Why do I look at my face all the time when I talk in Zoom?

Is it possible to consider yourself a conceited person if during every call to Zoom you constantly look at your face instead of focusing on other people. Chances are, you are not admiring yourself or considering your appearance. But just … look. How does this affect self-esteem? Should you turn off your camera to avoid becoming a narcissist? Some philosophical reflections on narcissism and what it means to “exist” for other people.

Dear friend!

Disabling the camera may seem like the easiest solution, but we would not advise doing it, we would even strongly recommend not doing it. As far as we know, when someone’s image disappears from the gallery, it almost always causes pain, horror, and in some cases deep existential despair, similar to what, according to Vladimir Nabokov, he himself experienced when he came across family photos. made before his birth. In other words, it feels like you no longer exist.

The broader question of the possible “side effects” of staring at yourself all day is more complex and goes beyond the question of whether you are a narcissist, which, we dare to assume, is unlikely. The fear of narcissism, at least in a clinical sense, disqualifies itself: only those who do not fit the definition worry about being narcissists. Either way, you are not alone in your obsession with this. People who would never have thought to look at their photo for more than a few seconds nevertheless report that they cannot take their eyes off the picture of their face floating on the screen during online classes or parenting meetings – concern about this a question so strong that this self-adoration remains an unconvincing explanation. Perhaps a more pressing question is not what the platform is doing with your image of yourself, but what has already happened to it, since you, like many others, cannot stop staring at your pixel reflection.

Zoom is certainly not a regular mirror, or even a regular digital mirror. The “I” that you encounter on these platforms is not a static, balanced image that you are used to seeing in a bathroom mirror or on a selfie on your phone – a blank sheet on which you can project your fantasies and where you can flatter yourself – and the person who speaks and laughs gestures and reacts.

It is rather strange to remember how rarely we could observe ourselves in action until recently. In the past, you could occasionally catch a glimpse of yourself laughing in the mirror of a bar, or momentarily distract yourself by seeing in the mirror in a supermarket talking to a salesperson behind you. But just a year ago, we became constantly, mercilessly, forced to observe ourselves in real time while communicating with others, to see our frightened looks, sympathetic nods, emotional gestures that turned out to be so different from what we imagined, if we at all they were imagined.

“Oh, if some unknown force could give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us!” – wrote the poet Robert Burns in 1786, a virtuous call for objective self-knowledge that is increasingly controversial for most of us.

In general, the technological “forces” of our time have given us the opposite ability: to make others see us as we see ourselves. We’re used to being in complete control of our image: the angle of the shot, the filter carefully chosen from hundreds of frames, and yet despite this or perhaps because of this, there is something exciting about the “unfiltered” spontaneity of Zoom. The person you see there is not a malleable reflection of your ego, but the most elusive of all entities: the “I” that you become in an unexpected social contact, when all your intentions fall away; The self that has always been familiar to your friends, family, and buddies, while remaining largely invisible to you, its owner.

This desire – to see yourself as others see you – is by no means self-indulgence, but is critical to building and maintaining a vibrant sense of identity. Without going deep into theory and unnecessary references to Lacan, let us briefly mention that mirrors have a social function, since they allow you to reveal “yourself” as someone else and look at yourself from the outside. The ability to pass the mirror test – the moment when children stop seeing themselves as disparate assemblies of body parts and recognize their entire image in the mirror – is a crucial rite of passage that marks the child’s entry into the social sphere. The self is a fragile illusion that requires constant reinforcement, and this reinforcement most often occurs through the gaze of other people; it is a process known in sociology as the “mirror self.” We shape our identity, for the most part, by imagining how others see us and reflecting on their judgments about us.

One aspect of your past life that you probably didn’t pay attention to was the thousands of gestures and reactions, mostly subtle and subconscious, that contributed to your sense of a whole, continuous self: a discreet thank you from a person squeezing past taking you on the subway, brief eye contact with a colleague walking past your desk, laughing at your joke at a party. Although you were not forced to literally observe how you interact with others, you saw yourself in a mirror image through these intersubjective moments, and they all served, in a very real sense, as proof that you still exist – not just as a surrounding consciousness, but as a real embodied presence in the world.

It seems no coincidence that the most common complaints of social isolation – a feeling of being scattered and fragmented, not being able to remember what you did on a particular day – are recognizable symptoms of the destruction of the social self. After spending most of the day alone in front of various screens, we all too easily begin to believe that we are just a pair of hands moving across the keyboard, a pair of eyes scanning the news feed, a mind whose boundaries with the virtual world in which we live are blurred. more. The window with our image in Zoom suddenly turns out to be a kind of holding anchor, and by removing it, we confirm our greatest fear – that we have actually disappeared into thin air.

All of this means that your obsession with the way you look probably stems from a completely natural and, in fact, pro-social impulse. You are trying to maintain an identity that has been gradually deteriorating as a result of recent disruptions in social life. Maintaining this identity not only has nothing to do with the manifestation of vanity, but in itself is extremely important. The ability to see ourselves in the mirror of other people is in a complex way connected with the ability to empathize and with the construction of a coherent reality – a common belief that there are objective truths outside the solipsism of our individual mind. That is why, in cases of complete isolation, people often lose the ability to determine what is real and what is imaginary, and no longer see a clear boundary between themselves and external objects.

We do not mean that you should spend even more time looking at yourself during calls. But the impulse can serve as a reminder of a collective need for mutual recognition – a need, probably felt by all others, in the gallery of windows of video call participants. This may prompt you to remember that they also have a weakened sense of identity; that the standard technical questions that accompany every login (“Can you see me?”, “Can you hear me?”) may express a deeper impulse. The great thing about Zoom is that the mirror is double-sided. Each nod, each reciprocal gesture serves as a reminder to the speaker that they exist for other people, that they remain vital in the world that we all inhabit together.

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