If you also happen to be an expat grappling with speaking a language that isn't your mother tongue then you'll know what I mean when I say that there are often words in your native language that you can find no direct translation for.
I've been living in Berlin for eight months now and my flatmate and I tend to have really long, deep and meaningful conversations and so I come across these "untranslatable terms" fairly often.
Being the utterly unconfident person that I am, one such term that repeatedly comes up during these late night heart-to-hearts is the word "self-conscious". The thing is, I can never seem to find a German word that is an exact match with "self-conscious".
In German "self" is "selbst" and "conscious" is "bewusst". So put the two together and you get self-conscious, right? Of course not. The funny thing is "selbst-bewusst" is an actual German word, but it means the exact opposite of self-conscious. If someone is selbst-bewusst, they are confident and self-assured. Mind blown.
And although you may be thinking, okay so I don't know the exact word for "self-conscious", but there are so many other alternatives I could use instead. And I did try. The closest I could think of was "gehemmt" which means inhibited or "unsicher" which means unsure but nothing which evokes this idea of being acutely aware of yourself in quite the same the way that "self-conscious" does.
For me the term self-conscious is the best way of describing how focused I am on myself, my actions, my words and how this ultimately disconnects me from things outside of myself. It's sad but it's a pretty key part of my vocabulary.
Yet I get the impression that people don't really regard the word "self-conscious" with the same seriousness that I do. People typically think of it in terms of being insecure about a perceived flaw, often a physical one. For instance, people may feel self-conscious if they think that they're having a "bad hair day" and that others will judge them for it. But for me it's much more intense than that. The truth is I am literally more "conscious" of my "self" than I am of anything else when I am in a social situation, so much so that I often lose touch with what's going on around me.
Being self-conscious manifests itself in two main ways for me. On the one hand, it's something that I actively engage in; I am constantly scrutinising my words, actions and appearance in my head. But underneath all that, it's also just a feeling I have, a feeling that is hard to put into words. When I am in a social situation that makes me anxious, I'm well aware that I'm fully there but it sort of feels like I'm not. Sometimes it feels as if half of me is in the situation and half of me is nowhere at all. I'm in the situation just enough to vaguely follow the topic of conversation (if at all) but not enough to fully engage with people. Other people are "fully there" and are able to appreciate the situation for what it is, and interact accordingly, in a way that I am not.
I often feel that I live a watered-down existence. I'm a shadow of myself. Never truly being there in the moment. As though there's an invisible wall blocking me from getting through to everyone and everyone getting through to me. I remain inwardly focused and everything just goes over my head.
Having this feeling of being only "half" inside of the situation, I find it so difficult to concentrate during conversations. It's difficult as "not enough of me" is there to make the effort to engage with people. And what typically happens after I zone out is that I am then unaware of where the conversation's at, am thus unable to give an appropriate response and ultimately have to latch on to whatever words I did pick up and hope that my reply is somewhat fitting.
But then even when I have managed to pay attention, I continue to be at a loss. I am so introspective that responding spontaneously is almost impossible for me. Everything I say has to be carefully planned and worded in my head. I need time to process the information I've been given. The trouble is you don't get time to "process" anything; you have to respond on cue. How else can you have a flowing conversation?
But the thing is I know that I am able to have fulfilling and flowing conversations because there are a couple of people in my life with whom I am completely unfiltered; with whom I am not at all self-conscious. I often think to myself, those who only know the self-conscious me, would be shocked at just how cheeky I can be.
Unfortunately when I am self-conscious, the things that would otherwise occur to me to do and say simply don't occur to me. It's like I lose the ability to be who I am. Any idea I have about myself; my opinions, interests, potential anecdotes etc. completely go out the window. It's pretty sad when all you want is to be authentic, to share things and to connect with people.
The funny thing is people often tell me I'm brave for moving to a different country on my own. But I don't feel brave. Being so trapped within myself robs me of any courage I might have had otherwise. I know that ultimately I'm the only one with the key to release myself... and what a liberating day it will be when I do.
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