In the movie “American Beauty” we are compelled to look closer. As the movie progresses, we learn that what appears on the outside to be a normal, happy, well functioning family is crumbling on the inside. What is so remarkable about this movie is how exquisitely it communicates the complexities that lie beneath the surface of one's inner world. Shame, pain, confusion, hope, fear are just some of the hidden, visceral feelings we experience and react to. The movie reflects an extreme contrast between outside and inside.
In real life, the distinction between yours and others’ inner and outer worlds can be far more subtle and less extreme. However, reminding yourself that everyone has their own “look closer”, just like you do, can help you feel less alone with what you perceive as your painfully flawed self.
Often when you’re feeling bad about yourself, you may view the lives of others as so much better than yours by comparison. You perceive other people’s lives, personalities and situations as positive and relatively unchallenged, and imagine that they have fluid, effortless relationships. You use this idealized perception of others’ lives to magnify or highlight your own shortcomings, pain, insecurities, and challenges.
Why do we do this to ourselves? As I’ve written and as many psychologists believe, everything we do no matter how dysfunctional it may seem, is meant in to be self-preserving. But how is magnifying your self-loathing meant to be self-preserving? In fact, the experience of feeling bad about yourself may feel comfortable to you because it’s familiar; it’s something you can control amidst a chaotic and often unpredictable world. However, feeling bad about yourself is also isolating. Magnifying your feelings of self-loathing may make you feel safer and more protected against the uncertainties and challenges of presenting yourself openly to the world, but idealizing others’ lives comes at the expense of your own.
The more extreme the disconnect between the way you present yourself to the world and the way you feel internally, the more you may view others as having achieved an unrealistic ideal that you could never match. With this distorted belief system in place, you may not be able to access that just like you, everyone has painful personal experiences relative to their own lives and their own histories, that affect how they feel and behave below their surfaces and behind closed doors. This distinction between your imperfectness and everyone else’s perfectness can contribute to your sense of isolation. It's a cycle: the further your external and internal experiences get from each other as you struggle to appear "normal" on the outside, the more you can miss the others’ cues that they are struggling along in their own ways too.
Rather, remember and appreciate that how you view the way others present may not accurately reflect their internal experience. Everybody has a look closer. Comparing what you see as your flawed self with your idealized version of others will keep you feeling isolated, which may feel safer on some levels, but often brings with it great despair and aloneness.
When you are fixated on your shame, mistakes, and regrets, it’s easy to slip into a place where you make assumptions about others’ seemingly effortless lives. The comparison compels you to feel stuck. It pulls for you to increase how isolated and stuck you feel. Instead, recognizing others’ “look closers” can help you move from isolation to feeling better integrated in the world, which in turn can help you feel more connected, confident and present.