Your colleague is making an interesting point, but it’s not as fascinating as that wrinkle on your forehead that creases when you concentrate.
This year, we’ve spent an unholy amount of time staring at our own reflections on Zoom calls, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and FaceTime. We should be listening to our friends, family or colleagues on these calls, but instead, we’ve become mesmerised by our own faces. If you can’t relate, you’re either an angel or you’re in denial.
“People are inherently interested in themselves and can’t help but look,” says psychotherapist Dr Aaron Balick.
“Until recently, who had the opportunity to see their own reflections back to themselves while reacting live to what’s happening around them? This interest in one’s own face is universal, but it’s also distracting, and if you’re focusing on yourself, you are not giving people your undivided attention, which can be a problem.”
This high level of exposure to our own physicality is not a natural behaviour or experience, adds Counselling Directory member Dee Johnson.
“Normally we can spend so much time avoiding, deleting or editing a single photograph that we feel uncomfortable and self-critical over, yet here we are in a spotlight, observing in real time, with no ability to alter and edit ourselves,” she says. “It’s a bit like watching something that we know feels awful, but we just cannot stop staring.”
When someone else is talking, you may be drawn to your own reflection as a “subconscious checking response”, adds Johnson – by which we’re checking to make sure we’re presenting and responding well. Conversely, we’re also accustomed to focusing on the person who is speaking in any social situation, so when it’s our turn to talk on a video call, we may also be drawn to looking at – yes, you’ve guessed it – our own reflection.
The result, is that many of us have been staring at our own faces for most of our calls, most of the year. And month after month of this behaviour has the potential to alter our sense of self – something that’s been shifting in recent years anyway due to social media.
“We are now very used to seeing images of ourselves either via selfies or photos on other people’s feeds. The self referential nature of everyday life is growing all the time,” says Dr Balick. “I think that now more than ever we are aware of how we appear to others and are conscious of that most of the time.”
How this affects our self-esteem or body image will be directly related to our pre-existing underlying self-perception.
“Confronting one’s image over and over again can exacerbate that existing self-concept,” adds Dr Balick, “whether it continues to inflate narcissism on the one hand, or contributes to negative comparison on the other.”
The cultural shift towards video calls will have been particularly difficult for those with pre-existing body image issues or hang-ups. People who would historically have preferred to be the picture taker rather than the subject now have no choice – everyone must be seen.
“Body image issues are never about vanity, we are our harshest critics,” says Johnson. “It’s like having an internal bully, picking ourselves apart, comparing us to others, feeling resentful, believing that we are not good enough.”
Observing ourselves in real-time – perhaps looking flustered, red faced, nervous or confused in a meeting – has caused some of us to become harsher in our self-observations.
“Where normally it may be a quick check in the mirror – and even that may only be checking a part of your body, like hair or no spinach in your teeth – it feels constant, raw and often overwhelming and anxiety provoking.”
This year has also triggered new body image issues for some people. Johnson has heard from clients worried about being too fat or too thin for the first time, focusing on certain facial features, or how their voice sounds.
“Clients have shared with me that they have faked IT issues or sickness so as not to attend a webcam meeting, thus adding more fear and shame in case they get found out,” she says. Those struggling should seek professional support where possible, Johnson adds.
Staring at our own reflections has impacted our relationship with ourselves, but it also has the potential to impact our relationships with others.
“While I don’t think it’s a major source of miscommunication or relationship breakdown, it is one of the many variables that make dialogue today rich with a variety of distractions that diminish interpersonal complexity, which is so important for our psychological and emotional wellbeing,” says Dr Balick.
An obvious solution to all of this may be to simply hide your own image on video calls (an option on most programmes and apps). But Johnson suggests it might be more helpful longterm to “challenge this avoidance”, learn about yourself and tackle your inner critic like a bully.
“Try and ignore it, as like a bully it’s coming from a distorted insecure place,” she says. “It has no depth, it feels painful, so don’t give it energy.”
Being honest about feeling uncomfortable on screen could also be a positive step, as it’ll invite others to share their experiences. You may discover you’re not alone. You can also re-wire your perception with some gratitude. When a negative thought looms, bat it away with a positive observation, such as “I have a job”, or “I have friends and family to connect with”.
Now is a good time to refresh our basic social skills with a new year’s resolution to try focusing on who is actually speaking during calls, and make a concerted effort to maintain eye contact with audience members when you’re speaking.
“Remember, in a real time situation you would not hold and stare into a mirror in a meeting, a night out with friends or a support group, so get an image of yourself doing this and switch your focus back to being natural,” says Johnson.
“We need to practice this, ready for the day we can embrace being together again.”