The Imaginary Audience

Happy 2016, one and all! I feel like asking, “How are you?” And, I hope that some of you tell me!

I have been adjusting to life as a single parent, and I have to admit that it is exhausting not to mention the Groundhog Day Effect.  I clean one room, leave it, return to it, and find that it looks just like it did before I cleaned it–all within the space of ten minutes.  So, my days are starting to feel just like Bill Murray’s in the film “Groundhog Day”.  Interminable sameness.  “Didn’t I just pick up this exact piece of paper from this exact spot yesterday?” No.  Am I losing my grasp on reality? No.  Have I bridged the space/time continuum? No.

What is going on then?

The answer? I have three daughters at home, and they don’t observe a lot outside of K-Pop, manga, their insatiable desire for savory snacks, and their obsessions du jour.  Okay, okay, there are other things going on as well, but you get the picture.  I will admit that relaxing into it seems to be the way to go.  I’m not pushing the river, so to speak, when it comes to the culture at home.  With the atmospheric oppression lifted, I have wanted to see how the girls would expand in their own right.  What might evolve in terms of family culture in our home? Doireann is living on campus now so the home dynamic has changed.  Everyone living at home carries a DSM diagnosis.  We have three biologically-based brain disorders at play.  What might emerge?

The first thing that happened was a kind of collective deep breath followed by the predictable release of emotions.  Everyone had been walking on eggshells around my ex-husband (their father).  No one knew any peace in the home due to fear.  When safety and predictability were finally established, everyone freaked out.  We had crying jags, externalized emotional expressions of fear, anger, confusion, and expression for the sake of expression.  Just because they could.  There was an outpouring of verbal expression that sounded a lot like hatred: “I hate him!”  It’s rooted in feelings of betrayal, confusion, and profound emotional pain.  There was a month, after he moved out, in which the girls refused to see him.  To his credit, he did not push them.  Doireann, however, has cut him out of her life.  She has her reasons, and they are valid.  This is her journey now.  She is almost 19 (can you believe that?).

Grace began high school, and Milly began middle school so the school year, in a word, has sucked.  They are, however, developing resiliency, and that is what I have wanted for them.  It is difficult as a parent to watch our kids swim through the shark tanks of both middle and high school.  We remember what it was like.  I’ve only met one person in my entire life who liked high school.  No one looks back on middle school fondly.  It seems that everyone turns feral during that time in adolescence.  Instinctively, I would spare them that particular suffering, but, at the same time, how will they find out what they’re made of? To quote T.S. Eliot, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” For those of us with children with mental health issues, we walk a very fine line when it comes to helping our children develop resiliency because we are never sure of what their tipping point is.  On a good day, they can handle a lot.  On a bad day, they can’t.  And, there is no predicting in the morning if a day will be good or bad in terms of their ability to cope.

Yesterday, for example, Milly seemed okay.  I have to drive fifteen miles to her school as she is open-enrolled in another district.  We leave early so that we can hold to our morning tradition of stopping at the Caribou Coffee across the street from the school.  I get coffee, and she used her allowance to buy a drink of her choice.  Yesterday, she chose hot chocolate.

It is worth noting for the sake of this story that when Milly was younger she would never speak in public.  She would hold onto my legs and hide behind me.  Sometimes, when I would walk, she would slip down my legs, and it would look like I was dragging her behind me.  Oh, the looks I got! She was terrified.  She was almost agoraphobic.  She is on the autism spectrum (what the DSM-IV labeled as Asperger’s Syndrome), and she has an anxiety disorder as well as a depressive disorder.  Co-morbid to this are sensory processing issues.  Milly has always been the way she is.  From Day 1.  And, she has been receiving countless kinds of interventions since she was a toddler to bring her to a place of functionality.

Yesterday, however, she marched up to the counter, ordered her drink, paid for it, and sat down at our chosen table–just like a neurotypical kid.  I almost take it for granted now.  She was talking to me about a documentary that she had watched; she is really into documentaries: “Mom, some of these documentaries are hard to watch, but I think that it is our responsibility as people to know the truth about what is happening in the world.  It is important, and part of that is feeling uncomfortable.  I feel a responsibility to know so that I can help.”  My 12 year-old said this to me! I was amazed.  As she was sharing this, she knocked her drink over, and it splashed all over her pants.

Time slowed.  I saw her face.  Her eyes widened.  She was frozen.  Tears started.  She couldn’t move or respond.  Her diagnoses came to the forefront.  I wasn’t dealing with Milly anymore.  Hello, Anxiety.  Hello, Depression.  Hello, Autism.  She was enveloped in them.  And, this was the moment to talk to her rather than try to save her.  If I could reach her, then I could get some neurons to fire.  “Hey, hey, it’s okay.  It’s just a drink.  I need you to stand up and go ask for a rag.  This isn’t a big deal.  Can you move?”  She couldn’t.  She was using all her emotional energy to hold it together.  “Can we leave? Can we leave? Can we leave? I wanna go home.  I wanna go home.”

Suddenly, a woman appeared with napkins.  “I saw what happened.  You clearly need help.”  She looked at Milly with kindness, and then she looked at me judgmentally as if I wasn’t helping my daughter.  I wasn’t helping her in a way that she would help.  I am accustomed to this.  I have developed some shame resiliency.  I thanked her and got up to ask for help.  Another person had already intervened on our behalf and a barista was on her way over.  Milly was able to stand up, but she was trembling.  Her bottom lip was quivering.  She ran to the door and stood there.  She was ready to bolt.  The barista cleaned up the table and chair, and I sat down.  I motioned for Milly to return, but she shook her head at me.  I mouthed, “Come here please,” and she slowly returned.  Her pants were indeed saturated with hot chocolate.  She could not go to school like that.

“Everyone is staring at me!” she said quietly starting to cry.

“Here is a secret,” I said.  “No one really cares what you are doing.  If you take care of what you are doing and carry on as if nothing worth looking at happened, then people won’t care either.  But, when you sit there in your chair frozen and rigid, refuse to help yourself, and run across the store to stand by the door, then people will stare.  Those are unusual behaviors, and people stare at unusual behaviors.”  She was able to hear that.  She made her “thinking face”.

“Oh,” she said, “so if I act like nothing happened even though it’s so hard, then people won’t really stare that much?”  she asked.

“For the most part, yes.” I answered.

“But, there was a group of kids staring at me,” she said pointing directly at them.

And, here we landed on the Imaginary Audience.  There may have been a group of kids staring at her; in fact, I don’t doubt it.  But, why is this form of social anxiety so heightened in adolescence and even more so with young people on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum? It is due to the developmental phase characterized by the egocentric state known as the imaginary audience:

“David Elkind coined the term “imaginary audience” in 1967. The basic premise of the topic is that people who are experiencing it feel as though their behavior or actions are the main focus of other people’s attention. It is defined as how willing a child is to reveal alternative forms of themselves. The imaginary audience is a psychological concept common to the adolescent stage of human development. It refers to the belief that a person is under constant, close observation by peers, family, and strangers. This imaginary audience is proposed to account for a variety of adolescent behaviors and experiences, such as heightened self-consciousness, distortions of others’ views of the self, and a tendency toward conformity and faddisms. This act stems from the concept of ego-centrism in adolescents.[1]

Elkind studied the effects of imaginary audience and measured it using the Imaginary Audience Scale (IAS). The results of his research showed that boys were more willing than girls to express different sides of themselves to an audience. This apprehension from girls has given rise to further research on the value of privacy to girls. Imaginary audience influences behavior later in life in regards to risky behaviors and decision-making techniques. A possibility is that imaginary audience is correlated with a fear of evaluation or self-representation effects on self-esteem.[1]  

Imaginary audience effects are not a neurological disorder, but more a personality or developmental stage of life. It is not aroused by a life event; rather it is a part of the developmental process throughout adolescence. It is a natural part of the process of developing a healthy understanding of one’s relationship with the world. Most people will eventually gain a more realistic perspective on the roles they play in their peer groups as they mature. This natural developmental process can lead to high paranoia about whether the adolescence is being watched, if they are doing a task right and if people are judging them. Imaginary audience will likely cease before adolescence ends, as it is a huge part of personality development. Imaginary audience can be as simple as having to change multiple times in the morning because the adolescent still feels unsatisfactory about arriving at a destination about his/her appearance even though he/she will appear the same as everyone else. The number of adolescents who experience an imaginary audience effect cannot be described with any sort of statistics because an imaginary audience is experienced in all adolescents.” (online source)

The imaginary audience phenomenon is one reason why adolescence is so damn awful.  We feel perpetually observed and scrutinized.  For the person with autism it is even worse because of the clash between a deficiency in theory of mind and this:

“According to Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist known for his epistemological studies with children, every child experiences imaginary audience during the preoperational stage of development. He also stated that children will outgrow this stage by age 7, but as we know now this stage lasts much longer than that. Piaget also said imaginary audience happens because young children believe others see what they see, know what they know, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel.”

Piaget’s assessment that young children believe that others see, know, hear, and feel as they do is, in fact, the definition of a theory of mind deficiency.  This is the hallmark struggle of Asperger’s Syndrome.  If we were to recall then our own middle school experiences, we would see that one of our greatest social anxieties revolved around fear of being discovered.  “Everyone sees this.  Everyone notices this one thing that I hate about myself.  I look terrible today, and everyone sees.”  In this, we see the imaginary audience in addition to the belief that “everyone” is aware of what we are trying to mask.  Keeping in mind, every single person in our peer group is experiencing the same developmental phenomenon, it is no wonder that adolescence is a horrible experience.  It’s like squeezing hordes of porcupines into a shoebox and asking them not to prick each other.

What is the outcome?

 The extremes to which adolescents experience an imaginary audience, however, varies from child to child. Some children are considered to be more “egocentric” than others and experience more of an extreme imaginary audience or have more of an elaborate personal fable.[2] Therefore, children then subconsciously put more value on the idea that everyone cares about what they are doing at all times. This is very common in adolescents during this level of development as the child is going through Erik Erikson’s identity vs. identity confusion.[3][4]

The child is struggling to figure out their identity and formulating congruent values, beliefs, morals, political views, and religious views. So, on top of experiencing an identity moratorium in which they are exploring different identities, children feel they are constantly being watched or evaluated by those around them. This leads to intense pressure being placed on the child and may also influence later self-esteem.[2][5][3][4]

Comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney jokes about this here:

13-year-olds are the meanest people in the world. They terrify me to this day. If I’m on the street on like a Friday at 3 PM and I see a group of 8th graders on one side of the street, I will cross to the other side of the street. Because 8th graders will make fun of you, but in an accurate way.  They will get to the thing that you don’t like about you. They don’t even need to look at you for long, they’ll just be like, “Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Hey, look at that high-waisted man! He got feminine hips!”  And I’m like,  “No!! That’s the thing I’m sensitive about!!!!”

Doesn’t this feel absolutely true?! And, it feels true because of our past developmental experience with the imaginary audience and our own theory of mind.
The point here is that our experience in adolescence of our own imaginary audience does, in fact, affect our self-esteem later on in life.  So, those odd teenaged behaviors and rituals that we as parents and caregivers observe in our kids do matter.  We are observing an identity being birthed, and it is vital that we assist in that with empathy, kindness, and nurturing.
You might not value or even like how your child is attempting to mitigate the intense pressure of the imaginary audience, but it is worth asking how you can be a support and resource while they individuate and, ultimately, differentiate.  My goal as a parent is that their self-esteem is intact, strong, and well-founded along with their sense of identity so that they don’t fear 13 year-olds walking down a street one day when they’re 30 years-old.
Is this possible? Even with our children with special needs? I believe so.  It is hard.  As hard as you expect it to be, you find yourself wishing that it were that easy.  For me, however, I have found that no moment has been wasted in my efforts to prepare my kids for the life they have today or the life awaiting them–regardless of what that life will look like or what their present limitations are today.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “The Imaginary Audience

  1. Great.. Imaginary audience. I feel like I have that, especially at work. So, I’m really 13. Explains a lot.

    I’m so happy to hear about your children. The fact that there doesn’t appear to be much to write about Grace also warms my heart.

    • Well, there is always stuff to write about, but I’m so far behind on every detail in my life that I’m pretty sure I can see my own ass.

      I think all of us still feel the imaginary audience phenomenon. I still imagine myself as an awkward 15 year-old with braces and a bad perm. That’s the self-esteem manifesting itself combined with anxiety. I really have to hunt down and burn all photographic evidence that proves I was once 15. 🙂

  2. Aw, I want to meet Milly! Well…all your girls really. But she sounded JUST like you in her schpeel about documentaries!!

    Really good info about the imaginary audience too. I’ve never heard it explained that way. Ps…you are a GREAT mom!

    • She is a very interesting person. Always keeping me on my toes. Yes, I wish I had known about this developmental phase when I was IN it! I think it would have helped me. Even now, when I feel it, I can remind myself that it’s just that phenomenon. Perhaps something unresolved is coming forward? We all take hard hits in adolescence. So, experiencing a hyperawareness of being watched or judged as an adult might be a insight into an area of woundedness. It’s just a thought.

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