To which I say: HA HA HA HA HA HA. And, also: yeah, right. Remember when Sally Field won that Oscar for something or other and said, in her now-legendary acceptance speech, “You like me! You really like me!” And then everyone excoriated her for it for decades? Because how embarrassing is that? To reveal that it matters whether or not people like you? To publicly announce your relief and joy to discover that people like you?
Except…I think the real reason everyone made fun of the Flying Nun for her outburst that night wasn’t because what she said was alien to them. I think it was actually because it hit too close to home. Here was a person saying out loud what we all feel inside at times and it’s horrible to see those uncomfortable parts of yourself flappin’ in the breeze like that.
So…sorry, Sally. You’re going to take the bullet for all of us. We’re going to mock you relentlessly until we’ve established a giant and safe distance between you and the rest of us normal folk.
Obviously, though, given the title of this week’s entry, I’m copping to being one of those people who worry more than she likes about what other people think of her. My problem is that I want everyone to like me. I even want people I don’t like to like me. This is cumbersome, to say the least. In fact, sometimes my obsession is so giant it’s like a handicap. I become catatonic with worry. I either can’t string a sentence together or I babble stupidly like a woman in, well, any romantic comedy movie.
Now, I realize this revelation may seem somewhat at odds with the way I behave at other times, the way I shoot off at the mouth like someone who, well, doesn’t give a rat’s ass. This is what’s known in some circles as false bravado. In others, idiocy.
After decades of beating myself up about this particular obsession and admiring people – to a certain degree – who don’t seem to care about what other people think of them, I’ve come to suspect that this is mostly artifice. I imagine that even the people who seem completely self-confident in public are riddled with some degree of self doubt in private. And if they aren’t, well, there’s a word for that: sociopathic.
I don’t worry about this all the time. In fact, part of the annoying thing about this problem is that it pops up willy-nilly, often completely unexpectedly. I’ll suddenly find myself in the midst of a group of people among whom I always feel safe and at home and suddenly I’m worried they all hate me. No, I’m certain of it.
As I get older, I’ve grown increasingly tired of this particular defect of character. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely free of worrying about this – it’s just my nature. To some extent, I think it’s just part of the human condition. But I’ve just turned 40, for God’s sake. I practically have one foot in the grave. Time feels precious. Do I really want to spend it worrying about this sort of thing?
So I decided to take on this very amorphous change: trying, to the best of my ability, not to let other people’s opinions of me dictate my mood or, worse, my own opinion of myself. For one week.
First, the good news: once again, I discovered that this is one of those traits of mine that has quietly improved over the years but I’ve failed to notice. It’s not gone by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not nearly as prominent as it was in those adolescent – or even early adulthood – days when it was my albatross. I was addled with worry about what other people thought of me, certain everyone thought I was a loser and a dud. And you don’t need to be Dr. Phil (thank God) to know that really what was happening was that I thought I was a loser and a dud. What a breakthrough moment! Hugs!
Bearing all that in mind, I was actually a tad falsely confident the first couple days of this week, strutting around a bit, feeling like a confident woman who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what other people think of me.
But the universe, as it often does, had other plans for me.
You see, it was my birthday weekend which is, at least in my family, traditionally a time for score-keeping. Who remembered? Who didn’t? Who sent a card? Who didn’t call? Who failed to appropriately recognize this enormous milestone of a day? At the root of all this tallying there could be no other driving concern than: what am I worth to the people in my life? In short, what do other people think of me?
I don’t say this proudly. If you’re a regular reader, you probably get that most of what I write about here, I ain’t proud of.
Yikes. People, it was not pretty.
There might have been some crying. There may have been some self-pity. I’ll never say for certain.
Now, in the midst of all this frantic assessment – you go in the column of “likes me a little,” you go in “loves me an appropriate amount,” you’re going straight to “hates me” – a group of very dear friends, helmed by my husband, threw me a lovely little party for my birthday.
I should mention that this is the first birthday party I’ve had in 15 years. I say that not in self-pity – although you’d be forgiven for rushing to that conclusion, given the evidence I’ve readily provided – but to illustrate that I’m a person who’s not that comfortable being celebrated in that way. I don’t like being the focus of all those eyes. I feel self-conscious and want to disappear. Yeah, me. The shrinking violet. I know: surprise!
But kind souls wanted to throw me a party, so throw they did. And the sentiment meant the world to me. In the midst of all that worrying about whether or not I mattered enough to merit a birthday card, here was tangible proof that people not only like me, they love me.
Thus, one would think the party would have been an oasis in a week of worry. Sadly, it wasn’t. Why? Because I brought all my character defects with me to the party, and spent a large part of it worrying what people thought about my reactions: was I being grateful enough? Did I seem too awkward? Was I spending enough time with everyone?
It is exhausting being in my brain, I tell you. Ridiculous and exhausting. And humbling, because here I thought I had this one in the bag and it turns out that, no, I am still an emotional middle-schooler.
Wait, though. Because it is now days later and I have that tiny bit of perspective the comes with the passage of time. And the truth is this: I am still an emotional middle-schooler at times. Yes, this was going to be one of those weeks of change where the real value comes from recognizing the progress I’ve made, acknowledging that I’m not quite as bad as I used to be.
Yes, it’s still in me and it rears its ugly head from time to time, but it’s not how I generally live my life. That’s important to recognize, but it doesn’t actually make me feel less sheepish about the week behind me. The best I could do was a little forensic digging, taking a look at why, exactly, my people-pleasing was on Red Alert this past week.
I think, without boring you to tears, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was feeling vulnerable and sad and terribly down on myself about turning 40. More specifically, on turning 40 and not having achieved every single goal a person could have achieved in life. Birthdays are a natural time of self-assessment and this one was a whammy for me.
So, once again, the answer lay in the fact that, underneath it all, I wasn’t feeling great about me. And when that happens, as embarrassing as it is to admit, I become hyper-dependent on other peoples’ opinions of me to validate me and bolster my self-worth. Healthy? I dunno, but it is what it is.
It’s also important for me to recognize that even when I’m in the midst of this self-centered angst, I can still find and hang on to a tiny corner of perspective. I still know, somewhere underneath all my hand-wringing, that other people are busy and have lives and aren’t thinking about me obsessively. I still know that, in reality, none of that means they don’t like me.
I can even go so far as to acknowledge and accept that there are going to be people in life – many, many people, probably – who don’t like me. And that’s their prerogative.
However, when I’m bathing in self-pity, it feels like a full time job and I tend to shove that perspective to the side and ignore it.
Take this minute, for example. Confessing all of this in a public forum is making my stomach churn. It’s embarrassing. It fills me with shame. It makes me worry that this is the blog entry that’s going to be so revealing nobody likes me anymore.
SEE? THERE IT IS AGAIN!
But…writing that previous paragraph brings to light something pretty big – and pretty obvious. Perhaps nothing has helped me let go of what other people think about me more than the scary business of writing this blog. Week after week, I confess the deepest and ugliest parts of my psyche and hope that people can relate to it. If I was truly still addled by other peoples’ opinions of me, I wouldn’t be writing this now. In fact, I can’t imagine the 25-year-old me having enough self-confidence to confess any of this. She’d be mortified. (She’d also be drunk, but that’s not necessarily cause-and-effect.)
With every entry I’ve written, it has become easier for me to feel braver and to be more honest and to let go of what other people think – largely out of necessity. It wouldn’t be much of a blog if I didn’t examine the weeks of change with a warts-and-all candor. It’s both incredibly freeing and incredibly terrifying.
I guess if we’re grading my success on a literal scale this week – meaning, how much I managed to let go of what other people think of me – I’d probably earn a big fat D.
However, if we wanted to give me a slight bump for introspection and recognition of very gradual growth, what say we bump me up to a C? I know you want to give me the benefit of the doubt. Because you like me. You do. Not that it matters. It doesn’t.
But you do.