Why can’t I stop looking at my own face on the zoom?

Request for support:

I don’t think I’m a particularly conceited person, but whenever I’m on a Zoom call I’m constantly looking at my own face instead of focusing on others. I don’t really admire myself or scrutinize my appearance. I’m just looking. What does it do to my image of myself? Do I have to turn off self-vision to avoid becoming a total narcissist?


Dear seen –

Turning off self-view seems like the easiest solution, but it’s not the one I would recommend – in fact, I strongly advise against it. From what I have heard, the sight of his image disappearing from the gallery inspires, almost universally, anguish, terror and, in some cases, a deep existential despair like that Vladimir Nabokov claims to have felt when he came across family photos taken before. he is born. It feels, in other words, like you don’t exist anymore.

Your larger question – about the possible side effects of staring at you all day – is more complex and goes beyond whether you’re a narcissist, which I’m going to risk is unlikely. (The fear of narcissism, at least in the clinical sense, is self-disqualifying: only those who don’t fit the definition worry about doing it.) It’s not like you’re alone in this fixation, at all. case. People who would never dream of looking at a photo of themselves for more than a few seconds nonetheless report, like you, an inability to look away from their own face floating on the screen during virtual lessons or PTA meetings, a concern so intense that vanity remains, for me at least, an unconvincing explanation. Perhaps the most relevant question is not what the platform does to your self-image, but rather what has happened to it before so that you, like so many others, cannot stop look at your pixelated reflection.

Zoom, of course, is not an ordinary mirror, or even an ordinary digital mirror. The self that confronts you on these platforms isn’t the static, poised image you’re used to seeing in bathroom vanity or your phone’s camera selfie view – a blank slate. upon which you can project your fantasies and illusions – but the ego that talks and laughs, gestures and reacts.

It is strange to remember how rare this view of the self in action was until recently. In your old life, you may have sometimes caught a glimpse of yourself laughing in a bar mirror or been momentarily distracted by the sight of yourself talking to the salesperson standing behind you in the mirror. from the department store. But it wasn’t until a year ago that we were constantly, relentlessly, forced to watch ourselves in real time as we interacted with others, to see our looks of dismay, our empathetic nods, our gestures. passionate people, who all looked so different. the way we imagined them, if we imagined them at all.

“Oh, would any power give us the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us!” wrote the poet Robert Burns in 1786, a virtuous plea for objective self-knowledge over which most of us remain most in conflict. The technological “powers” ​​of our time have basically given us the opposite ability: to make others see us as we see ourselves. We are used to having complete control over our image – the angle, the filter, the carefully selected shot from hundreds – and yet, despite this, or perhaps because of it, there remains something fascinating about the image. Zoom’s unfiltered spontaneity. The person you see there is not the docile reflection of your ego, but the most elusive of all entities: the self that you become in the urgency of a social meeting, when all your premeditations fall; the self that has always been familiar to your friends, family and acquaintances while remaining largely invisible to you, its owner.

This desire – to see oneself as others do – is by no means indulgent towards oneself, but is essential to forming and maintaining a viable sense of identity. Without getting too bogged down in theory and unnecessary references to Lacan, I will briefly mention that mirrors have a social function, in that they reveal the self as another, serving as a portal to the third person point of view. . The ability to pass the mirror test – the moment when infants cease to see themselves as fragmented collections of body parts and recognize their image, whole, in the mirror – is a crucial rite of passage, marking the entry of l child in the social field. The ego is a fragile illusion that needs constant reinforcement, and this reinforcement most often occurs through the gaze of others, a process known in sociology as the “mirror-self.” We form our identities largely by imagining how we appear to others and by speculating on their judgments on us.

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