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Ask Polly: How Do I Stop Being a Fake?

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Dear Polly,

I have spent my whole life mimicking other people. I honestly cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t copying someone’s mannerisms, style of dress, hairstyles, the list can go on. I’m a brown-eyed, dark-skinned, curvy female who as a child always wished to be anything but that. So all through middle school and high school I sought friends of a lighter shade and adopted all of their physical (including green contacts to lighten my eyes) and mental traits. I also disliked my family being from the Islands. As a solution for that, I copied the speech and mannerisms of every white female I came across. Copied it so well that people would say that if they closed their eyes as I spoke, I would be more a Becky than a Bresha (not my real name).

Sadly, this cycle has only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. Any group of friends that I’ve become a part of, I instantly morph myself into them. As of recently, I had three close friends. They can be described as follows: the Beautiful Diva, the Petty Thinker (who’s like the Brain in Pinky & the Brain), and the Neutral Stylista. These were the women I considered my everything. Non-blood sisters, but sisters nonetheless. So I consistently went out of the way to make them as happy as possible so I would always have a place in their group. I did this for a while. But in doing so, I still was not myself. I became like them. Even though they considered me the oddball in the group, my funny antics and agreeable nature kept me tied to them.

Things changed, however, when I stopped being friends with the Petty Thinker. She said I was clingy and that I needed to have my own life. That she wasn’t the only one who thought that. It really burned me. So I cut off that friendship and, in doing so, lost the connection to the others.

Initially I thought being a “party of one” would be great. I can be me and be happy being alone. But I realized I don’t even know who me is. I don’t even know who I am to even enjoy my own company. Something as simple as my favorite food or movies is totally unknown to me. Every thought or decision has been guided or copied from someone else. In 25 years, I don’t even know if my favorite color is actually purple.

How do I find out who’s the real me? And what if I don’t like her? I’ve been searching for years to find a place to belong with others, and I have never given a thought to loving myself. How do I start? Where do I start? And if I do, how do I know that I’m still not hoarding opinions from others but forming new ones?

Polly, I NEED HELP!

Love,

My Reflection Isn’t Real

Dear MRIR,

What a shame, to work so hard to become something as dull as a Becky when you could be a Bresha instead. That’s probably unfair to the Beckys, but let’s face it, they’ve ruled the mainstream lady world for long enough, and we’re all pretty bored of them by now. That doesn’t mean that Beckys and Breshas alike aren’t filled with wild emotions and brilliant, tangled thoughts and vast colorful universes forged by pure, undiluted passion. But the way the Beckys appear to funnel all of that wild energy into small visual refinements — careful hairstyles, the perfect shade of lipstick, the most feminine, least aggressive, most lilting lady-lover voices — always seemed like a gigantic waste to me, at least when I was younger.

Except, of course, when I was chasing those Beckys down and asking them how they did what they did and why, and when, and where. Privately, I saw myself as an enemy of Beckys, but I was also an imposter determined to infiltrate the most powerful, confident-seeming Becky contingent in order to partake of whatever magic sauce made them appear so utterly smooth and over-it and bulletproof against a sea of jittery, awkward, self-doubting, inferior Others.

But the most important (for our purposes) layer of my Becky-chasing-and-imitating compulsion was this: I thought that what I was wasn’t good enough. I was an insecure, intense, brainy weirdo from a scrappy middle-class neighborhood with divorced misfit parents, one of whom openly disapproved of Beckys, the other of whom dated Beckys but also looked down on them. This meant that I was inadequate. Instead of being around people who matched me perfectly (and my school was filled with kids like me, I realize in retrospect), I wanted to be around people who recognized me for the inferior specimen that I was. (Or at least, this is how I told the story for a long time.)

So in junior high, I went out for cheerleading. I had no interest in cheers or building pyramids or whatever. I wanted to wear a short skirt and look hot like the Beckys did. My value system was simple: Infiltrate the rich kids’ crowd and get those tiny little cute, rich boys to notice me. (Why were they all so little?) I wanted to ride on their red mopeds and make out in their spacious dens. (Why did their parents host make-out parties in their spacious dens? So many mysteries to solve here!) I wanted to eat snacks by the pool at their racist country clubs.

I didn’t figure out the racist part until junior year in high school. By then I was no longer a cheerleader, but I was 100 percent embedded with the Beckys, who it turned out hated the little dipshit boys in their cohort. (Who could blame them? They had made out with every last one of them by the age of 13.) They also hated dressing up, didn’t wear makeup anymore, hated the country club, and openly screamed at their parents about how racist it was. They had come to question their parents’ bourgeois values, and they had come to see high-school social castes as fucking stupid. This is a serious luxury of being rich and hot and popular at a young age, I guess. Like a sweet little flower who goes away to boarding school and comes back chain-smoking clove cigarettes, you get to go rogue and reject the whole world at a ripe young age. After college, one of the Beckys turned out to be gay, another one became an artist, and another one became a yogi.

The Beckys themselves weren’t really Beckys, in other words. Most Beckys aren’t. Most Beckys — if we understand the word “Beckys” as a flat signifier of women who conform to the most acceptable, palatable, lily-white, non-threatening female path — have simply chosen to wear the Becky uniform because it’s the easiest choice and a way to game the system without sweating it too hard. Many so-called Beckys are just women who love fashion. Is this a silly or unethical thing to value, simply because it has traditionally been cast as a feminine concern? As someone who has rejected these values out of a misguided compulsion to set myself apart and seem “better” than other women, I’ve discovered lately that I love this shit. (And holy Christ, lipstick technology has improved enormously in the 15 years since I last wore it!)

Here’s the unexpected thing about the Beckys I knew in high school, which I only figured out by reviving those friendships years later: They loved me for who I really was, even when I didn’t. They could see me clearly. They were sometimes too self-involved to give a shit, or they stepped on my toes without noticing because they were clumsy and I was oversensitive. But everyone was like that in high school, and I did the same things to them. And I never apologized because I saw them as superior and invincible. I was never that nice because I saw myself as groveling even when I wasn’t. When they talked about their feelings, I thought, “They don’t really feel vulnerable. They have too many advantages to feel vulnerable.” We had a lot of fun, but their power made me angry. They sensed that anger, and they didn’t love it, not surprisingly. Think about that: I was climbing the social ladder to the top, and when I got to the top, I blamed the people I found there for being there. I was basically using them to get some of their power, yet somehow I blamed them for it.

I entered many of our interactions with the same basic belief: “You don’t think I’m good enough to be your friend.” I looked for clues of this everywhere. I felt loved and accepted, but I still found evidence everywhere that they didn’t quite see me as one of them. They didn’t even value the things that separated us — rich parents, a long history of cool clothes and mopeds and make-out parties — but I still did.

Did the Beautiful Diva, the Petty Thinker, and the Neutral Stylista see you as an oddball, or did you? Did they want you to be more like them, or did they love you for who you were already? Did the Petty Thinker struggle with her intense emotions so much that she long ago resolved never to show anyone her true feelings so she wouldn’t seem needy or clingy, so she disparages that behavior in other people now? Is the Neutral Stylista really an anxious cipher just like you? Is the Beautiful Diva someone with an open heart who doubts the sincerity of everyone around her so much that she needs constant proof that she’s truly loved, that she’s truly important?

I want you to forgive your Beckys. I don’t love anyone who would call a friend in need “clingy”—that’s so fucking inhumane. But I want you to look at why you chose these women. Did you want to be molded into someone who would finally be worthy? Did you bathe in their condescension? Did you blame them for who they were? Did you want to be rejected over and over again? Or did you simply push them to love you more and more, because no amount of love could ever prove that you were worthy or make you feel completely loved? Were you a mix of clingy and pissed off? That’s what I was. I needed a lot of hand-holding, and then when I didn’t magically get enough, I’d write them all off as bitches in my mind.

You want to know how to figure out who you are. I think you know more about who you are than you think you do. Don’t reject every single imitated preference and trait out of hand. That’s like being that kid who rejects every single thing his parents stand for, when maybe some of those things are perfectly great. When I dumped the (very honest, emotional, self-possessed) Beckys, I went out and found far less open, more cynical, more insecure friends, and that was not necessarily the best next step for me. I thought that self-conscious, “alternative”-seeming humans who intellectualized their emotions were my people. I didn’t recognize that hipsters are sometimes the most controlling motherfuckers of them all. But don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot about myself from the hipsters, too.

My point is, if you assume that everything you’ve done so far is a total lie, then you’re going to wind up with some Upside Down World identity that’s so aggressively Über-Bresha that you’ll feel out of place in that realm, too. I mean, sure, that might be the natural next step for most people: Find the Breshas! Embrace them! Do what they do! I’m not saying that’s bad for you, either. Maybe that’s the very best thing to do next. Certainly not surrounding yourself with ALL white ladies seems like an intuitively wise next move.

But I wouldn’t walk around believing this story you’re telling yourself about what a complete fake you are. I told myself a similar story right after I dumped the Beckys, but that was far too simple a narrative to capture the whole picture. It took me years to see that clearly. Yes, I wanted the Beckys’ cute boys and their make-out dens. But I also wanted their freedom. These Beckys had a little actressy, artistic, show-off energy about them. They were goofy as fuck. I was a budding insult comic, and they prodded me to perform and laughed their asses off when I did. We hammed it up. We danced. We rolled around on the floor, laughing at stupid shit for hours. We knew how to have fun by ourselves. The party started and ended with us, because we all believed that we were at the center. Call that fucked if you like, but I still believe in that particular flavor of magic.

You can admit that you’re a joiner and an imitator, but you should also notice that some secret motivation — some powerful, mysterious appetite — is guiding you in one direction instead of another. There’s plenty to say about rejecting your dark skin and wearing green contacts, and you should read as much as you can on the subject of owning who you are and love your curvy, beautiful self. But part of loving yourself includes trusting that it wasn’t just a pathetic empty zero that befriended those Beckys. Part of accepting and appreciating who you are now — AND YOU ARE SOMEONE! TRUST THAT! — depends on showing empathy and love for the person who wanted a Petty Thinker and a Beautiful Diva and a Neutral Stylista in her life. Maybe part of you wanted to erase who you were, but maybe another part of you admired those women for very good reasons. Maybe their aesthetics excited you. Maybe you love beauty, and you just need to expand your understanding of what you truly believe is beautiful beyond whitey white standards.

Maybe you loved the fact that your Beckys were never needy. Maybe you wanted their confidence and superiority and apathy. People with a little flair and swagger are mesmerizing even when they’re garbage people. As you sort through what you loved and hated about the people you imitated, resist the urge to be reductive. Separate Becky straight talk from Becky condescension. Pry those Becky artistic urges out from the tangled grip of Becky self-infatuation. Unwrap Becky ambition and drive from Becky pettiness and perfectionism.

Take the stuff you want, leave the stuff you don’t want. That’s what we all do. None of us are fully formed humans the second we’re born. Forgive yourself for being a collector of other people’s ideas and opinions and tastes. The main difference between you and everyone else around you is that you can SEE THE MACHINERY behind your choices. You know when that machinery is grinding and throwing off sparks. Most people don’t. You are far more insightful and intuitive than you give yourself credit for.

You don’t have to be alone. You can make friends without worrying about imitating them. Trust yourself. Practice holding your own space. Notice when you have an urge to reject your own ideas for someone else’s. Get a therapist. Go on Twitter and follow people some part of you thinks you might want to be more like, particularly dark-skinned women who’ve probably been through some of the stuff you’re going through and who write about it and openly discuss it on their feeds. Follow smart women like yourself, who, thanks to the pressures of our shitty racist culture, can see all of the machinery behind their own choices and other people’s choices.

Go out and make new friends. Open your eyes to people you used to consider inferior to you. Listen to their worries and needs. Shift the focus off yourself. Experiment, every day, with turning that hellish surveillance camera away from your face, and observe the little tics, the hidden vulnerabilities, the graceful defense mechanisms in other people.

Your experience as a masterful fake is going to pay off. Trust that. You have so much knowledge now, so much brilliance that you can tap into as soon as you’re ready to trust yourself.

And when you finally trust yourself, you will find strength in being alone. Start by recognizing this: Even when you feel empty and invisible and pathetic, like the worst kind of fake there is, you’re still worthy. You are enough. Your reflection is real. Look in the mirror, at your terrible, never quite right, gorgeous, imperfect, spellbinding face. You are Becky and Bresha and a million and one other people in between. You are a mosaic, painstakingly crafted out of fear and hope and sweetness and longing. We all are. We are all cobbled together from apprehension and yearning and love songs and shitty friends and melancholy and sitcom heroines and stubborn dreams that won’t die no matter how hard we try to kill them. We are all poorly constructed imitations of some pure, strong feeling we felt a long time ago and can barely remember now. And we are more than enough.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: How Do I Stop Being a Fake?