I love reading your column because like you, I see myself at different stages of life in many of the people who write to you. But lately I tend to see more of myself in the peripheral actors who populate the worlds of the writers. Funnily, I seem to identify more with the co-worker perceived as cold (instead of sure of themself), or the new acquaintance who is seen as aloof (rather than not constantly needing to fill silence). I no longer seek approval or attention as hungrily as I used to, but I don’t know how well it reads to others.
For context, I basically had a major glow up since my teens. I was never confident about who I was. I relied on my friends from childhood to ingratiate me into new friend circles. I overcompensated when trying to meet others, simultaneously loathing and lionizing popular peers to whom it came so naturally. Thankfully, patience, diverse experiences, and luck changed things. The long crawl out of puberty had some dividends for me and, ironically, my changing appearance made me feel more at liberty to explore and be genuinely myself. At the same time, I ran with my changing look: Makeup and clothes allowed me to play with my identity (and frankly, to have fun!), but also to have my appearance kind of speak for me so I didn’t have to. Eventually, just being myself and feeling confident in that seemed to be enough to bring others in. I’m happy with who I am, finally. I enjoy the way I navigate the world. I explore new situations and meet new people at my own pace, not overworking myself trying to “belong,” be faultless, or get people to like me.
The problem is that I sometimes get rumbles back about how this reads to others. After befriending a co-worker, she said to me, “You know, when I first met you, I thought you were really stuck up. You were so quiet and never talked to me!” Other descriptions I’ve heard are cold, mysterious, disinterested, or snobby. Most of the time when I recollect the circumstances under which these judgments were apparently being made, I feel like I was just thinking about what I was going to have for dinner, or looking out a window, or thinking about something completely innocuous instead of making conversation. But being stuck up?
I’ve gotten more independent, confident, and comfortable as I’ve grown, inside and out. But I feel like the collective sum of these changes can indicate to people that I’m someone I’m not. People fill in details that I don’t communicate. If I’m not constantly appealing to them, I’m mean. If I took 30 minutes to do my makeup but not to make small talk, I’m snobby or vain. I’m being harsh with these interpretations, but it’s because my feelings get hurt when people level things like this at me without attempting to engage me face to face. A part of me wanted to say to my co-worker, “Can’t you take responsibility for your own happiness? If you wanted to talk to me, you should have just talked to me!”
Having been such a true hermit geek with no social skills, it genuinely surprises me when people tell me they think I come off as snobby, cold, or superior. It’s not like I ignore people or brush them off, I just don’t try to always please everyone like I used to. Do I have to resign myself to the fact that just being quietly myself instead of overeager will be misinterpreted by some? Or am I just confusing confidence with thoughtlessness? After all, what happens when those people are co-workers or potential friends who end up avoiding me instead of trying to get to know me? Have I just become the things I used to hate, under the guise of “growing up”?
Potentially Stuck-Up Girl
Don’t change a thing. Stay right where you are and notice how much reassurance people seem to require from a calm, confident, self-possessed woman. Is it your job to coddle them, thereby preventing them from growing beyond their limited, needy state?
No. It’s your job to hold your ground.
When you hold your ground instead of caving in just to please people, you learn so much! This is a great opportunity for you. Watch people who have authority and watch people who are powerless. Observe how some people who are low on the totem pole still command a ton of respect. Witness how some authority figures attract derision and others occupy a calm, cool space with strong boundaries around it. Notice who gets to talk aimlessly, and who is expected to bite their tongue.
Then consider how you want to be. Think about your values. Notice how you feel. Check in with your shame, which is a very bad barometer of what’s going on, by the way, but its existence tells you about old messages that used to rule you. Your shame will tell you that you’re doing it wrong or being selfish, that you’re violating some sacred moral that everyone else agrees on. Reflect on what you value and what feels authentic to you.
What I’m hearing in your letter is that you like where you are. So now your challenge is to accept these noises that people make and live with them. I’m not pretending that’s easy. I want you to notice, also, that this isn’t all about your looks. That might be one dimension of it, but that’s not all of it. You’re someone who has a lot of social power. Even when it’s not your place to say a word about what’s happening, people are watching your reactions and dialing into your energy. They’re taking their cues from you. They can’t help it and you can’t help it. That makes them feel weak and anxious and angry at you sometimes. And it makes you feel like you’re always on the spot, being watched. It often feels like people expect a lot more from you than everyone else in the room.
Is that your problem? Do you need to fix it? No. All you need to do is notice that it’s possible for other people to resent the power you effortlessly carry around with you. It’s possible for insecure people to hate you for what you have, and to want you to soothe their insecurities. Anxious, blaming people are everywhere. Keep that in mind and try to cultivate compassion for them. But don’t change how you are just to make them feel more comfortable.
Let them run to catch up or not — that’s on them, not you.
Maybe there’s something about you that communicates that you could be a nurturing, helpful, reassuring presence, if you wanted to. That doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you tune into reality, and decide for yourself how you want to be and what you want to focus on and how you want to live.
I reached a similar crossroads two years ago. I had stopped working overtime to please my friends and acquaintances, and some people didn’t trust that at first. I was also doing more to please myself, and some didn’t seem to like that, either. But I was a little bit self-conscious about serving my own whims, so that shame was in the room — that wasn’t anyone else’s fault. I also noticed during that time that even when I’m not talking, the mood I’m in seems to matter to people around me. Other friends could grow quiet and no one seemed to notice, but when I got quiet, people would get edgy. Maybe that happened because I’m usually talkative or my moods are just aggressively obvious. But once I noticed, I couldn’t ignore it.
It felt uncomfortable at first. It took some time for me to accept. I didn’t love noticing that my behavior was being interpreted and found wanting so often in situations where I was utterly benign or indifferent. But I tried hard to listen and explain myself, and I asked people to trust that I wasn’t against them.
But I also realized how often I was misunderstood, and instead of feeling bad about that, it felt almost emancipatory. I’m not someone who hides how she feels that well, nor do I attempt to do so. I’m packed to the brim with unpopular opinions and conflicted feelings. I have a bad attitude about all kinds of crazy shit that other people love and believe in. So why was I trying to keep a grip on my approval rating everywhere I went? I told myself I didn’t care, but when conflicts or misunderstandings came up, I’d lose sleep over how to smooth things over, explain myself, lay out my position, make things better, regain favor.
After my initial shame over being disliked or misunderstood wore off, I sort of stopped giving a fuck in a permanent way. Instead of working very hard to win love from everrrrrryone, I started to focus my energy on the people I enjoyed and admired and loved the most. During COVID, I’ve struck up new friendships and revived some old ones. I’m not really trying to make sure I’m acceptable to other people right now; more like I’m trying to have more fun, get into better conversations, exchange more interesting ideas.
In short, I’m an intense person who wants to know other intense people. People often have mixed feelings about me, and that’s perfectly fine. I don’t need to fix anything. I like staying right here and doing it this way.
I mention all of this because I want you to be open to the possibility that you’re a little weird or cold or aloof, and that’s perfectly fine! Personally, I like a lot of aloof or avoidant people, now that I’m confident enough to tolerate being ignored sometimes. I also like a lot of gushing, long-winded, enthusiastic people. There’s room for all kinds of behavior on this planet. There’s not one acceptable way to be. Anyone who believes that is afraid of being a person, period. They’re hiding, so they want you to hide, too.
Fuck hiding and fuck running around trying to fix this. Keep thinking your own thoughts and staying as quiet as you like. Be ready for people to misunderstand you, and resolve to stay calm when they do. When someone tells you the way you are is wrong, notice how much of what that person is saying is a reflection of their own fears and anxieties. Once you understand that rejection isn’t personal, it’s possible to marvel at the wide variety of personalities and tastes out there without feeling angry that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea.
Holding your ground is good for you. When you take up space according to your own whims instead of designing yourself in the image of what someone else wants, it transforms every dimension of your life. You become someone who’s capable of true connection, leadership, collaboration, unique creations, original ideas. There’s no end to the benefits of this kind of confidence and conviction.
You’ll move from this defensive place into a more peaceful, relaxed place soon enough. Keep modeling strong boundaries and healthy people will respect that. Show up and show your heart when you feel open enough to do it, too. The more love and acceptance you give yourself, the less shame you’ll feel and the more open you’ll become. This quiet, calm thing you’ve got going on might just be a phase, and soon you’ll be more garrulous again, but without the anxious need to please others. Stay open and see what happens.
But above all else, don’t let angry or sad or confused or anxious people determine who you should be. Your calm confidence will show them a new way to live, eventually. This is how we change the world: by being exactly who we are, out in the open, without fear.
Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here.
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