’m not prepared to run a different story I will continue to seek to maintain the status quo for fear of letting go of “all that I am”. I have an interpretation that self confidence resides there. Thank you for opening up this conversation Jonathon.

  9. josh langley says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this Jonathon, as tomorrow is the launch of new kids book ‘Being You is Enough and other important stuff’. http://www.frogandthewell.com/

    Wonderful synchronicity.

    It’s such a simple and important message for people of all ages.

  10. Jane M says:

    Thanks Jonathan. There is so much to think about it in this post!

    The constant push-pull between who we are and what it takes to fit into society, make friends, and be in relationships is a fascinating one. How far is too far when it comes to full self-expression? I have known people who openly expressed their inner selves and it’s not always pretty!

    On the other hand, when you see a musician opening their heart fully to an audience, it can be the most transformational experience in the world. Yet, there is an audience and the artist is fully aware that they are being watched… so, in that case, people watching may draw more self-expression from that person than without anyone there to hear.

    Finally… the idea of “What if home was this place, these people, this moment…” is perfect for my state of life right now. As an incurable traveler, I am always experiencing the tug-of-war between adventure and family/home. When I am on the road, it is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to be back home and when I am at home, the road seems unbearably tantalizing. I practice being “in the moment” or at least “in the place” I am in as much as I can.


  11. Seth says:

    I needed this. Printed and taped into my journal to reread again. Often.

  12. Tom Kelly says:

    “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

    Perfect ~ Thanks.


  13. Evie Burke says:

    I’m reading Tara Brach’s book “Radical Acceptance” and I *just* started the second chapter where she talks about this, that self-awareness (mindfulness) alone isn’t enough.
    She talks about there being two parts of genuine acceptance that are like two wings of a great bird: seeing clearly (mindfulness) and holding our experience with compassion.
    “If we were to bring only the wing of mindfulness to our process of Radical Acceptance, we might be clearly aware of the aching in our heart, the flush of range in our face; we might clearly see the stories we are telling ourselves-that we are a victim, that we will always be alone and without love. But we might also compound our suffering by feeling angry with ourselves for getting into that situation in the first place. This is where the wing of compassion joins with mindfulness to create a genuinely healing presence. Instead of pushing away or judging our anger or despondency compassion enables us to be softly and kindly present with our open wounds.”

  14. Nelu Mbingu says:

    You gave me a new perspective with which to look at myself here. I do struggle a lot with self-esteem and self-loathing. And as it turns out, nobody really cares about all my “faults”. Nobody is judging me because they’re all busy living their own lives and being the center of their own universes.

    It’s a freeing kind of perspective.

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ll be keeping an eye on this blog cause I really like the way you think.

  15. Sheket says:

    Great piece! Referred here by Brenda’s site.

    I’ll be passing this on to my daughters.

  16. Tina Greene says:

    Nailed it!! I’ve thought about this a lot. And I mean a lot. Because one of the things I struggle with is my fear that no one will notice what I’ve done, am doing. It’s almost worse sometimes than the fear of being judged. Both are way less present in my life now than they used to be, but oh my goodness…it’s hard to accept that just maybe I am not the center of the universe AND it is incredibly FREEING. If no one is watching, who cares what I do? ME! And that’s enough. AND, everyone has this same challenge. So when people ignore me, I don’t so often go to self-judgement anymore. I just get curious about what is going on in their life and how I can serve their growth and embodiment.

  17. Jim says:

    Thank you for expressing this so well. I have often steered hard away from the path of self discovery because I was so uncomfortable with what I was finding. Specifically, I have practiced mindfulness meditation off and on (mostly off) for over fifteen years. Over and over I have begun, thoroughly in awe of the profound effects this simple practice can have. It opens doors that seemed impenetrable, puts up mirrors where there had been only darkness, points toward answers I have been seeking. And then I will find a mirror that reflects something uncomfortable, some personal flaw or incongruity that would make it so easy for others (or myself) to judge me as a fake.
    Rather than allowing that perceived flaw to sit before me, to examine it, to hold that uncomfortable tension, I abandon ship. Bail out as quickly and completely as possible. Until the next time I become uncomfortable enough with living the unexamined life that I feel compelled to begin the journey again.
    Thank you for this mirror that you hold up.

  18. Jamie Moyer says:

    Great article and great site! I found you via the Top 100 Personal Development Blog List over on Art of Happiness and I can see why you made the list!

  19. tabby says:

    This is one of those articles you want to share with those you love.I bet if nobody was looking I would be different. Would I be better though? Great read,thank you!