The Imaginary Audience
Imagine you are part of the ocean. You are part of one gigantic force – but you cannot see the extent of yourself, how far or wide you stretch. You can only see your section of the ocean, and so in your eyes, that is all that exists, and it is also all of you.
But as you move you begin to head towards land
And as you see yourself change position in relation to the land, you begin to notice that you are not everything you see. You suspect that you are the ocean, and that everything else is separate from you.
Then you become a river
You head in land and separate from the big body of water you have always known. Now your understanding of yourself has changed dramatically – you no longer look at yourself as this massive span of water. You are a smaller body of water, flowing in one direction.
But then the river is broken down into streams, and your understanding of the world is shattered now more than ever. You have been separated once from all the things you see into the ocean, and from the ocean to the river, and now a third time from the river to the stream.
You appreciate now that you are a small independent part. You appreciate now that you might not even be the whole stream – but what you do not question yet is your direction. You still believe you must head in the direction that everything else in the stream flows in.
The stream heads through dark ravines and caves – after it goes many places you do not enjoy or wish to go, you slowly become less dependent on the direction of the stream. You decide that you do not like where it is going, and so you start to head in a different direction.
And now you realise just how small you really are.
You are a drop of water, then a droplet, and then a single particle.
As you look down at the stream, you see all your family and friends who continue in the same direction, never realising they too are a particle. They go on thinking that they have understood the truth about their existence.
As a single particle, you can move in whichever direction you want. And once you realise this and separate yourself from the stream, you become so light that you evaporate – turning into vapor. Detached from all around you, you rise up to the sky.
You look at things from above and then when you gather together again, you are dropped back down into the ocean as rain.
A Thousand Spectators
There once lived a boy, and the boy attended a school with a thousand students. When the boy would stumble in the playground, he would hear a thousand scornful students laughing at him.
When the boy wore his brother’s tattered hand-me-down clothes, he felt the judgemental eyes of a thousand students upon him as he walked into class.
When he dated cool girls, he sensed a thousand students being impressed. He could imagine them talking about him at break and online after school – caught in jealousy and admiration all at the same time.
But whenever he would look around at the thousand students, he would never see or hear laughter, judgement or snickering. When he looked over their conversations and listened to their whispers, his name never came up.
It began to seem as if no one cared what he did. Which begged the question… maybe they thought him a complete waste of time altogether.
The 2020 film Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall sent to a mental asylum on a remote island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of their dangerous patients. .
Spoiler alert – Daniels investigation turns out to be quite pointless. It so happens that he is not a US Marshall, but in fact one of the patients himself, caught in a vivid self-imposed delusion.
The author Robert Greene writes that we humans are all biased in our self-opinion. We want to believe three things:
That we are autonomous and act of our own free will
That we are intelligent, in our own way
That we are good and decent people.
In Shutter Island, DiCaprio’s character devises a delusion that paints him in this way, hiding from himself the truth; that he murdered his own family.
We see irrational justifications and blame all the time when people do not want to admit they are wrong – delusions are the most powerful manifestation of that. They are often shaped by the need for a more powerful narrative, to tell them a story that will protect their self-opinion.
We are each susceptible to ego; to unhealthy beliefs in our own importance. Our ego will tell us the grandest of stories if allowed to.
The Imaginary Audience
The Imaginary Audience is a finding from studies run by David Elkind and colleagues in the 1960’s, which referred to adolescents who held the idea that others were heavily focused on them – carefully observing and scrutinising their every move.
They believe that family, friends, peers and strangers are constantly paying close attention to them. Of course, this is rarely the case – few people care as much about you and what you do as you think.
The consequences of the Imaginary Audience are often negative – becoming overly self-conscious and tending towards conformity. It explains a lot of teenage delinquency.
At the start of this piece we discussed the water particle analogy, to paint a popular psychological theory of how we gain consciousness over our leaves, gradually detaching our identity from things around us.
But this experience can give us a sense of nakedness and exposure – as if being forced from the comfortable home we were used to, left cold and hungry, we are desperate to fit in and belong to the group – hence we become overly sensitive to the eyes of others – of the Imaginary Audience.
Today, we must call for a sense of perspective. This is a phase for most, one we must be guided through with care and affection – in fact the audience we must perform for is in fact an Audience-of-None.