Friday, February 3, 2012

Hiding in Plain Sight

I first started stifling my true self in order to fit in when I was four.

I could read before I got to preschool, but, legend has it (and by legend, I mean, my mother likes to tell this story) once I realized the other kids couldn't read yet, I pretended I couldn't either. I didn't want to be the freak, I didn't want to stand out. How I even knew to alter my behavior to try to conform, is beyond me. I guess it was instinctive, somehow. Once I got to "real" school though I figured it out pretty quickly, in concrete terms, and I spent my entire youth + adolescence + teenage years constantly searching for approval from my peers. I didn't want to be left out or made fun of. It was like walking a tightrope, and if I said the wrong thing or revealed what a geeky loser I actually was, I'd fall down into the lion pit and things were hard enough as it was. So I started building that wall and censoring everything I said to make sure it was "okay" so I didn't make a fool of myself. I was desperate to stay in the good graces of my peers. Popularity was out of my reach, maybe, but that didn't mean I had to be ostracized. It was enough to blend in.

When I was little, I was content to live in my own la-la-land world where I would draw and write and read and just imagine shit up and had little interest in other people for the longest time. I was a weird kid that didn't have a lot of friends. These days, my oddball behavior probably would have been classified as autistic and I would have probably been medicated or something, I don't know, but back then, they let it play out. And while I still carry some degree of social awkwardness with me, I think I turned out pretty okay.

There are still specific memories that stand out to me, reminding me why I started trying so hard to figure out how to obey the unwritten codes that dictated the social order. One time when I was at a sleepover, probably one of the first sleepovers I went to, I remember bursting into tears because one of the girls called another girl a bitch (we were like, six, mind you) and asked me if I agreed and I didn't know what the word "bitch" meant and they made fun of me. The next day while we were waiting for our parents to pick us all up, all the popular kids played on the swingset and I stayed off to the side by myself, playing with the farm kittens. I'd never felt so isolated and out of place in my life. It didn't really get much better than that, for a long time. I had to ask - not quite beg, but ask, in a really pathetic sort of way - to hang out with the cool kids at recess. I spent a lot of time by myself. I finally found some consistent friends around fourth grade, but it took a while for that sting to wear off.

I was never what you would call "cutting edge" and I was very sheltered when I was little. I wasn't allowed to watch R-rated movies until I was about fifteen, though I can't say for sure that I didn't "accidentally" do so when I was at a friend's house. I learned about sex by flipping through my mom's issues of Glamour and I pretty much took to heart that drugs were bad when my class was being subjected to the D.A.R.E. program in fourth or fifth grade or whenever it was. I didn't even have my first kiss until I was seventeen, though that may have had more to do with my debilitating shyness than any desire to be well-behaved. Overall, though, I was too afraid to get too out of line so my parents had it pretty easy. I was a good kid.

Being a good kid, however, does not make one popular. It rarely even makes one tolerable, in a world of kids that will make fun of you for just about anything.

It didn't help that I wasn't classically pretty, like the other girls in my class. Being pretty got you everywhere in the social order. Sure, I'm decently attractive now (despite what the voices in my head start to scream at me after I spend just a little too long looking in the mirror), but I wasn't always. I remember my mother telling me I was getting chubby when I was in 4th grade and from that point forward began to question everything about my appearance. I had really bad skin until high school (and even then only because I took some then-experimental skin-clearing drugs that may or may not even still be on the market) and braces and terrible hair. I still hold a grudge against my brother-in-law's brother for something he said to me in sixth grade because it hurt my feelings so much. When I graduated high school, I finally fit the definition of "pretty" but I was so used to being awkward and ugly that even to this day, I frequently see nothing but the flaws. Ask me, and I'll tell you all about them.

So what does this have to do with anything? It has to do with everything.

I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing and being ostracized at my super-cliquey school that I hardly said anything at all over my freshman and sophomore years. I was painfully shy and socially awkward. I'm still kind of socially awkward, but I have learned to force myself out of my shell. People find this all very shocking considering how loud and outgoing I've become, but it's still a focused effort. Sometimes I have to force myself to speak, especially if I'm somewhere with a lot of people that I don't know well. I think a lot of that has carried over. Obviously I watch what I say less often, because I say a lot of stupid shit, but I'm still constantly searching for acceptance.

I'm bringing this up because it's been bothering me a lot lately. I feel like a failure as a friend, because even the people that I consider myself closest to don't get to be privy to the things that go on inside my head. I still keep a lot to myself. I'll dodge questions, I'll avoid certain subjects - basically anything that might reveal anything about my true self. The more I think about it, though, I don't even know why I still do it! My best guess is that I'm simply overcompensating for the fact that I felt miserable and unloved by my peers as a young Kelly and now big grownup Kelly is making a really big effort to feel like she fits in and that people like her.

It's kind of an avoidance issue. I avoid conflict or having to deal with people not liking me, so I build up this facade of being completely aloof and cheerful and whatever else, so that they can't see that I'm a human being too and that I have - gasp - feelings. I don't want people to see that I am weak or vulnerable. That's why I joke around all the time. I mean, it's fun to be the funny one, but a lot of times it's kind of a mask... if I say something funny, it will (a) diffuse a tense situation (b) people will like me (c) they'll label me as "funny" and move on, thereby negating any other potential labels that they might be inclined to give me.

But what good does avoiding everyone serve me, now? I've undoubtedly fucked up so many relationships (and not just of the romantical variety, though God knows how many men I've turned away by my aloof nature.) I've failed so many people. People that have entrusted me with their deepest, darkest secrets (or even light, upbeat secrets, whatever, secrets all the same - things said in confidence), I can't seem to get myself to reciprocate. I don't like to talk about my feelings or dreams or wants or needs, because if someone makes fun of them or looks down on them, then... what's left?

And the rationale inside my twisted little mind tells me it's a bad idea to be vulnerable or open because then they have information that they could use against me to hurt me. (So, maybe it's a trust issue. Or maybe avoidance and trust issues are linked. WHY IS THIS? It's not like I had a fucked up childhood. Shit, my family didn't get weird until I was well beyond an impressionable age.) I've gone this many years without openly expressing my feelings and now it's really, really hard for me to do that. It's terrifying, really. At least to do it with a person sitting across from me, who can see me and my facial expressions and can immediately counter with a response, whereas times like right now I can sit and think about what I want to say. Like I've often thought about taking a tape recorder or something with me so I could maybe verbally "write" while I'm driving, story ideas, blog ideas, thoughts in my head... but I can't even picture saying my thoughts out loud TO MYSELF when I'm in a car BY MYSELF. It's THAT hard for me to express myself in spoken words.

Part of it is that I've become a people-pleaser. I want everyone to like me. (Which isn't surprising, given the first few paragraphs of this post.) Maybe that's why I don't like to pick restaurants. Partially, it's because I truly DO NOT CARE, because I love food and I'll eat just about anywhere, but also that I don't want to pick something that someone else is going to hate and then feel bad that they hate it, or worry that they're going to judge me for picking THAT place. Really, though, I think instead of coming across as being laid-back, it's just kind of annoying. I annoy myself sometimes. Like, just suck it the fuck up and make a decision. I'm getting slightly better at this. I've also developed what I feel to be a win-win situation: let the other person pick the genre, and then I will pick a restaurant from there. It's something, at least.

The rest of it? I don't know. It's probably just a carryover from those earlier years, something I was doing without even realizing it because it was just so automatic. It's like I'm finally waking up and realizing what a pain in the ass I've been, how much I've been hiding from the people that I care about the most. If it's not too late to make a resolution for this year, it's going to be this. To learn to open up, to learn to let people in.

Too bad I have no idea how.

It's taken me several days and several different attempts at writing this, and I'm still not sure it makes any sense. I've been in a weird funk for days (though it could just be PMS, who knows) and it's actually keeping me awake at night. (That, and some severe sinus congestion which is finally subsiding. Ugh.) Now that I've latched on to this, I don't know how to let it go. Obviously something is broken, has been broken for a long time, and it needs fixed. I don't know where to start, I don't know how to do this.

I need help. Advice, encouragement, that sort. Tell me I'm not crazy and that I'm not the only one like this. Help me be a better, more real person. I'm tired of hiding.


chimes said...

Seriously ... read Queen Bees and Wannabes. You'll feel better. I'm reading. There are so many girls like this. It's rite of passage.

I was like this to an extent, until I found a group of people (Nicki's clique) that were just as weird, well-behaved and smart as I was.

I didn't know I was "weird" until somebody told me in high school. I was friends with who I was friends with, hated the popular girls and didn't want to BE a popular girl because they were so mean.

I've always reveled in being myself, and I got the impression you did too. Embrace it.

Also, those of us that are closest to you would appreciate being privy to what's in your head if you would honestly like to share. We aren't going to judge you, and I know you know that, but it's a hard habit to break, what you just described.

chimes said...

PS I still make faces at people who give me weird looks for wearing what I want to wear (apparently nobody has seen kelly green tights before). This is a new development since I've been on campus at ISU recently. LOTS of people give me strange looks. So I make faces at them to show my disapproval of their judging. It's like they think you don't notice. Or that I care. It's hilarious to see their reactions. I get looks at the gym when I wear my "fierce" tights too. Fuck off. I am not there for you. I'm there for me. If I want to wear hot pink tights because it makes me feel badass, then I'm wearing hot pink tights and I am a badass for doing it. And you shouldn't care.

Jenn said...

Every girl - I don't care how popular she is - goes through something weird in middle school. I moved a few times and had to re-defend my weirdness. I was on the fringe of the popular kids, not because they welcomed me with open arms but because I was going out with one of the cute boys. But even with that, I still have very strong memories of hitting puberty before all of the girls, getting boobs and my period before them and making me feel like a giant. Add on top of that a terrible haircut that resulted in years of frizziness before good straighteners were involved, and I was a mess. Oh, and who could forget the excessive sweating? It was always fun to come in after gym or recess and have my underarms sweating up a storm while I tried to focus on math class.

The point is, that I look at the popular girls now and see that not much has changed... they're still beautiful and thin and some are even successful. But the others are working at the bars that I go to and still living at home with their parents. And I use that to remind me that I would much rather have been the awkward, good kid in middle school and high school because it makes me more interesting today. I like my weirdness and I like other people's weirdness because it symbolizes their refusal to submit to the masses. And I like YOUR weirdness :)

likethe309 said...

Kelly, I am not a wordsmith, so I won't even try to leave some epic comemnt here. So here's the truth:

You are an amazing friend-one of the truest friends I've had. No joke, I look up to you. Not in terms of height because God knows we are both tiny. But because you pretty much kickass, whether you realize it or not.

I always have a hard time reading your posts like this because I can relate. It hurts, I know.

I have lots of thoughts and encouragement and all that sappy shit, but like I said, not a wordsmith. I abuse my backspace button every time I try. But I heart you Kelly. You're the best. For reals.

Ashley, the Accidental Olympian said...

I'm an organizer and planner by nature, because I know if I do it, it will get done right the first time, but on the same hand, I never EVER want anyone to hate what I've picked, so I worry, worry, and worry some more.

When I booked a campground for Adam, his parents and myself a few summers ago when we arrived to find it was basically a mobile home park, I lost it. I'd never been there before, so how was I to know what it looked like, and yet I felt the weight of everyone's vacation. I MESSED UP AND PICKED A BAD PLACE. NOW EVERYONE WILL BE MAD AT ME. I was nearly hyperventilating in a paper bag as we waited for Adam's parents to arrive. Instead of saying, "hi so good to see you" when they got there, I started apologizing, for what exactly? Creating this mobile home park just to spite them? Still don't know.

I guess this is a long way of saying that most of us struggle with this in some way. Even the most self confident people are probably worried about what people think. Often the most outspoken people are the most insecure. We get loud and big and scary to keep people out, keep people away. It took me losing my job and instantly dissolving every single wall I'd created over my 23 years of life before I was able to start from scratch and build myself back up the correct way.

I still will always care to some extent what the most important people in my life think of me, but it's easier now not to care what the entire world thinks of me.

We're here with ya lady.

Tori said...

What everyone else said.

Also: Opening up is hard. Like being social, it's hard, and you have to work at it. It has to be a conscious choice each and every time, because it will likely never come naturally.

terra said...


Your story is so much like mine. I tried to fit in at first, but middle school was hell because I was just so damn different. I was weird. Poor. I didn't dress like anyone else. I grew up as a hippie and I just couldn't fit in, no matter how hard I tried. By the end of high school, I stopped trying, but it still hurt to be always be on the outside. ALWAYS. I had a small, tight group of friends, but I still wanted to be part of the in group.

When I went to Vegas for BiSC I made the decision to be all me. And I was, mostly. I still held back a little, but as I've cultivated those friendships, I've let more and more of the real me out. I think to think I just hadn't found my people yet, hadn't discovered the people who could handle my awesome. Lucky me, they're all on the internet!

And PS - you're amazing. And I wish you didn't live so damn far away.

Steph A said...

I'm exactly the same way. Well, i'm not good at pretending to be outgoing or funny. But i kind of try. And it has occurred to me recently that if i just start pretending like i think i'm awesome, maybe i will become awesome. Like, don't even entertain negative thoughts about yourself. We are cool people! ;D