Who are you trying to impress?

When I first got my electric guitar in ninth grade, there were two things I was thinking about. Because of my eagerness to learn, I wondered how long it would take me to get to the levels of Jimi Hendrix and Robert Plant. Secondly, of course, I thought of how cool I would look to other people. I began daydreaming of effortlessly plucking solo after solo while crowds gathered in awe around me. 

However, three years later, I feel like I’ve learned nothing at all on the guitar, save for a few simple songs. Yet every time I go on YouTube, there seems to be another twelve-year-old who can crank out an almost identical “Enter Sandman” riff…  and they can play the drums…  and sing, on top of it all. Every time I go to grab my guitar to learn a new song, I tell myself that this time I won’t give up. The minute I make a mistake, however, my mind inevitably goes back to those thousands of people on YouTube and the thousands more off of the internet who are all far better players than me. I defeatedly rest the guitar on the stand, adding another half-baked tune to my repertoire. 

After sitting in my own puddle of defeat for a few years now, I’ve come to accept a few things about my nature. To start, it takes me some time to learn new skills I don’t immediately succeed at, a problem I think many of us face. I shrink away when I realize that a song doesn’t sound right, my voice is cracking, or the face I’ve sketched looks ever so slightly warped.

In reality, none of those things are at all uncommon considering the general lack of experience I’ve gotten from always walking away from any obstacle. Above all of this, however, this constant self-deprecation comes from a problem that affects everyone in almost every facet of life. I always feel an imaginary audience around me. I imagine people peering over my shoulder at my mediocre artwork and snickering at my lack of aptitude. They’ve seen the millions of masterpieces on the internet just like I have, and they know that what they are looking at down on the page doesn’t begin to compare. When I’m learning a song but just can’t seem to play fast enough, the audience is back, asking me why I thought I could ever learn the song in the first place. I put the guitar down and get on my phone. I open TikTok, and the first thing I see is a girl my age performing an incredible bass solo. The video has nearly three hundred thousand likes. I don’t touch my guitar for another month. The audience leaves me alone.

At least, the audience leaves me alone regarding my guitar. You see, this internalized outer gaze controls the clothes I wear, how I look before I go to sleep, how my body looks when sitting, and how I eat. This is not to say that nobody else struggles with this issue. In fact, I write this article out of the belief that everyone suffers from the internalized audience that follows them when nobody is actually watching. 

It’s suffocating to always feel as though you are putting on a performance and to feel as though you have to, or else the audience won’t be impressed. Nothing I do feels as though I am truly doing it for myself anymore, especially the guitar. Am I only playing to impress the internalized gaze, or am I actually passionate about it? Am I writing this article authentically, or only to further build this character that I am playing? The more I inquired into the idea, the less genuine I felt every day. I felt like a faker, like the outward appearance I put on was just for show, not because I actually enjoyed my style. I would look around and wonder how many others felt as though they were putting on an act and how many actually were. 

After spending some time on different social media platforms, I came across others who felt the same way. Many women have called it the “internalized male gaze.” They felt as though a man whom they had to impress romantically was always observing them, and therefore everything they did, from brushing their teeth to simply standing, had to seem attractive. It sounded odd to hear at first, until I realized that gaze had applied to me many times. After all, why did I feel the need to look cute before I went to bed? I knew I didn’t have to, and yet many times I would make sure my pimple treatment cream was put on just right and that my retainer didn’t look weird when I smiled. I would even sometimes put on lip tint before promptly going to sleep. It exasperated me. Every night in the mirror, I would ask the same question: “WHO CARES?” I never felt like the “no one” I would usually respond with was actually the right answer. 

Me. It was me who cared. The audience was just me in my head, but it was influenced by the real outer gaze we all have on us in public and carry with us into our solitude. It’s so incredibly hard to let go of outer social influence in our minds. When we constantly feel pressured to act a certain way in public, of course we are going to start adopting that public mode of existing into our private lives. 

Of course our private actions, mundane as they can be, will start feeling like an act after a while because our carefully formed outer selves begin to overshadow our inner selves. We are more comfortable with our private selves because they are able to express our secrets and innermost feelings without feeling ashamed. However, when we bring the public gaze back into our private lives, we start to feel judged and ashamed for what we think, do, and dream. We don’t get to feel passionate without feeling like a fraud, we don’t get to play guitar without having a unique talent for it, and we can’t accept who we are, much less love ourselves.

Now, my advice for you is not simply to aspire to be good enough for yourself instead of others. I’ve heard that many times, never understanding what the phrase was trying to say. What does accepting yourself look like? For me, it means letting go of the audience. As I said, the internalized public gaze is by no means an easy thing to get rid of, but over time, I have learned to silence it. When I make mistakes, before the audience can react, I tell myself (out loud if I have to) that this is a part of learning. I’m the only one looking at this art or listening to myself play the guitar, and therefore, it only matters what I think. So, I tell myself to accept it, not as good or bad, just as mine. Because the art is mine, it’s important. After some time, I started caring less about the value of the things I drew or how I played; I accepted it as mine and moved on. When I put the guitar down, it wasn’t out of defeat but out of boredom. I started to just not care, and it was the most liberated I had felt in years.

Eventually, we start implementing this nonchalance into our outer selves as well. We wear what we want. We take more risks. Most importantly, the weight of the public gaze is lifted off of our shoulders, not just because we realize that nobody is looking at us, but because we accept our inward amplification of the outer gaze and shape it not to judge us but to love us instead. My mom once told me to walk into a room as if everyone loves you, and eventually, they do. This is the power of the internalization of outward perception if used correctly. Accept who you are and what you love. Play guitar badly, make bad art, and write articles with conclusions that sound like they would be on motivational posters. If you let your inner audience love you, then the outer audience will follow suit.