Anyone who knows me will tell you I can sometimes be… challenging.
Yeah, sure, that’ll work.
I have a tendency to self-flagellate, self-deprecating to a fault, which for me is a symptom of my low self-esteem. In recent years, I’ve been doing better. Writing has certainly helped with that. However, one thing I still find difficult is dealing with social situations.
I know how to act like a normal human being most of the time, my friends acting as a safety valve so I can be my usual weird self. It may sound like I’m making a massive deal of something which is fairly everyday. Surely everyone is a little quirky, right?
When I went to school, I learned very quickly that not only did no one share my enthusiasm for being a writer, I was considered a bit strange. I obsessed over things they didn’t care about. I used words they didn’t understand. I had trouble just having fun and enjoying what they liked doing and so started to fall into a “brainiac” persona to protect myself. If I was going to be bullied because I didn’t fit in, it was going to be because I was smart, dammit. This resulted in me becoming standoffish and appearing, for want of a better word, smug.
When I was older, my father mentioned that I might be coming across as arrogant to others. This was after I’d finished my GCSEs and was planning A Levels. When people commented it was unusual for someone to be taking 4 A Levels, I said, “I got really good grades at GCSEs (I did) – I think I should be able to cope!”
Looking back on the words I used, I cringe, because I can see how they could be interpreted as boastful and big-headed. What I meant, and what I was unable to articulate, was that I had driven myself to study bloody hard, that I “knew” I was capable of doing well if I put my mind to it.
Dad pulled me up on it because he knew that other people think the things you say about yourself are about them. Whilst I was really saying “I am not allowed to fail and I will endanger my own sanity for this”, according to my father, other people heard “oh, and *you* aren’t trying hard enough”.
The funny thing was, I didn’t give a shit about what other people were doing. This was because failure really wasn’t an option. It wasn’t conceivable.
It is addictive to aim for your goals and reach them consistently. I had invested much in this persona of the swot, and it had protected me during later years of secondary school. I flavoured that facade with a dash of sarcastic bitch to those I considered hurtful pricks, vowing that I would never again let them see how much they destroyed my overall confidence.
It’s a strange juxtaposition to have a lack of self-esteem whilst having total confidence in your academic ability. I think this was because it was a life raft, something that saved me from drowning. A shame, then, that it was an illusion.
As you can imagine, such delusions only last so long. University nearly destroyed me because it was the first time I had ever felt truly challenged. I wasn’t prepared for that. If failure is not an option, what happens to your reality when the impossible comes true?
And it’s a stupid fear, a dumb fear. Of course I could fail; why not? Everyone can fail.
But at that point, having so deeply invested my self-worth in my academic ability, it wasn’t something I could even comprehend. If I didn’t have that, what was left? After all, even though I wanted to write, I never finished anything because it was too much of a risk. Maybe people wouldn’t like it. Maybe they’d think it wasn’t funny. Either way, the idea of writing brushed too close to the possibility of failure for me to ever really commit to it.
It took me a few years (a decade, perhaps) before I began to address the issues underlying everything else. Like I said, I do better these days. For starters, I write now.
However, I still need to take a moment to cope with being with other people. Sitting on a train every day is fine because we’re all wrapped up in our own thoughts, preparing ourselves for the day ahead or decompressing at the end of it. I had to attend some training today and, before we started, I said some hellos and caught up with some emails. A few others did the same. Behind me, I overheard some older women pointedly talking about how they hated it when everyone was just on their phones or iPads and not speaking to each other.
I found myself getting angry, annoyed that they didn’t get it. I wanted to tell them that sometimes the ability to be alone is actually a massively useful coping mechanism, preventing people (especially me) from getting overwhelmed. That it helps me be sociable, encouraging me to reach out to friends and say hello when I really just want to put on the mask and pretend. Yet I said nothing to the women because I knew that, even if they nodded along as I explained, they would just dismiss the idea as soon as I had gone.
The strange thing is, I take it as a good sign for my own sense of self that I got angry; past me would have internalised their comments. Past me would have analysed my own actions for days. Past me would have prayed to be normal (yes, I used to do that).
Tomorrow night, a play I wrote is going to be performed. For me, this is something I could never imagine happening 10 years ago. Of course, I’m still terrified about the whole thing.
Will people like it? (Maybe)
Will people laugh? (Hopefully)
Will people understand my weird similes? (Perhaps it’s best they don’t)
And I’m scared I’ll fail. What’s different this time is that I’m doing something because I enjoy it. I’m writing not because I know I can do it, but because I want to do it. I’m writing and submitting work because I have a better sense of who I am and am more comfortable in my own skin than ever before, even if that is as someone who knows she’s sometimes very uncomfortable around others.
I’m more able to recognise that there is a need for social graces at times, but that there’s no point trying to fit in 24/7. Accepting that (and having the confidence to challenge someone trying to enforce their ideas upon me of how they think I should behave) means that at nearly 35 years old I think I may finally be starting to become the person I actually am.
She’ll be the one in the back row, by the way, making notes on what works and what doesn’t, not so she can use it as yet another torturous reminder of fucking up, but as a means of getting better.