On a recent airplane flight I was seated next to an impeccably dressed woman. She wore high-heeled shoes, elegant jewelry, expertly applied make-up and was well coifed. After I sat down, I said, “Hello, How are you?” I know many people don’t like to talk with their seatmates but I think it’s important to acknowledge the existence of a human being with whom I will be sitting in close proximity for a few hours. She glanced at me quickly, barely nodded and then turned back to her iPhone. I immediately felt a frosty tension and remained quiet the rest of the flight.
I was feeling rather disheveled that day. I was wearing a bright pink sweater, had unkempt hair and was sporting my favorite—but not too fashionable—purple zero-drop sneakers with an extra wide toe box. My bag under the seat was large and lumpy. I felt like I was spilling out all over the place. Her cool glance unleashed an old visceral feeling — I felt that I was being judged for my appearance. Something was wrong with me.
I hadn’t felt that way in decades. As the plane climbed to its altitude I observed myself. Why did this feeling resurface so strongly? After a few more minutes, I took a quick look at my seatmate. I noticed that she was sitting rigid in her chair, her jaw was tightly clenched and she was narrowing her eyes.
Tension is a protective mechanism. It is our brain’s reaction to feeling under threat. When we feel threatened, we either run away or constrict and close down in order to protect ourselves. When something is obviously dangerous, a flight or fight reaction does not take us by surprise; if the plane starts shaking mid-air many of us will tightly grip the seat. However, our unconscious mind can also feel threatened by more subtle cues. When we are in the presence of someone who is tense, we may feel vulnerable. Unbeknownst to our conscious mind, our unconscious experiences a warning sign that something isn’t safe. At this moment, old fears and insecurities may reappear.
As I still had a number of hours on the flight, I felt relieved that I had figured this out. My knowledge of the brain helped me recognize that feeling vulnerable and judged was an unconscious response to my seatmate’s pre-existing level of tension. As a teenager growing up in Minnesota I had felt self-conscious about the shape of my body, especially among my Scandinavian friends. I always felt that my body was expanding beyond acceptable boundaries. At that time, I did not have any inkling of how much advertising and other messages affected my sense of self.
When I sat next to this woman on the plane, this old feeling resurfaced because my unconscious mind read the signals wrong and responded to her level of tension by connecting to old neural pathways. She was not judging my disheveled appearance. It wasn’t about me. She carried tension for reasons I did not know.
With this understanding, I felt empathy for my temporary traveling companion. She had clearly wanted to be left alone. Instead of continuing my ruminations, I chose to relax, enjoy the warmth of my cozy sweater and take in the view.