Extroversion takes energy the one woman show I perform cannot be dropped in front of another No one knows the immense effort it takes to make conversation and answer phone calls to smile and be presentable and friendly For once I'd just like recognition for all the inner work I'm doing to fit the mold society expects of me It's hard to accept I must spend my limited mental resources on tasks other people do on autopilot Never knowing if my performance is enough wondering if little slip ups have gone unnoticed and made me look arrogant, careless, and rude It can take hours or even days to return to a sense of internal equilibrium after an interaction an animal trembling and pacing from stress Violently shaking off the charged emotional energy is generally frowned upon by polite society so I choke it down and hold it in People say "be yourself" but I've always known that didn't include me when I speak a different language entirely Misinterpretation and misunderstanding my wires are tangled and connected in ways that do not translate I've always felt like an alien endangered by my innocent inability to blend in envious of how others make it look so easy
I just returned home from yet another bout of Christmas shopping after my yoga class. It seems like I do this every year, but never learn my lesson. I start my Christmas shopping early to make sure that I don’t have to rush around at the last minute. I make a list, I get all the items on said list, but then, I continue to buy things randomly for the rest of the weeks leading up to Christmas. It has become something like a compulsion. I can’t stop myself. I am in a continuous state of oscillation between feeling like I didn’t get everyone enough stuff and feeling like I got them too much stuff.
For the majority of the year, I am the cheapest person you’ll ever meet. I very rarely buy any one item that’s more than $10. I spend the vast majority of my money on groceries every week. I don’t go out to restaurants or movies or shows. I don’t buy myself clothes or jewelry. Hell I even procrastinate going to the dentist because I don’t want to pay my new copay. I pretty much solely shop in the clearance section of any store. I honestly can’t remember the time I bought something for myself at full price. Yet when Christmas comes around I become blind to the amount of money I am spending.
The money thing is more just something I find intriguing. I’m not worried about the money. I have plenty to spend and I much prefer spending money on other people than myself. The bigger problem is my fear of what other people will think about how much I’ve spent on them. You see, I like to at least get something little for everyone in my life. I want to get my two closest friends at work gifts even though I didn’t pick either of them for our secret Santa, I want to get my boyfriend’s parents something, I want to get my friend’s husband something, my sister’s boyfriend and his daughter something, etc. I never think much of doing so, until I realize that they may feel bad for not getting me anything, or feel like they are expected to get me a gift the following year.
It seems like no matter which way I go, more gifts or less, I feel like I am going to make people uncomfortable. I think my anxiety/autism has a lot to do with my difficulties during the holidays. I’m an extremely affectionate person. Yet I honestly doubt most people in my life know that about me. Normally, I am too self-conscious or afraid of being vulnerable to express it. Christmas is the one time of year that I have a socially acceptable way to show the people in my life how much they mean to me. I spend a lot of time and thought on the gifts I get, trying to make sure it’s something the person will like and actually use. I write vomit inducing, heartfelt Christmas cards. I get much more excited to give to others on Christmas than to receive anything myself. Honestly, I don’t care about the latter part at all.
However, being the socially awkward person that I am, I have no way to gauge what is enough and what is too much. I don’t know how to find the balance between expressing my love and going so over the top that the other person feels guilty. I just hope that the people in my life understand that it is truly a joy for me to have an opportunity to give them tokens of my affection. It doesn’t matter to me if they didn’t get me as many things or spend as much money or even get me anything at all. In my mind these gifts have already been reciprocated in kind by their presence in my life the rest of the year.
Opening myself up to others has never been one of my strong suits. Yet I know from experience, and many things I’ve read, that vulnerability is necessary in order to achieve true intimacy. This is exactly where my dilemma lies. I was fascinated by the realization I happened to stumble upon the other day surrounding this idea and how it has influenced my own life.
Sometimes I end up resenting and pushing away the people I most admire. I become frustrated by how much better I think they are than me. I paint this picture in my head of someone on a pedestal. So far above my strange little eccentricities and flaws that they could never possibly understand me. At first I feel embarrassed and unworthy of their attention and/or affection. I think to myself: well if they knew who I really was they wouldn’t want anything to do with me. Whether that’s really true or not, that thought eventually turns angry and I think: oh, fuck them then. I don’t need them anyway. I grow tired of pretending to be someone I’m not to maintain their approval. (Whether I even need to do so or not, remains unknown.) I either retreat myself or begin to push them away. This seems like a better option than what I view as the only other: that I am seen for who I really am and rejected.
I was running this problem over in my head the other day, when I began to wonder how I have any intimate relationships at all. I mean, of course there are plenty of people that I am able to be vulnerable with, people that I feel safe showing myself too. So what’s different about those relationships? I discovered that there are really only two ways I’ve been able to get close to someone in the past.
One way is when a person gets to know me before I decide I really give a damn about them or what they think of me. This happened more often when I was in high school and college. My first boyfriend knew all of my dirty little secrets before I fell in love with him or even became close friends with him just because we had classes together. In these instances, the fact that this casual acquaintance does not reject me for what they discover is extremely endearing to me. I begin to like them more because they’ve seen who I am and have not turned away, or perhaps even like me better for it. It feels so good to be seen. And I feel that they must be an exceptionally kind and compassionate person if they could still like me after truly seeing me.
The other way is when the other person is very outgoing and open. If they pour their heart out to me, I am usually so touched by their vulnerability and trust that I feel safe enough to offer my own. The closest people in my life have historically been extremely extroverted. Their bravery gives me the courage to open up. They also tend to ask me lots of probing questions, which I actually enjoy. Some people might find that rude, but I love nothing more than having someone ask me about myself or my experiences. I’m far too self-conscious to offer up that information willingly. So unless I’m directly asked, a lot of my life remains unknown to even my friends. Even if I desperately want them to know. I just feel too embarrassed to offer up unsolicited information about myself because I think no one would care.
So having noticed this pattern, how can I get close to someone who does not fall into either of these two categories? I am genuinely at a loss on that one. Not only am I too afraid to let this person find out too much about me and my past, they also don’t ask about it at all. Even if I wanted to tell them, I would have no idea how to bring it up besides just blurting it out randomly. And I don’t think that would be helpful even if I could muster up the courage to do it.
I’m not sure where this fear of being seen began. I cannot even remember a time where I was rejected for showing someone who I truly am. I’ve always been accepted and shown compassion. And each time this simple act of decency and kindness has touched me deeply. Each time I can hardly believe it, can hardly accept it, and feel certain that I don’t deserve it. Even though I know that I only end up liking someone more after they’ve shown me their flaws. I don’t love them despite these imperfections. I love them more because of their imperfections and the fact that they trusted me enough to share them with me.
I can’t seem to let go of this belief that I am not worthy of anyone else’s love until I am perfect. But that is obviously ridiculous. People don’t want someone who is “perfect.” (I certainly don’t.) People like other real, imperfect people far more. Consider the popularity of the anti-hero. Everyone loves a deeply troubled TV or movie character with redeeming qualities more than one who is infallible. Because no one is perfect. We see ourselves in the revealed shortcomings of others and we love them for it, as we can only hope others will love us for ours.
I am not being fair to myself or the people I hold dear by withholding and hiding these imperfect parts of myself. It’s not fair for me to breed resentment towards someone for my perception that they could never accept or understand me. Especially when I refuse to even give them the chance. I know deep down that I don’t have to be afraid. Certainly some people will reject me, but so many more have already embraced me and my flaws. Not only that, but by hiding myself away for fear of judgement, I am sending myself the message that I am not enough as I am, that I am unworthy of being seen and loved. And that’s not what I believe, not really. What I really believe is best summed up in the words of my favorite poet:
No matter how insignificant I may be, I believe I deserve to be loved.Federico Garcia Lorca
I’ve been reading a book about the gut microbiome that has led me to some very interesting realizations. In this book, the author talks about the possible connection between different gut microbiomes and mental health diagnosis, including autism. I’ve yet to really reach the part that explains the interaction between the two, but just the idea that there might be some interaction got me thinking. This book also discusses the physiology behind our “gut” instincts. Apparently that is more that just a turn of phrase. We really do receive physical signals from our guts that effect our decision making process. Or at least… some of us do.
My curiosity piqued, I decided to look up if there was any correlation between autism and lowered levels of intuition. I was excited to discover that indeed there is! I found many different research articles pointing out this interesting phenomenon. One of which stated: The ASD group produced less intuitive responses, and the degree of ASD-like traits showed a negative correlation with intuitive responses and positive correlation with reflective responses on the CRT. Together, these results are consistent with ASD being associated with reduced intuitive reasoning and greater deductive reasoning.
I was honestly thrilled and relieved to finally have an explanation for my apparent lack of intuition. All my life, the idea of “following your gut” or “trusting your intuition” didn’t make much sense to me. I never quite understood what people were talking about when I heard things like this. Yet it is such a common part of our language, that I kind of just let it go and assumed it was just something people said. One of those things that didn’t really mean anything specific, but had more of a personal interpretation that would mean something slightly different for everyone.
Then in recent years as I got more involved with spiritual practices like yoga, there was that idea of intuition again. Now it seemed to be something more real and tangible that I just wasn’t taping into. I couldn’t understand why I was not receiving any of these gut signals. I honestly can’t recall a single time in my life when I made a “gut decision” on anything. Even then I would hear things insinuating that meant I just wasn’t trusting my intuition. But that never fit me either. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust myself. There was nothing to trust or distrust. It has always been radio silence from my gut. The voice of my intuition has never spoken to me, so how could I learn to trust it?
Understanding that gut instincts and intuition are real things and I simply don’t have them, has changed my entire perception of the world and the way others make decisions. It finally makes sense why many of the people I meet in life make so many decisions that I cannot fathom. They are using an entirely different mechanism than I am. Now I see that while all of my decision are very calculated and logical, because I am solely using my deductive reasoning skills, others have another source of input that is completely alien to me. It makes much more sense now how and why someone could make a decision that, to me, seems utterly nonsensical. They are factoring in information from both their brains and their guts, whereas my brain has always been all I have to go off of.
Not only is this new insight absolutely fascinating to me, it is also rather comforting. Sure, I’m a bit disappointed to know I may never understand this experience, it’s reassuring that it isn’t because I’m not trying hard enough or because I am cut off from myself. People often ask me why I would even want to seek out an autism diagnosis, and this is a perfect example of why. There are so many aspects of myself that I have lived most of my life feeling bad about. I can’t even remember a time where that little voice inside my head wasn’t asking, “what’s wrong with me?” or “why can’t I just be normal?” Understanding the role autism plays in my personality and mental traits, is reassurance that my differences are not personal failings. I don’t have to keep struggling and trying to be like everyone else. I’m not like everyone else. But I am also not alone. There are so many other people out there like me who have the same difficulties. It’s such a comfort to know that there is nothing “wrong” with me. I’m just running on a different operating system. And that’s okay.
At my office, autism has been on our minds a lot since the release of Love on the Spectrum, Season 2. My friend and I can’t stop discussing it and how much we genuinely love the people on the show. However, it is somewhat hard for me to discuss from a neutral position. If you’ve read a lot of my posts, you may already know that I believe I am on the spectrum. I’ve mentioned this to my work friend, but he seemed to shrug it off as if I was mistaken. I’m one of the many people that are just starting to be diagnosed later in life who “don’t look autistic.” My friend sees the way I behave and how well I manage interactions and daily responsibilities and assumes I couldn’t possibly be autistic.
But that’s part of the problem. It’s why so many people like me go undiagnosed for so long. Autism Spectrum Disorders are just that. They’re on a spectrum. Many people with high functioning autism, formerly known as Asperger’s, are able to fly under the radar for most, if not all of their lives, especially when these individuals happen to be women. People assume we function just the same as everyone else, but no one can see or hear what goes on inside my head. Even though I am able to appear “normal,” no one knows what immense effort that takes. How much time and energy I have to invest in learning the correct social etiquette for different situations, how awkward and anxious I can be when caught off guard or placed in an unfamiliar social environment. The only reason I am able to mask my struggles so well is because I am also extremely intelligent. Even though I don’t have the natural intuition for social cues, I have worked tirelessly to teach myself throughout my life.
Autism is still a fairly new disorder, and I have faith that we will be able to understand it better as time goes on. We have already made a lot of progress. However, I find it frustrating, given my experience with autism, that it is used as an explanation for a lot of the struggles for people who are autistic and low-functioning. In my opinion, their autism isn’t necessarily what is making it so difficult for them to function in society. It plays a part, but I think there are a lot of cooccurring disorders that are also playing a role, as well as the difficulties faced by those with general intellectual disabilities and low intelligence. If you have an IQ below 70 you are going to have a lot of struggles, regardless of whether you’re autistic or not. I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to pin it all on autism, especially given that there are so many people that function so much better with the same disorder.
I think this misunderstanding and/or misdiagnosis does a lot of damage to the general public’s understanding of autism. My friend at work actually mentioned a potential “cure” for autism. I know he meant well, but I was still slightly offended. I don’t want my autism to be “cured.” I value my differences. Autism is an important part of who I am as a person. Would I be an atheist or a vegan if not for my autism allowing me to disregard social norms and societal expectations? I can’t say for sure, but I have to think it’s at least a possibility. It seems like a lot of the vegans I follow online sooner or later come out with an autism diagnosis. Of course correlation (especially anecdotal) doesn’t prove causation, but it’s an interesting theory I’ve been mulling over for awhile now.
I’ve heard a few autistic individuals refer to it as a superpower and I am inclined to agree with that description. They are certainly drawbacks and I often wish that I could “just be normal,” but if I had the choice, I doubt I would change myself to fit in better in the world. Society sees autism as a tragedy. How sad it must be to not understand these treasured social norms. But for those of us living with autism, we could care less about your social norms. You’re perplexed why we don’t understand, and we’re perplexed why you think they make sense.
I love myself for exactly who I am, autism and all. And I hope that the day comes where I can afford to be formally diagnosed. I also hope the day comes when I won’t have to fear disclosing my autism to others. I am simultaneously fearful that they will think there is something wrong with me, or that they may think I’m not really autistic. I am very selective with who I confide in about this conclusion I’ve come to. I haven’t even told my boyfriend about it. Honestly whenever I do get tested I think he should be as well. His older brother is definitely autistic, although undiagnosed, and autism does have a genetic component. God only knows if I’ll ever discuss this with him though for fear of offending him. I am equally fearful that he will look at me differently when I disclose my own autism.
The increasing number of people being diagnosed with autism and the sheer amount of it I see in my own life, leads me to believe that it is a valuable part of human evolution. And it’s nothing new. It’s just starting to be more understood and recognized. Autistic people are important. Our contributions are important. Our perspectives are important. I’m sure plenty of the eccentric, brilliant people that have made important contributions in the past would have been diagnosed as autistic if they were alive today. There is no “cure.” And there doesn’t need to be. I don’t think of it as a disorder at all. It’s just how some people are, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.
As some of you may already know, despite no formal diagnosis, I fully believe that I have “high-functioning” autism. Although this self-diagnosis has given me great comfort, I’m very careful about who I talk about it with. A lot of people don’t believe me and respond with a surprised look. I don’t blame them, before I looked into it, I wouldn’t have believed me either. The way autism is portrayed in the media isn’t the way mine looks. I am able to blend into society quite well. I’m like a duck, gracefully gliding along the water. No one can see how hard I’m actually working just below the surface.
I don’t necessarily want to talk about my autism today. I want to talk about the way I view autism in general. I’m not quite sure how the autistic spectrum was determined. The two ends of it appear as totally different disorders in my opinion. How not being able to speak or live on your own and having trouble understanding social cues can be classified as the same disorder never ceases to amaze me. It made more sense to me when high-function autism was called Asperger’s. Anyway, when I refer to “autism” from here on out, know that I am speaking mainly about high-functioning autism.
I guess I’m biased, but to me, a lot of the symptoms of autism seem to be more natural than “normal” behavior. For instance, I’ve always thought it strange that human beings are expected to make eye contact with one another. In the rest of the animal kingdom, direct eye contact is a threat, a sign of aggression. I don’t blame myself for getting anxious and having to make a concerted effort to look someone in the eye when talking to them. The rest of the natural world seems to agree with me that this is not a great idea.
Another common trait of autism is not quite understanding or falling in line with social customs. However, most of these things have been arbitrarily created throughout the centuries. It seems more bizarre to me that most people appear to have inherent knowledge about these rules of etiquette. How should one be expected to know, understand, and accept things that continue to change throughout history and geography? Perhaps autism wasn’t discovered until recent times because in the past there actually were things like cotillion and other ways in which people were formally educated on how to properly behave in society.
The final autistic trait I’d like to comment on is often referred to as “stimming.” This is when a person does some form of repetitive motion in response to strong emotion, either positive or negative. One of the more common forms of stimming is hand flapping. This is one of the key factors that causes me to believe I am on the spectrum. I have had the urge to do this for as long as I can remember. I remember my mother advising me not to do it and my sister teasing me about it as a young child. Since then, I’ve learned to control this behavior in front of others. However, I still have the strong urge to move or flap my hands after a stressful or exciting event. As a teenager, while sitting on the classroom floor, my friends asked me why I was always rocking side to side while we did so. This was another form of stimming that I hadn’t even realized I was doing!
Even more so than the other things I’ve mentioned, I think stimming is actually a natural, beneficial behavior. I hadn’t realized it until hearing it discussed on a podcast the other day, but animals will often be seen doing something similar. It’s quite normal to see a dog shake their whole body after something stressful or exciting happens. I have seen many different species of animals doing something like this. It is a way to discharge excess energy or stress, a way to quite literally “shake it off.” It even makes me wonder where that expression originally came from. Perhaps I wouldn’t be such a tightly wound, anxious individual if I hadn’t been discouraged from doing this self-soothing behavior by society.
I’ve started to see my autism as something to be embraced, rather than just something that sets me apart from most of the people around me. It makes me feel more in tune with the natural world and other animals. To me, society is what’s strange, not my behavior. I’m simply doing my best to assimilate into this painfully artificial world human beings have created. From now on I am not going to stifle myself. When I have that overwhelming urge to shake, I’m going to shake without shame. I’d much rather fit in with the rest of the animals than humans anyway.
Whether I like someone or not, it’s really important that they like me. I have an overwhelming desire to be liked by anyone and everyone I encounter. Even if I hate someone, I will be devastated if they hate me back. I really have no idea why I care. For the most part, I don’t like people anyway. Why does it matter so much to me whether or not I’m liked? Perhaps it has something to do with anxiety and my fear of confrontation. It does seem safer to be friends with everyone in that regard.
Today I’d rather talk about the problem with people pleasing in general rather than my own pathology. People pleasers like me try to become whoever they believe the other person would like them to be. Sounds simple enough. But how can any of us really know what someone else wants? We may spend years cramming ourselves into a false persona when the person we are doing it for would have preferred who we really are. Or maybe they secretly find us extremely annoying, but mask their true feelings out of politeness. No matter how hard you try or how “good” you become at winning people over, you can never really be sure of what someone else wants. Knowing this, your best bet is always to just be yourself. You’ll never be able to make everyone happy. But if you remain true to who you are, at the end of the day you’ll at least have your integrity.
Otherwise what happens when you are in a room full of people? Whose needs do you cater to? You may find that the person you are with friend X is someone that friend Y would utterly despise. Then what are you supposed to do? I suppose in that situation I choose the persona that fits more closely with who I really am. Any backlash from the other party is buffered by knowing that I have the friend I prefer there to have my back. Yet you always run the risk of being found out as “fake.”
That term always interests me. What does it really mean to be fake? I always hold true to my main beliefs no matter who I’m talking to. We all have slightly different versions of ourselves that we present for different situations or occasions. At what point does it become fake though? We all have to be a little fake in order to conform to societies standards.
The biggest issue my people pleasing has caused me is when it comes to my work. Social work is not a great field for people pleasers like me. No matter how atrocious the parents or clients I deal with are, I desperately want them to like me. I once brought cigarettes to an old man I worked with while he was in the hospital, because I was afraid he’d be mad at me if I didn’t. I really struggled the other day not to agree with this mom who was outraged that she got in legal trouble for giving her 10 year old daughter a tattoo! These types of situations are incredibly hard for me to navigate.
As someone who is probably on the autistic spectrum, I learn most of my interpersonal skills from direct observation. I think the only reason I’m as good at blending in as I am is because I watched so much TV growing up. It may not be the best reference for real life situations, but it does give you a good idea of how to talk to people in a wide variety of scenarios. I am always eager to observe someone else in a situation that I would have no idea how to respond to. Luckily I’ve gotten the chance to watch our therapist at the office for the last few years and learn from her. I would love to be a fly on the wall of her therapy sessions and meetings with the parents so that I could absorb even more.
At the end of the day, however, no one is going to be liked by everyone. No matter how good of a communicator you are. Eventually we all have to accept that we just aren’t going to get along with some people. Rather than continuing to practice the best ways to be liked and accepted by others, I’d like to spend some time finding out how to like and accept myself. Maybe ultimately that is what makes a people pleaser, someone who needs external reassurance in order to feel okay with themselves. Unfortunately any positive feedback rings hollow when you’re simply playing a role.
Today’s yoga class is the last one I’ll ever have the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite regular students. She is an older woman named Carol. I felt a strong connection to her right away and was always pleased to see she would basically only come to the studio on Saturdays for my class. We would always stay and chat for a few minutes after class about our practice or about politics. She was truly a delight. There was a palpable absence when she didn’t come to class.
A few weeks ago I found out that she was moving back to her home state. I was quite sad knowing that soon I’d have to say goodbye to one of my students and a good friend. As I prepared my class for this week, I decided to design it specifically for Carol. At the end of practice she always works on her bakasana (crow pose) and urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow pose.) As a special treat for her I made the whole class a build up to get us ready for those exact poses. I was happy to talk with her after class to discover that she noticed and appreciated this gesture of mine. I also gave her a small farewell gift. I had planned to give her one of my many hag stones since they are supposed to be good luck. However, I forgot them when I left this morning. Fortunately, I had a lucky howlite crystal keychain I decided to give to her instead.
If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that I am not very good with people. I’ve never really understood how to appropriately approach different social situations. So while these kind gestures may seem second nature to a lot of you reading this post, know that for me it took a great deal of consideration and effort. To be honest, I don’t really know if that was “normal” or not when saying goodbye to someone you care about. I often worry that I am being over the top. As I was contemplating what type of small gift I could give her, I even second guessed doing anything special at all. She is just someone I see once a week for an hour or so that I probably won’t ever see again. I’ve certainly parted from people that were more integral in my life with less fanfare, sometimes without as much as a goodbye. I noticed that I was asking myself if it was “worth it.”
Most people seem to interact with others in the way they do simply because it comes naturally. For me, each interaction requires a lot of thought and careful consideration. I spend my mental and emotional energy very sparingly. So when I thought about the fact that I would never see this person again, the cold, logical side of my brain told me it would be a waste to exert any energy making an effort for a relationship that was inevitably ending. Normally I will justify kind gestures by telling myself it will end up being a benefit to me in the future. Even though that may sound heartless and selfish, it’s just the way my brain works even when I do genuinely care about the person involved. It’s usually the only way I can keep myself from avoiding the interaction all together.
I decided to just ignore that icy, calculating side of myself this time though. I felt like I wanted to do something for Carol, so I did. It felt right, and that was enough. Then, as I saw how much my small gestures meant to her, as I saw her teary eyes above her mask as she thanked me for everything, I knew I made the right decision. It doesn’t matter if I don’t see or hear from her again. It doesn’t matter if ten years from now I don’t even remember she exists. Sometimes it’s okay to just be grateful for the fleeting moments in life. Today was about honoring the meaningful connection I made with another human being if only for a brief period in time.
I am always so focused on the future, that sometimes it can be hard for me to find value in the temporary. Yet, nothing lasts forever. Today was a reminder of that. It was a reminder that each moment must be appreciated for what it is, without worrying about what it could be or what it will mean for the future. Isn’t is good enough to be happy just for the sake of being happy? It doesn’t have to last indefinitely for it to mean something. There is truly a lesson in everything if you care to look for it. I am grateful for Carol and the many lessons I’ve learned thanks to having her in my life for the time that I did. I hope she has gained as much from our time together as I have.
I was reminded again yesterday, that I really have a warped perception of myself. I genuinely have no idea how other people see me. One of the detectives I work with was excited to show me a YouTube channel he found. He said that the girl on this channel looked exactly like me. I am always extremely nervous when someone tells me they found someone that looks like me. Usually it is very flattering, but being someone that has an eating disorder, this is a great way to trigger me. Not that anyone has ever compared me to anyone heavy, but once I was compared to someone on Instagram that wasn’t exactly how I wanted to see myself. I was upset about that one for days.
Luckily this time the YouTuber in question was drop-dead gorgeous. She had an alternative look and long, beautiful, black hair. I still never know how to respond when someone approaches me with something like this, but overall I was very happy. Even though I do not see the resemblance at all. It’s interesting to contemplate the disconnect between the way others see me and the way I see myself. I used to glance at strangers and try to find someone I thought had a similar body type and build so that I could see how I must look to others. Eventually I gave up on this because it only upset me. I would be interested to see if the people I thought were built similar to me would be the people those around me would pick as well. I once even found a website where you could enter your height and weight and it would produce pictures of other people with the same dimensions. That one fucked me up for weeks. Even though the images produced could vary wildly, I always assumed I was closer to the less pleasing photos, rather than the women that looked like models at my height and weight.
My sister always used to tell me that I had body dysmorphia. Basically, that’s a mental disorder where you have an extremely altered perception of your physical appearance, usually focusing in on one aspect of yourself like your nose or your ears or your weight to hyper-fixate on. Part of me has always really wanted to believe she was right, but then a larger part of me always says, “well if that’s true you’re acknowledging that you aren’t as fat as you think you are, which is obviously ridiculous.” However in recent years, I’ve come to mostly accept that label even though I’ve never been formally diagnosed. (As you can tell I’m one of those four year psych degree people that loves to self-diagnose: autism, eating disorder, body dysmorphia, generalized anxiety, feel free to roll your eyes.) Anyway, I now view body dysmorphia as just a label that explains that I don’t know what a really look like. It’s as if I am always looking at myself in a funhouse mirror. My self-perception has a tendency to vary immensely from one day to the next, one moment to the next. And of course I always identify with the least flattering reflections most of all.
It can be really nice to be reminded that other people view me differently than the way I view myself. It’s honestly hard to believe. I can’t help but wonder if they are just lying to me or attempting to flatter me for some unknown reason. Oh, the inner ramblings of a mentally ill mind. It makes it quite difficult to know what’s real and what’s not. At the end of the day, I try to let all of this nonsensical pondering go completely. After all, it doesn’t really matter what I look like. One day whatever looks I have now will fade away. I will become shriveled, wrinkled, and grey. And I don’t want to have placed all of my value and self-worth in a youthful appearance. There is so much more to life than what you look like.
It does raise the question of how others perceive the rest of me. I don’t think my self-perception is much better when it comes to my character or personality. I really couldn’t say what words other people might use to describe me. Perhaps I should make a point to start asking them, letting them know before hand that I want their honest opinion no matter what. I can’t even image what kinds of words they might use to describe me to be honest. But I am so curious, because those are the perceptions that really matter in the end. However, even with these descriptions I am so much quicker to believe anything negative about myself than anything positive. When someone says nice things about me, it can make me feel uncomfortable, even guilty. I think, “Oh no, I have somehow tricked them into thinking better of me than they should. They are going to be so upset if they ever find out who I truly am.” I know these thoughts may seem ridiculous, but they come up more than I’d like to admit.
The sad thing is, that none of these opinions or perceptions of other people are what’s important. Because ultimately it’s my own self-perception that matters most. Sadly it is also the least flattering perception I’ve encountered. I’m hopeful that maybe learning to trust the perceptions other people have of me will give me the confidence to start to see myself differently.
Shame is a powerful emotion. It grips us, stays with us. While other memories fade, shame seems to linger, just as poignant as it felt in the moment, for years afterwards. I can still remember some of the very first moments in my life that made me feel ashamed. The first was in daycare. I must have been only three or four years old. We were going around the group, introducing ourselves maybe, all I can remember is that after our turn, we got to pick a toy from this massive pile in the center of the circle we were seated in. Immediately I fell in love with this florescent yellow/green duck stuffed animal. The rest of the world seemed to fall away as I focused on how I had to have it. I began to feel panicked that another child would choose it before I could. Who wouldn’t choose that magnificent duck?! This panic led me to speak out of turn. In desperation I tried to take my turn early so I could secure the duck, but was gently chastised and told I had to wait. That is my first memory of shame. A shame so sour that even though I did end up getting that duck (still have it today at my mom’s house) the moment was ruined anyway.
I also have another very early memory of shame. It was my first day of kindergarten or one of the first. My family and I were seated around the table having dinner. I was telling everyone how my day went at school. There was a boy I knew because our fathers were friends, and I had always had a crush on him. At one point during dinner I proudly announced that I had told this boy that I loved him. To this day I can feel that sickening silence that followed. My mom, dad, and sister all stopped and stared at me dumbstruck. I immediately recognized that I had done something wrong. I don’t even remember how that incident ended, nor if it was ever brought up again. I just remember that bitter piercing shame.
I’ve read before that shame has a profound effect on us. I don’t need to be shown much evidence to believe that it’s true. We can all feel the power of shame in our own lives. Sometimes I wonder how those early memories of shame have bled out into the rest of my life, how they changed me. Generally shame is a social emotion. It is a cue that what we’ve done is not socially acceptable and that it could put our place in the group/society at risk. This is why it strikes us so intensely. It is a defense against behaviors that could get us ostracized. Although like most remnants of our evolutionary history, in the modern day sometimes it can be a hindrance instead of a help.
I’m actually not sure if anyone else experiences this, but I feel shame about things even when I’m all alone. And not about anything that would make sense to feel shame about. There are moments when shame grips me deep down, in my core. I feel ashamed to exist, to be who I am. For example, sometimes I’ll be having fun dancing and singing in the shower only to be suddenly overcome with shame. It’s hard to explain why. I guess I’m ashamed of feeling good about myself, of what other people would think if they knew how I had just been feeling and acting. It doesn’t really make sense even to me. But because of these feelings up until recently I would hardly ever allow myself to dance, even all alone.
It makes self-love and self-acceptance very tricky for me. Because my shame primarily seems to come from moments of feeling proud or liking myself. It usually follows intense happiness or joy about something I’ve done or am doing. Like this blog for instance. I love writing on here everyday. It makes me happy and I’m not doing it for anyone but me. But there are still moments when I feel ashamed of the things I’ve written. I think to myself: how dare you think anyone cares what you have to say, it’s so embarrassing that you prop up this false image of yourself online. I think similar things about anything I create. I’ll be so happy with it and desperately want to share it with others, but when I do I feel ashamed. I’m ashamed for thinking anyone else would care, for wanting to “show off.” I never fully believe any compliments I get. There is always some small part of me that wonders if they are just being nice.
All of this shame I harbor inside of me is just another example of how I tend to take life too seriously. Shame only works if you care about what people think of you, if you have an image of yourself you are trying to protect. When I imagine the times when I’ve seen someone else do something embarrassing or shameful, I don’t care much. At most I just feel pained because I am empathically sharing their embarrassment. I want to start facing my shame, to get acquainted with it, to know what makes it tick. And eventually to make peace with it. Shame is a product of the ego. I hope to someday let them both go.