Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sticks and Stones Pt 2

So back to the neurotic mess that is me. During the first years of college, I wound up getting close with a group of friends that I'm still close with to this day. I became very comfortable with them and was able to come out of my shell over time. It was a direct result of having them as a support network. On my first draft of this blog, I realized I could go on about my friends all day. I plan to write about them more as time goes on. I do want to say to all of them, without you, I don't know what I would have done without your support, and I wouldn't be the person I am today.

My guard wasn't completely gone, it still existed, but in a changed form. While I had improved my outlook on life, there was still a strong part of me that didn't like myself and didn't believe anyone else did either. It felt like an empty hole that was unable to be filled. Even without real life situations to put me down, my emptiness took delight in shaping my perceptions. My skewed perceptions would take harmless ordinary situations and turn them into self loathing thoughts. I found myself in a constant struggle.

I was a freshman in college and I went about my business without worrying about anyone else. I’d go to class, finish, go home, and hang out with friends, during that time I saw improvement in my happiness. Until one day I overheard someone laughing on the bus, looking up, I noticed them looking in my direction. Hindsight now tells me it was a random conversation and had nothing to do with me, but my self loathing latched onto it, and I was devastated. I decided at that moment that I needed to take control of people's perception of me. I couldn't control their thoughts, but I could influence them. I went home and threw out almost everything in my wardrobe and wound up replacing it with stuff I liked. Not a lot of variety (army surplus clothes and anything in black), but it was a big step for me, I finally was choosing things that made me comfortable and I had a purpose in making those choices.

My philosophy was that at least I could be in control of how I looked, so if people laughed or didn't like it, fuck them, it's who I was. Oh, and before one of my friends finds this blog and comments, there may have been a bandana or two that I wore at the time as well. (Thankfully to my knowledge there are no pictures that exist for this period of time)
This was an empowering step for me. It redefined how I felt in public. If there were looks/comments I didn't care. I started to recognize that I had much more control of people’s perceptions then I gave myself credit for. I blamed myself for failing to learn this earlier, but it was one of the first times that I accepted my failure without berating myself for it. I was making progress in the social world. Eventually, my wardrobe became a bit more appropriate. However, to this day 95% of my wardrobe is black. The other 5% is dark grey, dark brown or dark blue. I look like crap in light colors and except for a rare work situation, I’m probably not going to be seen too often in a polo shirt either. And don’t even get me started on khakis.

I also met some female friends that I let get inside the shell, which helped give me some feminine perspective. This helped with establishing my sense of self. Not only was it refreshing to have that perspective, and although many of them were just friends. They accepted me in a way that my male friends never could and when I did experience pain from some of those relationships. I could classify it as good pain and something to learn from.

I realize now, that a lot of this development was perfectly natural for who I was, some of it may have started later then it did for others, but we all deal with self esteem issues growing up. And while my circumstances are personal to me, they may be downright average to someone else. Who we are and how we think/react can be as important as the experiences we've encountered.
Taking a moment in remembering some of this, I need to point out some valuable lessons learned from a very close friend, Wendy, who seemed to know more about what I was going through, then I probably ever realized. She recommended a book; called Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman that I can honestly say changed my life. I remember thinking a self-help style book was the last thing in the world that could possibly make a difference, and while I don't agree with all of its philosophies. There were tools in the book, which I was able to adapt and apply to my life. My friendship with Wendy also helped me learn to accept being me, and not to apologize for it. I cannot think of a more important lesson or gift that I had been given to that point in life.

One of the big issues for me and a contributor to why I struggled so much is I never wanted to be anything other then myself. Sure, I was susceptible to trying to fit in at times, but it was never my goal to fit in. I wanted to be me, even if I didn't like who I was. Deep down I wanted to shape my world to my tastes rather then try fit into it.

I learned to constantly challenge my own negative thoughts, and I started seeing it produce positive results in my life. I was able to shape my own criticism and apply my life experiences to its filter. I no longer beat myself up, but learned to think critically about situations around me. I still do it to this day, failure and disappointment no longer mean self loathing, and they often lead to a better understanding of me.

So where the hell does the title of these posts come from? After all, I certainly seem like I’ve moved on from words that harm me. Well, there are two incidents that seem to stand out in my thoughts, they both happened within the last 6 months. Comments that I’ve had trouble getting out of my head. These are things that should have washed off me with no residue, which is where the title comes from and I'm hoping this stroll down memory lane helps me resolve them.

The first was when I was traveling, walking out of a bar one night and two women were passing by, and directed a comment to me that my clothes were too tight. Truth is they were probably right, I'm not at my ideal weight right now, but I'm comfortable with where I'm at, so while they weren't perfectly fit, they probably were a little tight, hell I knew it when I put the outfit on, but it's an outfit that I picked because I felt comfortable in it and I liked how I looked in it. Choosing my clothes often fits a mood or a feeling, sometimes it’s a reflection and sometimes they are chosen to try and achieve a state of mind. So their comments bugged me, hell it's bugged me so much that I'm still stewing over it 6 months later. (Obsessive to say the least).

In thinking about this, my first reaction is how miserable a person must feel to have to say something like that. Considering they said it to someone they didn’t know and who was minding his own business. The comment disturbed me. I felt as small as I used to when I was mocked. So I delved into what was bothering me and came to the conclusion that while it hurt, it wasn’t the same pain. I realized I could care less about their opinion. My mind already was working through the issue subconsciously. Their statement was a trigger that brought it to the front. Once I determined this, I was happy that I wasn’t regressing, but concerned that I was becoming emotionally detached from myself.

The second one is similar in content. At a party with some friends, someone made a casual comment about weight, clothes or something like that, and it hit me in much the same way. I'm relatively sure the person who said it, meant it as a slight joke. I'm friendly with him and have known him for awhile, but our relationship is casual and I don’t expect him to have any knowledge of my inner demons on weight and appearance. It pissed me off, and like the other comment, I was concerned about being upset. I’m strong enough to not let these things get to me anymore. It was a small party with drinking and joking going on. Besides if I was making a comparison between us, I'd feel pretty comfortable I'd come out ahead in weight, looks, and appearance. This isn't a knock on the person, it's just my opinion. And it's unlikely I'd ever offer that opinion outside of this blog, unless of course the person and I were having a discussion and they asked for some advice relating to that topic. Since I can accept it as a casual slip, the perplexing issue is why it still bugged me?

I don’t understand my obsession with these comments. What's it say about self understanding that these rude but fairly harmless comments started this emotional tumble? Why did they resonate so deeply? Why did it take a bit of strut out of my step? Is my self confidence real or some intricately contrived protection mechanism, which still has holes?

I’ve thought about this a lot and have some theories. And while I feel pretty comfortable that these theories of ‘why’ are accurate, the level of anxiety these comments provoked concerns me that my instincts may be off.

Here are my theories. I think I'm obsessing based on my concerns of growing older. At times, I'm embarrassed that I still want to dress and act younger. On some level, I don't want to grow up. Clothes that may not fit perfect regardless of whether they feel right, are telling me something deeper then I'm ready to recognize or able to resolve. It would be so much easier being a snake, shedding my outgrown skin for a new coat. Unfortunately I'm not; the change has to be done through choice, reasoning and understanding. I'm desperately working on doing that.

Now mind you, I'm not looking to be a club going 20 year old again, but my life feels stale and way too structured. I've stated before, that I feel like something’s missing. I recognize that I need structure in my life; I take pride in the fact that I've built this foundation. However, in reviewing the issues and trying to establish a path to resolution, I have to figure out what's important. Only then can I design a path that can incorporate my wants/desires and retain the parts I need.

Figuring out what's important is going to be my next step. I'm scared to death of this step. My foundation incorporates a lot of people that I care deeply about, and there is no way to please everyone with the decisions that are going to be made. I'm no longer naive enough to believe that I'm going to please everyone, but I tend to be highly sensitive to causing other's pain and I need a plan on how it's going to play out.


wendy said...

Hey there.. thank you for your acknowledgment. Ok, pretty scary, that I don't remember that book now. Well this is coming from someone who has a hard time remembering movies she's seen within a years time. Sad, I know. You've made tremendous progress... alas, what others say and think about us can be everlasting. But the best thing is to be present. There is no suffering when we are present. There's no past or future.

Michael said...

I know the feeling on the memory issues, I can't seem to remember jokes, ever. And while I remember a lot, I also know that my memory is subject to the same bias' we all experience. So definitely good advice to not hold on to it too long.