We cannot see ourselves. Even the mirror only shows a reflection, you could say a perception, and that quote from the Scottish poet Robert Burns
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us”
is thoughtful enough to get over the clunk of the way it’s written.
When I was younger I was punishingly self conscious and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but I wonder what people would say or feel if they could see what they do unthinkingly, to which the rest of us are helpless witness. At worst, it’s a kind of psychological dumping.
Small children suck their thumbs or pick their noses and this is usually amended by a handy adult.
Nail biting is harder to correct for the biter and the guardian but we can assume it’s not desirable. I have never heard of it being encouraged.
In the past, a bad habit was controlled where it might be seen. All of us have bad habits – no moral high ground here. There was however tacit agreement that what you did in private was not what you did in public.
But – just as it is no longer unusual to see people go up the road in their nightwear – nightwear that has ceased to be advertised for sleeping but has become what you wear “at home” and may go to bed in – and as millions of us have been busy watching people exhibit themselves warts and all – or maybe just warts – for every kind of camera, there is a gruesome obviousness in flaunting what was once deplored.
A young woman sat grooming herself for the 20 minutes we shared a bus. Simian, she ran her fingers through her hair over and over, shook it out, pushed it back, twisted it round, shook it out again and repeated the process. Like a tic with a pattern incorporating a pause, the routine ran, over and over.
And you know that if by some clever scientific wheeze, you could tint the air so that she could see the dead skin and bacteria she was shedding all over, her mouth would pull into that familiar pout of distaste which people employ when they don’t like what they see but they can’t associate it with themselves. A new take on denial?
I’d like the same idea applied to public transport when people sneeze and cough, not using tissues or handkerchiefs, and are so darned generous with their germs.
But this is passing irritation.
There are more serious forms of personal malpractice, laden with anger turned in or pushed out; perhaps depending upon gender though I suspect it has more to do with individual personalities.
In my casual observation, nail biters are 50/50 male and female but nose pickers are mostly male.
Like the young man who got into a crowded train on a cold day, medium height, attractive, well-cut dark overcoat and sat next to me whereupon for the ten minutes it took to travel two stops, he methodically picked his nose and wiped his fingers on his coat.
Recently in a well known West end store, I went to a saleswoman and asked if I could pay her for something not on her pitch, fished out my wallet and said quietly “I don’t want to buy anything from somebody who is so busy self-cannibalizing.”
Her male colleague’s eyebrows shot up and he went round the corner to look. I explained quietly that the assistant to whom I should logically have gone was busy eating her nails up to the wrist. The man came back shaken to remark “That’s not on, is it?” But it is increasingly common. And if the nose picking is distasteful, the violence of the nail biting is unsettling. So what is this all about?
Are we in the process of losing any notion of personal privacy?
Is this behavior on the spectrum with lab rodents pumped with a stimulant that may attack each other and/or themselves?
Is it about longing to feel relevant and recognised but only feeling insecure, so that you attack yourself – like pinching yourself to make sure you are awake?
In the spirit of morbid curiosity, you may want to see television films about people with all sorts of psychological difficulties, distortions and disabilities. But that’s the box. You can switch it off.
This is life I am looking at and it is harder to get away from.