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I’m a writer in my mid-20s facing a predicament of personality vs. conditioning. I come from a super-laid-back lower-class family; my parents were, perhaps, extremely laissez-faire. I’m not saying I was raised without manners, but as I’ve been entering the literary, publishing, and fashion worlds in my career — which is going really well, and of which I am absolutely proud — I can’t shake the feeling that “who I really am” is in direct conflict with getting ahead.
I find it difficult to maintain appearances, especially around affluent people, especially around those who were born and raised affluent. I know it’s probably just as exhausting for everyone, regardless of origin, to keep up appearances when you’re used to a super-casual, liberal, permissive lifestyle where expressing your opinions in a candid way is respected and encouraged. Of course I have a filter, and I’ve been working on my ability to perceive social cues to learn when I’ve perhaps said too much or come across as too loud/overconfident/opinionated where the fullness of my personality isn’t totally appreciated. (Full disclosure: I work for a high-end lifestyle brand. So you can only imagine what the standards are for being embraced as one of them.) The feedback I’ve gotten several times from several different sources over the course of my young life has been that I get “too comfortable” too soon; that I need to earn that ease of being myself among new people and, conversely, that I should have higher standards myself for letting others in.
But it’s not just the social politics of my professional life that concern me—it’s also a problem in my romantic relationships. I don’t fall often, but when I do, I fall hard and fast. I have high standards—until I don’t. While I try to keep healthy boundaries in check, I definitely get too comfortable too quickly with a new partner, which makes me worry that I not only kill their attraction to me, but that I’m too easy and therefore don’t have the best judgment about which men I’m letting into my heart. I give my love too easily, I think, even though it’s burned me enough times that by now I should probably know better. But I don’t know how to turn that off. And I fully anticipate your advice being that I should be myself, that there’s nothing wrong with being open and real about who I am when it’s appropriate to be so candid — at least, that’s how I wish you would respond, because that is how I wish the world operated. But my attraction to others is, conversely, so easily turned off by the very sort of too-casual, showing-your-ass kind of behavior I’m struggling with myself that I don’t end up with the guys who would appreciate that candidness about me. I like a polished appearance! I want nothing but to appear effortlessly polished and like I have all my shit together all of the time, even if it’s not true of anybody ever! I think I totally get the problem; I’m just worried that I’m unprepared to confront this without seeing it as a personality defect, because (as my latest therapist could attest) I am very judgmental of myself. Self-love is a project I’m currently working on, and I think accepting myself is an integral part of loving myself. But how can I accept myself AND change myself for my own benefit, knowing logically that being too much of myself deters others from wanting me?
Please help me.
Your inability to accept yourself as you are lies at the center of your problems with other people. You’re pretty sure you need to fix yourself and make yourself better in order to be fully accepted and loved. There’s no reason to get angry or annoyed with yourself over this, mind you. It’s almost impossible to COMPLETELY accept yourself when you’re in your 20s. You’re not sure what kind of a person you want to be yet. You’re not sure which kinds of people you like the most. You’re conflicted about the whole picture. On top of that, you grew up among people who were much less concerned about appearances than the people you’re dealing with now. It’s easy for someone with a working-class background to feel paranoid around affluent people. It’s easy to feel like you have to learn a whole new set of rules and behaviors and never slip up or you’ll expose yourself as an impostor.
That said, it sounds to me like you’ve come to view some of your best qualities as class-signifying liabilities. So ask yourself this: Do you dislike effusive, spontaneous people simply because that’s how you are and you dislike yourself? Might you love people like that a lot more once you decide that the way you are is perfectly great? Would other people love you more if you weren’t conflicted about being a loudmouthed show-off? Or, if you truly accepted yourself and treated yourself with compassion, would you discover that you’re not a loudmouthed show-off at all — in fact, you’re kind of thoughtful and reserved, and you only get show-off-y when you want other people to like you?
Until you accept yourself — or at least just feel compassion for how UNACCEPTING of yourself you naturally are — you will have trouble sorting this out. So my first impulse is to tell you this: Give yourself a break. You’re experimenting with jobs and friends and different circles of people. You’re taking in a lot of new information about who you want to be and who you don’t want to be. You’ll figure it out eventually, but right now you’re still in that uncomfortable position of not knowing.
You also feel compelled to keep your hands on a bunch of levers so that you can perfectly calibrate your personality to fit into a number of varying situations and scenarios. You want people to like you and find you attractive. You don’t want people to think you’re a little abrasive and effusive and messy and unkempt. You want to be polished and smooth. You’d like for people to look at you and say, NOW THERE’S A WOMAN WHO HAS HER SHIT TOGETHER.
Even though you want to be seen as reserved and unruffled and calm, though, do you really like people who are like that? And if you do, do you like them because you want to be them? Or do you like them because they make you feel a little inferior? Do you only give power and energy to people who are halfway-rejecting you most of the time? Are you attracted to the sorts of people who have a way of looking down at you, in a way that says “Mmm, not quite there yet, try a little harder,” maybe because that’s how you feel about yourself?
I’ve always been attracted to people who disapprove of me, or who seem predisposed to find some dimension of my personality wanting. I’ve always chased people who seemed to know something I don’t know. I’ve never tended to embrace people who say, “Wow, you’re impressive. You seem like you know a lot!” Quite frankly, I’ve spent years ignoring the most openhearted, enthusiastic people around me in favor of people who seemed far less enthralled by me.
Imagine the self-loathing that requires! Always trying to prove something to those exact people who aren’t remotely open to your proofs! Always trying to squeeze a little love out of people who don’t have extra love to give!
But now that I’ve finally started to notice and enjoy people who actually like me for who I am, friendships are so much easier. I’m less angry at other people. I feel less conflicted. I don’t tend to encounter disapproval as a sign that I need to change something about myself, and I don’t worry a lot about the way I am. Sometimes I’m garrulous, and sometimes I’m reserved. It all feels pretty natural and in keeping with the moment. It doesn’t require a ton of analysis.
Maybe at some level you feel like people who lord their polished specialness over other people aren’t really your kind of people. Maybe your tribe is scrappier and more aggressive and more self-deprecating than that. You admire the polished ones, but you also dislike them at a gut level. You want to be them, and you also want to fucking scratch graffiti into the sides of their sparkling white horse-drawn carriages.
These are the emotions of a conflicted person. You are a wildly emotional human being with a big brain who’s also very conflicted, very self-hating, very neurotic, and kind of an overachiever to boot. You want to work hard. You want to seem “better” than you are. You want to hide all of your turmoil and your messiness.
And all of that is great and fine. It’s fucking awesome, in fact, for a writer to be all of these things. But when you’re conflicted, when you’re at war with yourself, when you’re on edge, when you’re uncertain, it’s hard to impress anyone. You try a little too hard and you get tense and you regret half of the words spilling out of your mouth. You also have to avoid drinking too much, because someone like you feels a huge sense of relief when she drinks. Finally the big brain is quieter, and there’s a little space to dance on the bar and yell dirty jokes at strangers!
You hate people like that, and you love them, too. You want to let it all out, and you wish you could hide it forever.
The key is not to “decide” anything about who you should be. The key is to feel your feelings. That means being present, in the moment, treating yourself with compassion, and allowing yourself space to just be in a room with other people without PROVING anything or DOING anything or SAYING anything. That means having no plan or agenda. That means simply taking up space without explaining what your intentions are.
You can be glamorous or invisible or a fucking ramshackle mess, and you will still be worthy. Take your hands off the levers. Stop measuring reactions. Observe more. Feel your way. Show off when you feel it. Don’t speak unless you feel moved to speak. Stop serving the crowd. You don’t have to entertain. You don’t have to do anything, in fact. Watch what other people do, without envy or fear or judgment. What do they want or require in this moment? What are they yearning for?
Grace comes from being in touch with your environment, giving it time to reveal itself, giving people time to ask for what they want. Grace arises from an ability to wait and see without panicking. Grace comes from trusting your instincts. Grace comes from knowing that you’re okay the way you are, even if the way you are is a little off-kilter and out of step with the way the people are around you. Take it from me. I am a person who doesn’t belong anywhere. That’s part of my nature. Some part of me never feels like a member of any team, even if everyone on the team shouts YOU ARE ONE OF US! in unison. It’s okay. I feel good now. I used to see my whole life as a series of decisions: Hang back or leap in? Tell the truth or shut up? I felt like an alien trying to imitate normal human beings. Now I don’t hang back and I don’t leap in, and I always tell the truth but only if someone really wants or needs to know it. I feel my way.
And sometimes I feel like a bag of dicks, graceless and fucked. We all have those days. Sometimes my brain returns to very old refrains: “You don’t belong here. You are not cut out for this. These people wear linen and talk in hushed tones. They can see you’re a ruffian. You should go back home and hide forever.”
That’s when I take a deep breath and say to myself, “I am an adult and I know some things. I just have to slow down and relax. I don’t have to change anything. All I have to do is listen, and respond, and say what I believe. That’s all.”
I’ll bet your work environment is pretty intense for you. Make sure you off-gas the stress of feeling like an outsider with your friends who understand. It’s great that you’re doing so well at your job, but don’t let the values of that alternate universe take over your whole life. And don’t sell yourself short just to match your environment. Don’t waste your time impressing people who aren’t impressed by the same things you are. Try to appreciate their idiosyncrasies and qualities and values without confusing them with your own. Keep your eyes peeled for people who share your worldview, your impulses, your conflicts. Open your heart to needy types of people, though, too. Open your heart to show-offs. Love more of yourself and less of this polished “other” you’re courting.
Who you are naturally sounds great to me. Leaping in too fast is one of the most appealing behaviors around. I’m not saying don’t protect yourself, but do embrace your emotional, wild core. Believe in the spontaneous, natural joy you take in celebrating the people around you. Maybe you do get too comfortable too fast, in other people’s eyes. But I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing, and I’ll bet you these other people would change their tune about you completely once you stopped feeling jittery and conflicted about your natural quick wit and instant rapport with strangers and started owning that stuff 100 percent. You are the one who gets to decide how to be. You are the one who gets to model the things you value, so that you can demonstrate their value to the people around you. Follow less, ask fewer questions, and think more about the very valuable places you’d like to lead other people.
Believe in who you are right now, effortlessly. Your grace is right here. Just let it in. You don’t have to decide anything. You don’t have to fix anything. You just have to slow down and breathe and believe.
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