Reclaiming Self-Consciousness

I recently bought a new pair of workout pants. My old pair was made from a surprisingly breathable nylon-esque fabric, featured several handy-dandy pockets, and was a style that flattered my figure … if you don’t count the waistband. That waistband dug into my midsection like a vole digs into the loamy spring earth: With GUSTO.* And eventually, I got tired of feeling segmented and self-conscious and bought a new pair with a less constricting waistband that make me feel much less segmented and self-conscious.

And I was thinking about this as I pedaled home on my bike last week. And I must’ve been thinking it pretty close to how I’ve typed it above, because my brain got stuck on its own word choice: Self-conscious.

Negative connotations, right? You hear “self-conscious” and you think, “hyper-vigilant about the perceptions of others, ill-at-ease, uncomfortably focused on one’s own flaws.” Self-conscious, in this day and age, has really come to mean self-critical.

Now, I realize that I get my dander up about word choice and the power of language fairly frequently. I do that because I believe that words can both hurt and heal, and that many people – myself included – seldom acknowledge the power that a single sentence can hold.

But this one? This one is personal.

I spent years feeling fragmented and unfocused, unsure of any aspect of myself that couldn’t be measured by external input. When I was in school, I had grades to tell me I was smart. I had auditions for plays and musical groups to tell me I was talented. Eventually, I had lovers to tell me I was sexy (though I never REALLY believed them). For most of my young life, I had no understanding of my true self – no real consciousness of my identity – outside of what others told me.

Then I graduated college and entered the workforce. Then I left my boyfriend in San Francisco and moved to Minneapolis alone, knowing no one. And then I began to awaken.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began to assimilate talent, intellect, and body into my personal identity. It wasn’t until I realized that no one was going to build my muscles or floss my teeth for me that I started caring for my body like a friend. It wasn’t until I’d job-hopped enough to confirm my own efficiency and effectiveness that I began demanding regular raises. It wasn’t until I’d spent some time as a singleton that I realized my beauty had nothing to do with anyone other than ME. It wasn’t until I started buying flattering clothes almost by accident that I realized how powerfully my style could influence my emotional well-being. Slowly but surely, I became conscious of the building blocks that made me unique and whole.

I have FOUGHT to be self-conscious. I have worked to understand and accept myself, to identify my own core attributes and to love them. When I was not conscious of myself, I felt timid and weak. I didn’t trust my opinions or place any value on my talents or look at myself in the mirror to make sure I was doing my body justice. When I hid from my own identity, I floundered. And when I became aware and engaged and CONSCIOUS of myself, that’s when I began to blossom.

And as silly as it may sound, it pisses me off that the very term has become imbued with negativity. Why should consciousness of self be shameful? How can we possibly understand and love ourselves, capitalize on our own untapped potential, or find our personal paths to happiness if we are not self-conscious? I realize that there are plenty of other similar terms – self-aware, self-confident, and others – that mean what I want self-conscious to mean. But the outraged linguist in me wants to know who decided that a consciousness of self, specifically, should equate to doubt, discomfort, and fear.

I remember a time when a friend stopped me as I was leaving her office. I was wearing a short dress and heels, as I was wont to do at the time.

“You have GREAT legs, you know,” she informed me.

And I paused. Because I had been thinking that about myself for a couple of months, and was choking on my modest, deflecting, stock response that was based entirely on fear of looking like a self-absorbed jerkwad.

“Thank you! I do, don’t I? I didn’t always, but a couple years of biking works wonders!”

It felt entirely weird to say that, and I still wonder if my friend was taken aback by my sassy reply. But it also felt like I was entering a new phase of awareness in which I actually took credit for my physical triumphs in addition to my intellectual ones. A new level of self-consciousness – the good kind – was opening up before me.

None of this means I’ll be reverting to my old, midsection-segmenting workout pants. But it does mean that I will think about how they made me feel in different terms. Those pants made me feel uncomfortable and awkward, and like it was time to buy a better-fitting pair.

My life has made me feel self-conscious, and because of that self-consciousness I know that I am blessed and blessed and blessed.

*We have a vole problem in our backyard so I couldn’t help throwing in a vole reference. Also, I love the word vole. Say it out loud and TELL me it isn’t an awesome word. Vole, vole, vole, vole, vole. Additionally, vole.

Originally posted 2009-05-26 05:56:00.

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44 Responses to “Reclaiming Self-Consciousness”

  1. Sher

    With your great legs, you might try an anklet or two 🙂 I’ve been told I have fat ankles and I still wear a few. Especially at a dinner dance in high heels.

  2. Judith

    You certainly have a way with words. And encouragement. I love this kind of post. Thank you.

  3. eednic

    Reading this reminds me of how I used to feel about myself so many years ago! But maybe it wasn’t so long ago! It’s amazing what time, perspective, self-focus (er consciousness rather), and self-care can do for someone! When I was younger, I was most likely thinner, might have even had a better body, yadda yadda…but did I “care” for myself? Not so much! It truly is an awakening when you learn to become not only self-sufficient, but also when you start doing the things that you enjoy regardless of what other people think about those things! I’m probably just blabbering, but I think it’s about enjoying life and enjoying yourself! It’s taken me such a long time to get to a place like this emotionally and mentally, but I really like it and I think you described it perfectly!

  4. Diana

    Amazing and inspiring post – I think I’ve been through a similar journey myself, and I’m just starting to get to the point where I stop letting others define me. I used to be so insecure, that I desperately clung to the approval of others to feel good about myself. I still feel that way on occasion, but I think that overall I’ve become much stronger in recognizing and loving who I am, regardless of grades, approval, or pants size. But it’s an ongoing process, you know? I don’t think it’s ever really over.

  5. Cupcakes and Cashmere

    what an interesting idea that being self conscious can simply mean that you’re aware of yourself and that not all of that thinking is spent on negative things. btw, i love your ‘sassy’ response…isn’t it such a treat when you compliment someone and they actually accept it with a little bit of humor? it makes giving the compliment that much more sweeter.

  6. WendyB

    “like a vole digs into the loamy spring earth” — dying!

  7. Melissa de la Fuente

    You are awesome Sal! And I love that you are reclaiming the word “self-conscious” Thanks for this Sal and for your honesty!
    ps vole, vole,vole 🙂

  8. Make Do Style or Film Upstart

    Good subject matter – self conciousness is a good choice – it does suggest an awareness and regard. V. positive plus you’ve made me feel better about potentially blowingthe budget as your glads are more expensive than mine!!

  9. Christina Lee

    wow actually accepting a compliment- nice work, girlie!!!!

  10. Brittney

    I love this post. I enjoy reading your blog but I really think the way you worded this post makes this my favourite thing you’ve said so far.

    It’s so true, as someone who is claiming my own self-consciousness, and taking care of my body for the first time as an ‘adult’, and I love that you’ve articulated it as a reminder.

    I’m just sad that this is something we can’t really teach our children and friends, you have to discover it for yourself.

  11. Sheila


    I love that you embraced the compliment from Tiff! I spent so many of my younger years pushing away compliments (both verbally and mentally), and being self-conscious (in a negative way) of everything about my appearance. Now…bring it on! I unabashedly love my body.

  12. Allison

    I’m pretty sure I want to marry you, sweet Sal…except for the fact that 1) we’re both married to men and 2) it’s not quite legal in every state.

    Well said – as usual. And, you totally rule.

  13. The Budget Babe

    such a well written post. follow up questions: what’s the history of the word “self-conscious” and why did it come to mean self-critical rather than self-aware? that’s your next assignment 😉

  14. Clare

    I love this post, Sal. I am in a constant struggle between fighting my tendency to be self-conscious and embracing it. I feel like there’s a bit of a balance that has to be struck, and it seems like it takes years of fluctuating before settling on the productive kind of self-consciousness. I love that you’re calling attention to this, as I think it’s something that most women take to be very negative. Being conscious of one’s body, as you said, can be incredibly empowering and positive.

  15. The Raisin Girl

    Awww, voles are cute. I once did a pencil sketch of a vole for an art class.

    I love this post. Not only do I love to examine the root meanings and various connotations of words, I really do think you bring up an excellent point. Self-consciousness is the essential ingredient to self-love.

    Another good word people mistake is “egoism.” It’s actually completely different from “egotism.” Egoism is awareness of one’s own mind and one’s value as an individual.

  16. Sharon Rose

    Hi there-I do think self confidence improves with age too, I feel more comfortable with myself now and more self assured than 20 years ago, especially with my dress sense!

  17. elena-lu

    i know thati am bless as well and i have slowy come to be able to say i love myself its a wonderful feeling to have self love but it sure does take a lot of work to get there doesnt it?!

  18. Winnie

    I love this and it is so inspiring as always. I think like most of us, I can be quite self concious but you’ve inspired me to accept the next compliment and say, ‘Yeah you’re right!’


    Sal, you brought me to tears! sob-sob!! Love this touching post I can relate darling…hugging the PC screen for you… sincerely ~XO*


    …PS: Thank goodness for waterproof Mascara! Amen!!

  21. futurelint

    Very good points as always Sal! I think of myself as a self-conscious person I guess in both good and bad ways. I loved your little side on voles… it is a nice word, much better than mole.

  22. pretty face

    I don’t really have anything constructive to add… and you know I have NO qualms about disagreements with your body posts, but seriously, this post is 100% awesome. And as you said, the power of words is great. x

  23. lisa

    Interesting! I’d never thought about self-consciousness this way but you’re right. Positive self-consciousness is an important step to loving and taking care of yourself.

  24. Roo

    I did a values exploratory with a career coach a couple months ago and my top value was consciousness – both of self & others. To me, this word, this value, is not about looking for bad things or being overly critical. It is about acknowledgment, and understanding… and acceptance.

    this was a really beautiful post.

  25. Christy

    I loved this post. I’ve been thinking about something similar a lot recently…I cart my daughter around with me wherever we go, and people are always complimenting her, and me with her, and I always graciously accept these compliments. Makes me think about how hard I find it to accept compliments on just me. Anyway, great post, as usual!

  26. Audi

    Wonderful post, Sal. And what a great way to take a compliment!

    I think you should offset your vole problem by telling as many people about it as possible, thus maximizing your enjoyment of the word “vole.” Plus, you can always be grateful that they’re not gophers.

  27. a cat of impossible colour

    Vole vole vole! Great post, Sal, thank you. 😀

    A xx

  28. La Belette Rouge

    Voles have love in them if you just move a few letters around.;-)

  29. missKaren

    I’ve discovered that being aware of yourself is a wonderful thing. It gives reason to what you do, makes your decisions deliberate, allows learning through practice.

    Yesterday a friend said that he learns more about himself through other people than his own awareness. I told him to work on that and to be conscious of his own actions, because it creates control and self-honesty.

    Your blog is so heartwarming always. Even when I have no time to check my other favorites, I always read yours. Even from the beach in San Diego this weekend, I snagged my friend’s Blackberry to check it. Thanks .

  30. Kate Coveny Hood

    Such a great perspective…to be self conscious in a positive way. The opposite of feeling insecure about your looks isn’t to be completely unware of them.

  31. dapper kid

    Such a beautiful post (I always say that, and it’s always true!). To truly know yourself is to love yourself. I think we all struggle to realise that who we are depends solely on us. We are conditioned to rely on others to give us a sense of self worth, and breaking that way of thinking can be hard. And wow, vole does roll of the tongue nicely 🙂

  32. AsianCajuns

    I liked the use of the word “vole” but I particularly liked the inclusion of “loamy”!

    On to the actual post: this rocks, Sal! I always thought self-conscious was a negative word. I think being conscious of self is a good thing, and your response to your friend is admirable. We should applaud our lady friends who respond in such a way.

  33. Allie

    Ooooh, thanks for this Sal. And sass is one of my favorite ways to respond to compliments. Reading the comments above, we all appreciate this message.

  34. Allie

    Ok, I just realized that comment was so incoherent. I need to eat lunch.

  35. Rosie Unknown

    Awesome post. Personally, I see being self-conscious as knowing your body, like you said, and treating it right. Just like you wouldn’t let your friend buy a dress that was teriblaly unflattering without telling them, you don’t willfully embarrass your body.

  36. Tiffany

    Oh beautiful, beautiful Sal!!!! Not only was I not taken aback by your response, I was so impressed by it! You earned those legs, you OWN ’em, girlfriend! I was so thrilled and happy that you also recognize this fabulous asset (just one of your many fab assets, m’dear!) and embraced the compliment. That is, after all, what we want when we pay someone a compliment–for them to hear it and believe it! You are, as always, such an inspiration, friend. And one with gorgeous gams, at that. 😉 xo

  37. metscan

    I think that your answer to your friend about your fine legs,was a good one. These days I have been thinking a lot about how hard it is for me and so many, to accept compliments. I often say something like no,no and actually this means that I won´t accept a `gift´someone is giving me, and that is rude. Why can´t I and all the rest of us accept compliments ? I´m in the process of trying to change my attitude..