I was in a situation two days ago where I apparently reacted wrongly to something. I didn’t even know until today when it was brought to my attention. I feel extremely stressed out now, reminded of how easy it is for me to get things wrong and not even realize it.
Two days ago, I heard a person who shall remain nameless yelling. I went to see what was wrong. It turned out she had gotten a minor physical injury. I was concerned, so I asked her if she was okay. I offered to get her some hydrogen peroxide to clean the wound and some antibiotic ointment, but she said there was no need, she already had some. I then set about working to remove the problem that had resulted in the injury. Not that it had been my fault at all, but at least I could be part of the solution. That accomplished, I went back to what I was doing. Oops.
For the last two days, the situation has been playing on my mind (not my reaction, which I didn’t even realize was a problem, but just the fact that it had happened in the first place), so I sent her an e-mail today asking if the wound was healing or if there were signs of infection, and I told her I’d been brainstorming of ways to prevent the same thing from happening again.
She replied that she was glad I’d e-mailed her, because she’s been upset at me for the last two days because I didn’t seem to care that she was injured. She said I seemed to have no reaction; I had appeared completely unconcerned and had just “walked away.” She said I should have paid more attention to her, and she’s been feeling hurt ever since.
I assured her I did care, and reminded her that when I walked away it was to try to solve the problem so it wouldn’t happen again. I only did that because I cared, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. I also told her not to ever look at me for “reactions” because I will always get those wrong. I just don’t have that — whatever it is — in me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel anything on the inside. It’s just that something is broken between the feeling inside and the outward manifestation of it.
I don’t think she really understood what I was saying.
I’m now feeling all this shame because I got that situation wrong. And I’m feeling anxiety knowing that I might get something like that wrong again. It’s so hard to know in the moment what is required of me, and to act out the correct response. And it would be an act, because even though the feelings are there, the correct actions are apparently not natural for me like they are for other people.
I understand now that I was supposed to show warmth and compassion, but even if I had tried I’m sure I would have gotten it wrong and it would have come across as fake, which probably would have done more harm than good. Again, I did care, and I did feel compassion, but I still don’t know how I could have authentically demonstrated that.
I wish I could just stay away from people so I don’t hurt their feelings all the time, but life circumstances don’t seem to allow me to do that.
One of my long-time friends made the 7-hour drive from another city to visit me last month. She stayed for four days. Our apartment is small, but we made a private little space between the back of the couch and the wall for her air mattress, and that worked well.
It was really nice having her here. We went out shopping and dining. One day we went to the farmer’s market and another day we went to the beach. We had great conversations. I find it really easy to talk to her.
I wrote a blog post in June about not having a social life in this city and said I didn’t really mind that I have no friends here. But my friend’s visit was a nice reminder of how much I can really enjoy being with a friend and socializing when it’s with the right person. With the small number of people I naturally click with and already love and trust, it’s easy to be with them. There’s no social anxiety or constant ruminating on our conversations afterward, wondering what I might have said wrong, like I do with most people.
It makes me wish that I could live in the same city as her. Or that I could make a new friend like her where I do live. But I don’t know if I can make friends like that now. It seems like I made all my friends when I was young and I don’t connect with any new people that deeply anymore. I just find meeting and getting to know new people exhausting now. New people tend to ask me so many questions and put me in the position of having to explain myself and why I am the way I am. My old friends already know all that and accepted it a long time ago. And I think it’s a numbers problem. It’s like I have to meet so many new people in order to find one I might click with, and I open myself up to a lot of stress and pain and potential rejection in the meantime. Maybe I had the energy to do that when I was younger, but I don’t now.
I have absolutely zero social life in this city right now. I am not really lamenting this. It eliminates a lot of stress from my life, to be honest.
My husband and I first moved to this city in 2013. After a time of unemployment for both of us and getting to a point of utter desperation, we both managed to get something lined up here, and things seemed to fall into place for us to come here in other ways, even though it was never somewhere we had previously aspired to live and we didn’t know anyone here. Feeling like we had no other option at the time, this is where we ended up.
My job here ended up not going well (surprise surprise). On several occasions I had to e-mail the woman who had previously held my position (she had been fired abruptly and had not had the opportunity to tie up loose ends, leaving a lot for me to have to figure out) and when, after six months, she found out I too had been fired (in a nutshell, for back-answering my boss during my six-month performance review), she, probably feeling an affinity with me since we’d both been fired by the same man from the same position, invited me to go out for coffee with her and another woman I knew from work.
The coffee outing (I don’t actually drink coffee, but that’s what it’s called regardless, isn’t it? Going out for coffee?) turned out to be a surprisingly validating social experience for me. It’s not often I can say that. Both of these women are writers, one in her spare time outside of work and the other having moved on to a staff position at a magazine after getting fired from her office job, so we talked about writing and various ideas we had. Sometimes when I talk about these things, people’s eyes glaze over, but these women were interested and engaged. And I was interested and engaged in their ideas too. How rare! And when they asked how my job search was coming along, I told them about an awkward interview I’d had and then I confessed that I actually wanted to be at home. That was my real heart’s desire: To stay home and read books and maybe write or take online courses or pursue other personal projects. But I confessed I was worried about money.
They completely validated my desire to stay home! Most people do not. Most people treat me like it’s disgraceful to want to stay home. Being Christians, these women even told me that if I wanted to stay at home, I should do that and let God worry about the finances. No one had ever told me that before. I suppose it’s always nice when people tell us what we want to hear, isn’t it? For what it’s worth, they turned out to be right. While money is tight, it is no tighter now than when I was working, because I wasn’t earning very much and I tend to spend a lot more when I’m working, on transportation, office clothes, convenience foods because I end up too exhausted to cook, useless impulse purchases because I get too exhausted and overstimulated to practice my usual restraint, and medications, because the exhaustion and stress of being in the workforce, as well my poorer diet at those times, causes all my health issues to flare up. But I digress.
The social engagement didn’t go off completely without a hitch though. At one point they started talking and laughing about something that happened on a TV show I hadn’t seen. Understanding that it was a funny anecdote, I laughed along, only for one of them to turn to me and ask, “Have you seen it?” I then had to confess that I hadn’t. Busted! What a tool, huh? I was mortified, and still think about it sometimes, even though it was relatively minor.
Anyway, they invited me out for coffee with them again, but that time I was ill with nausea and… ahem… bathroom issues (not out of the ordinary for me, but some days are worse than others) so I declined. I legitimately was ill, but perhaps they thought I was making an excuse, and after that it was like the ball was in my court, and even though I had enjoyed being with them, I just never got in touch again.
The thing really holding me back was the fact that I don’t have a car. When they invited me out, it was their idea and one of them offered to come pick me up. But I didn’t know how to initiate an outing and then say, oh, but you’ll have to pick me up, okay? It just seemed to create this imbalance, and I didn’t want to come across like a user or a taker or whatever you call it. (I was accused of that once before, over twenty years ago, and I never want to be again, so it’s something I am very conscious of.) And it’s not like I could afford to treat them to make up for it.
I just didn’t know how to initiate under these circumstances, so I didn’t.
Then there was this guy I met on Twitter. He’s a little younger than us and is a local pastor of a small church, and we had great conversations online. He invited my husband and I out for coffee a couple of times, and then it progressed to having dinner at his home with his family. We got along fairly well, but then he pushed for us to attend his church and we declined, explaining that we don’t have a car and bus service is so drastically reduced on Sundays that we can’t feasibly get there and back. He said, “I’m sure I can arrange for someone to give you a ride every week.” But we explained that we weren’t comfortable with that, partly because there might be some weeks we wouldn’t want to go (especially with my health issues), and we would feel awkward cancelling and making excuses in those cases. And we explained this is not a temporary situation. Unless our situation dramatically changes we do not envision getting a car, so we would be an ongoing drain on whoever volunteered. (At our previous church, someone had even generously offered to lend us a car until we bought one, but we didn’t intend to buy one, so we thought we would have come across as taking advantage of them. Not to mention the fact that we would still have had to pay for insurance, gas, maintenance, repairs, and parking, which is not something we can commit to in our current situation.)
So anyway, we never heard from him again, and it became apparent that he didn’t really want to be friends with us, he was just trying to recruit us to his church. It is always so disappointing when you think someone likes you, but it turns out they have an ulterior motive.
So all that was in 2014, and I have not had any real social life in this city since. Both sets of parents have come to visit us here, and one of my long-time friends is coming here from another city to visit us next month, which I’m really looking forward to, but generally my life is void of in-person social contact, other than clerks in stores and whatnot, but that doesn’t really count.
For the most part, I don’t mind. When it does bother me, it’s more the idea of it that bothers me than the actual day-to-day experience of it. Like, “Yikes, we don’t have any friends; we’re all alone here. What if something happened? There’s no one we could call.” But I also kind of love the fact that I don’t have anyone trying to get me to go places when I don’t want to and making demands on my time, which I never feel like I have enough of, even though I’m not working now. I love that I never find myself in awkward social situations, where I’ve made a fool out of myself and ruminate on it endlessly afterward. I love that I don’t find myself in positions where I have to explain myself and my various quirks and the health issues that affect my life. Life is so peaceful now, and I need that.
This is one of those things that makes the person who shall remain nameless think there’s something seriously wrong with me. Who doesn’t even want friends? Once when this person was visiting, I got a phone call from one of my long-time friends in another city, and afterward the person who shall remain nameless said, “Oh, I’m so relieved you got a phone call from a friend. I do worry about you not having friends!” I just stared at the person, kind of shocked, not understanding why anyone would be thinking such things about me. If I’m not unhappy, what’s the problem?
My husband also hasn’t made any real friends here. There are people he’s friendly with at work, but no one he sees outside of work. Somehow that’s okay though. The pressure always seems to be on me, not on him, as if it’s the woman’s responsibility to make a social life for both members of a couple or something. I don’t understand that. But I don’t understand a lot of things about how people think.
So, I went to the concert. The evening went much better than I thought it would!
My husband and I got off at the right bus stop (something I always worry about when using public transit in an unfamiliar part of the city) and easily found our way from the bus stop to the venue. Things were a bit of a blur for me once we entered, which is how I always feel entering unfamiliar buildings, but my husband located our seats and I was delighted that for the first half of the concert, there was no one sitting next to me (other than my husband on my right, that is). That helped me adjust to the environment a little better than I otherwise would have.
I was wearing a little black dress with silver-coloured sandals, a long silver chain, and big silver earrings. And I was having a shockingly good hair day, if I may say so myself. It’s taken me until I’m almost 43 years old but I have finally figured out how to manage my naturally-curly hair. I was a mess when I was younger, but I am quite well-groomed now. The one negative thing about the night is that after all the effort I had put into my appearance, I was dressed inappropriately. (I really wish I could show you a photo of what I was wearing so you could see what I mean, but I’m trying to stay anonymous here. Which is the same reason I’m not naming the band. Revealing who it was and when it was can easily give away my location.) No one else was dressed even remotely like me. The audience was made up entirely of middle-aged people and all of the women I could see were wearing plain t-shirts and mom-jeans or other extremely casual outfits. No little black dresses. No dresses or skirts at all.
I actually had this moment where I was confused by the fact that there were only middle-aged people there until it hit me: I am middle aged! These are my peers! And as usual, I am out of step with them.
How do other people intuitively know what to wear to an event so they all look alike? I have educated myself a lot about such things since I used to get bullied as a youth for being unfashionable, but I still always seem to get it wrong. I’m either overdressed or underdressed, but I never nail it.
I was able to see the stage really well from my balcony seat and I liked having a bird’s eye view of things. Once the music started, it was very loud. You know how if you step out of a dark building into bright sunshine, your eyes take a minute to adjust, and until they do you can’t see very well? My ears are like that, and when I’ve told people that, they look at me like I’m crazy, so I gather that not everyone has this experience. But when the loud music started, it was so loud I could hardly hear it, all I could hear was noise. After a few minutes, my hearing adjusted and I was able to hear all the detail and subtleties of the music.
Unfortunately, the opening act was only mediocre, and it was rather dull sitting through their show. But once the band we were there to see took the stage, I was swooning in music-induced bliss. It is difficult to even explain the effect my favourite music has on me. I don’t think most other people, especially at my age, have this same experience and I can’t even find the words to describe it. It is just pure sensory pleasure, like a high. It courses through my body and makes me feel deep and amazing things. This explanation is so inadequate but it’s all I can think of.
This is a band I was into in the 80s and 90s, and I was impressed that after so many years they sounded in top form. Especially the guitar player. He blew me away with how good he was. I knew most of the songs by heart and, although I don’t sing (perhaps that’s a topic for another post), I mouthed the words. I even yelled, “Wooooooo!” a few times. Out loud. That’s something I could never do when I was young (I couldn’t make any sound come out of my mouth when I tried) but it comes out quite naturally now as an adult when I am excited by music.
When it was over, my husband and I went to the washroom and met up back in the lobby. We were standing there discussing getting a taxi and wondering if we should wait a bit since perhaps a lot of people would probably be trying to get taxis just then. I didn’t notice that we were standing right in front of a table. As I’ve mentioned before, I am really not visually observant at all. Like it’s a real problem I have. All of a sudden, the band came out and sat down at the table, with the guitar player, the one who has always been my favourite, the one whose guitar playing transports me to another place, the one I, to be perfectly frank, used to have romantic fantasies about when I was a teenager, sitting directly across the table from where I was standing.
I don’t have a lot of experience with this type of event. I wasn’t expecting that. I was not mentally prepared for such an eventuality. And I will admit right now that I am a hypocrite. Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve always said that if I ever saw a celebrity, I would not go up to him or her and try to initiate a conversation, because what could I possibly say that would be of any interest to them? I don’t mean that in a down-on-myself kind of way, I’m just being realistic. They probably get tired of awkward people saying stupid shit to them. And there are very, very few celebrities I would have any interest in meeting anyway. Despite how it may sound here, I am not generally the star-struck type (at least not now, as an adult). Celebrities are just people, and I’m not really a people-person.
But this seemed different. For one thing, this was one of the very few people I actually would like to meet. And I didn’t have to approach him. He was right there. And he was looking at me. And he looked friendly. And, not knowing how clueless and unsavvy I am, he probably assumed I meant to be there, at that table. So, despite having nothing prepared, I started blurting out what popped into my head, which was:
“Hi! I’m so excited to be here, because I’ve been a fan of your music since the 80s, but I’ve never seen you live before! When I first discovered your music I was living in the middle of nowhere…”
“Oh, where did you grow up?” he asked, with a smile. That threw me for a second. I first discovered their music in 1989 when I was 16, and at that time I was living in a new town, not the town(s) I had grown up in until that point. But after a few seconds of processing, thank goodness, I realized I didn’t need to give him a big explanation. I think I am getting better at this, as I usually have the tendency to, in the spirit of complete accuracy and honesty, over-explain things and include details that are irrelevant to the other person. So I told him the name of the small town where I lived when I first became aware of their music, which was really what he was asking anyway, despite the way he worded it. (See, this is another thing I am getting better at understanding: What people mean, not just the words I hear them say. I was clueless about such things when I was younger.) He had heard of the town and agreed it was a long way from anywhere, but then he said something about how I could have made a road trip to one of the big cities to see them (it would have been a 5 or 6 hour drive to one of the major cities from there). So then I felt like, “Uh oh, he’s thinking I’m not a real fan; that six hours is nothing for a real fan.” And I could hardly start explaining what I was like: Afraid to get my license, afraid of city driving, and at many times in my life, too poor to spend money on concerts. Once these things had changed, they had stopped touring. But then he said, “I guess either way that’s a pretty long haul,” and I nodded.
He asked me how long I’ve been living in this city, and told me that he did the opposite, moving from a big city to a small town and saying how much he loves it.
Then he said, kind of cheekily, “I’m [name],” and held out his hand for me to shake. I said, “I know!” and shook it. Duh. He said, “What’s your name?” And I told him. “That’s my wife’s name!” he said, and showed me a tattoo on his wrist. I couldn’t make out what it was, but I assumed it had to do with his wife and I said, “Cool!” He told me his wife is an author (I already knew that, but I pretended I didn’t because I didn’t want to seem stalkerish) and he explained that’s why living in a small town works for them, because she can do that from anywhere.
Then he looked at my husband and asked who he was, and I introduced him, feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t already done so. The whole time I was kind of feeling like a deer caught in the headlights so I hadn’t thought of it.
Then his band mate next to him said something and he turned toward him and they were talking and I, because awkward is my middle name, just wandered away. My husband followed. So I didn’t get an autograph, or a selfie with him, or anything. I left empty-handed. But I was kind of feeling like I was occupying too much of his time when other people were waiting (this is something I wouldn’t have thought of when I was younger, but all the criticism over the years has made me aware of such things), and I was worried that I was coming across as odd, and of course I hadn’t planned to have a conversation with him at all (and I really prefer interactions that are planned), and although I was happy and amazed that it happened in spite of my lack of intention, I was relieved to make an escape.
My husband says I did well. I had a normal conversation with him about normal things. That was good. A friend of mine said later that she would have been very nervous meeting an attractive celebrity, and mentioned that she once had the opportunity to talk to someone famous but got so nervous and tongue-tied she didn’t actually say anything, and it made me realize: As crazy as it may sound, I almost have an advantage over the average person in this area. I am always nervous talking to people I don’t know well. Nervousness is my baseline. I have learned to talk to people in spite of my nervousness. It’s uncomfortable, and I probably come across as awkward, but I can do it because I have to do it because social nervousness is always there for me. Talking to one of my all-time favourite guitarists did not feel any more nerve-wracking to me than talking to a church greeter in a church lobby or talking to my doctor every time I have an appointment. I was jittery and awkward, yes, but I am always jittery and awkward. That is my norm.
I am also comforted by the fact that he talks to a lot of people and will quickly forget me. He won’t be thinking, “That woman I met earlier sure was awkward.” He won’t be thinking of me at all. That is good. I can live with that.
My husband and I went out into the night air and it felt really good. There’s something special about the sensation of night air on my skin on a warm, late-spring night. It’s one of those rare things that makes sensory sensitivity a delight instead of the hardship it usually is. It was 11pm and I was surprised at how active the city’s streets still seemed at that hour. There were other people streaming away from the venue on foot and I felt like it was safe enough so I asked my husband if he wanted to get the bus home instead of calling for a taxi like we’d planned, and he agreed. It might seem strange that I suggested deviating from a plan, but the truth was, after all that I was socially worn out and I didn’t want to make a phone call or have to talk to a driver if I didn’t have to, and these things tend to fall on me to do because my husband thinks people won’t understand his accent (he’s often right about that, to be fair). So we walked the two blocks to the bus stop and after waiting a few minutes, caught the bus home without incident.
Really, other than my outfit, the whole night could not have gone better, under the circumstances. I’m still kind of amazed that the band member I like best is the one who sat down right in front of me. I would have been happy to meet the others, of course, but the fact that it was my favourite was especially cool.
It even turned out that my husband really enjoyed the music! He grew up in England where this band never had success, so he was not familiar with them and only went to the concert for my sake, but he enjoyed it so much he said he’d like to see them again the next time they tour (assuming they do continue touring, that is). Maybe next time, knowing that they might be available for autographs after the show, I can plan out what to say in advance and maybe even get an actual autograph next time!
I just wish I could get a message to my 16-year-old self and tell her about the conversation. It was a nice experience for me in my 40s, but it would have meant the world to me in my teens!
When I say something that hurts or offends someone and they get upset, I feel horrible and in most cases I apologize, but it still plays on my mind for weeks, months, years, or even decades afterward and when it does I am filled with shame.
When someone else says something that hurts or offends me and I get upset, they tell me I’m too easily offended or too defensive, or that this shows a character flaw that I need to work on, and then they carry on like nothing ever happened. Meanwhile, it plays on my mind for weeks, months, years, or even decades afterward and when it does I am filled with shame.
Either way, both I and they see me as being the one in the wrong and I always accept the guilt in both cases.
I just realized this tonight. Last night, something I said to someone about 16 years ago came to mind, and I was filled with deep shame. Despite my apologies, this person no longer speaks to me, and I think about this often. Last night it took me hours of thinking and praying and relaxation attempts to stop that old tape. Then tonight, a relative said something that deeply offended and angered me, and I had to use every ounce of self-restraint I could muster up to not respond. Even though I succeeded in that regard, I still felt guilty and ashamed over how angry I felt. I wondered why I can’t just brush things like that off, not just externally, but internally too. Then I thought about how it’s been far worse the times I have externally shown that I was offended and I’ve responded negatively; in those cases I’ve come out the loser and I’ve been left feeling deep shame over my response.
And then I thought, wait a second… Why am I feeling shame when other people get offended by something I say and when I get offended over something someone else has said (whether I even respond or not)? If it’s wrong to verbally offend someone, shouldn’t it be wrong for both me and others? If it’s wrong to get offended, shouldn’t that also be wrong for both me and others? On the other hand, if they feel no guilt when they offend, why should I? And if they feel no guilt when they get offended, why should I?
Why am I so hard on myself? And why are others so hard on me?
I’ve read that people with Asperger’s have trouble reading people. This is one of the things that used to make me question if I really do have Asperger’s, because I don’t have any trouble reading people unless I’m already experiencing sensory overload. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I think I’m actually pretty good at it. However, I think a casual observer might assess me as not being able to read people at all, because I don’t necessarily show outward signs of that ability.
Even though I can read people, I usually have no idea what to do about it or what the correct response is. Even if I do know the correct response, I can’t always make it happen. So in a nutshell, it’s knowing how to respond, and being able to perform or manifest that response, that is my number one social problem.
I will give you an example. As I have mentioned in the past, I live in an apartment building that has frequent fire alarms. One time when my husband, cat, and I were out on the front lawn of our building, waiting for the all-clear from firefighters, we noticed another couple with an agitated-looking cat sitting across the lawn from us. I had a package of cat treats in my bag, and my husband suggested I offer some to the couple for their cat. I began walking across the lawn toward them. As I approached, the young woman looked at me with this look on her face like, “Oh no, who is this weirdo approaching and what does she want? Please make her go away.” Her expression was as clear to me as if she had said the words. She was suspicious and wary and not friendly or welcoming in the least. I could see that. But I didn’t know what to do. Maybe I should have just left her alone, but it’s like my course was already set. I was obviously walking toward them and I thought it would have looked even weirder if I’d abruptly about-faced. If I kept going, at least I could explain my intention. If I turned around, they would be left wondering what I was up to, and might imagine negative motives. I get misunderstood and suspected of negative motives a lot. So I kept going, but felt more and more humiliated with each step.
So you see, a casual observer might have concluded that I couldn’t read that I was unwelcome. Why else would I have continued my approach?
(The outcome was anticlimactic. I offered them some treats for their cat, the woman visibly relaxed but said they already had some, and I turned around and walked away.)
Another example is when my mother-in-law called to say that her brother had died. I felt incredibly saddened by the news and felt for her because she was grieving, but when I said, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I could hear that my voice came out in a monotone. I don’t always speak in a monotone, but for some reason the more pressure I feel to convey emotion or warmth, the less I actually do. I am incredibly embarrassed by this. I know my mother-in-law thinks I’m cold, but I’m not cold on the inside, I just can’t convey it on the outside. The more it’s socially required, the worse I perform. In this case, I understood and empathized with her grief, and I even knew the correct response, but I couldn’t make it happen in the correct way. I failed, and there are no re-dos on something like that.
The book Aspergirls mentions the tendency for females with Asperger’s to lack a strong sense of identity and to be chameleon-like. That was certainly true of me when I younger. For most of my life, people had been telling me I was weird, and I didn’t know why. Unlike me, they always seemed to intuitively know how to act with each other, so I was always observing and quietly trying to learn from them. But trying to implement what I learned required putting on an act. I had learned that being myself was wrong, so to be right, I thought I had to be someone else.
The last time I remember doing this was when I was in my twenties, and it backfired big-time.
I had been railroaded into joining a church College and Career group, even though I was in the latter half of my twenties and everybody else there except the leader was between 18 and 20. I was like a fish out of water, and I hated it there, but I tried really, really hard to fit in because I had eventually (foolishly, I believe in retrospect) come to the conclusion that I was meant to be there for various reasons.
I got to know a young, dating couple quite well during my time there, Melissa and Phil. She was 18, he was 20. Melissa and I were very different in personality and did not become instant friends, but Phil liked me (as a friend) and he and I would often have long, heart-to-heart talks about deep spiritual things.
One day Melissa came to me and asked me to mentor her (which is a fairly common scenario in evangelical church culture). She said that Phil had told her she should try to be more like me. He wanted to marry her but felt she was not mature enough yet, but he really admired my (supposed) maturity and spiritual wisdom and thought if I could mentor her, she could become mature enough for marriage.
I did not feel equipped to mentor anyone, but I did not actually say no because I didn’t know how to do that back then, at least not in a social situation like that. And I suppose there was a small narcissistic part of me that was flattered. So Melissa and I started spending time together. I don’t think any real mentoring actually occurred though. At least not from me to her. I had no clue how to mentor someone and wasn’t convinced it was a good idea at all.
The thing is, I had observed that almost everybody absolutely adored Melissa. Nobody adored me. And Melissa was loved by Phil. Really, really loved. It was beautiful and painful to witness his love for her. I didn’t have romantic feelings for Phil, so I wasn’t jealous in that way, but I did want to be loved by somebody, and I never, ever had been.
I started modelling myself after Melissa, even though she was much younger than me. She was loved and I was not, so it made sense to me that I should become more like her rather than the other way around. That Phil would want the woman he loved to become more like a woman he didn’t love seemed utterly illogical and preposterous to me.
Melissa was very outgoing and outspoken, so I tried to be more outgoing and outspoken. She was very free with her opinions, both positive and negative, so I tried to do the same. She didn’t take things too seriously, so I tried to act less serious. She would playfully tease people, and even though I had never understood teasing and really don’t like it, I tried to learn by watching her how to do it.
The problem is, whenever I’ve tried to be anyone but myself, I’ve gotten it wrong. I’d think I was doing it the same way they were doing it, but I could tell from how people responded to me that I was missing the mark.
During this time, I tried playfully teasing the man I was interested in. I think he and I would have been very compatible if I had been being myself, but instead I was trying to be Melissa. And something I blurted out when trying to be Melissa completely missed the mark, and I believe he held it against me for the rest of the time I knew him. My attempts to backtrack and explain only made things worse, because I was making light of it the way someone like Melissa would have.
I don’t blame him for the way he reacted. I too would be upset if someone spoke to me like that, and yet when Melissa did it, she did it in such a charming way that people responded positively to her. I lacked her charm, I guess, and it was something I couldn’t fake.
This happened circa 1999, and to this day, at least once a week or so something reminds me of that thing I said, and I feel an unbearable sense of shame wash over me. I want to erase it from existence somehow, but I can’t, and that kills me.
That was not the first time I had tried to be someone else, but it was the last. I had finally learned my lesson. Being myself didn’t cut it socially, but trying to be someone else was far, far worse. At least when I’m being myself I appeal to the rare like-minded people I come across, but when I’m being someone else, I drive away the few people who might have otherwise sensed a kinship with me.
I had my hair cut over the weekend. I hate getting my hair cut, because it means having to make small talk with the hairdresser. I dread it, and sometimes I put off getting a hair cut for months and months for this reason.
This time, I sat down in the chair and started desperately trying to think of something to say. I was drawing a blank, and was starting to panic. Then the hairdresser said, “I’ve cut your hair before, haven’t I?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Last time you were planning to go out for a date night that evening, weren’t you?”
“Yes, it was my wedding anniversary. You have a really good memory. I’m impressed; you must talk to a lot of people.”
“Yeah, but I always remember the clients who talk a lot,” she said. “You talked the whole time. Most people just sit there and don’t say anything.”
This was one of those moments that take me aback and force me to do a mental adjustment. Most people sit there and say nothing? So while I’m stressing myself out thinking I have to talk, other people are just sitting there thinking their own thoughts and waiting for it to be over? Is that what normal people do? That’s what I want to do, but I thought it would be rude. As much as I hate small talk, I hate the thought of making anyone feel bad even more. I assumed if I didn’t talk to her, she would feel like I didn’t like her or didn’t think she was worth talking to. I don’t ever want to make anyone feel that way.
Can this be for real? Have I been putting pressure on myself to socially perform in a way that’s not even required?
When people ask me how I’m doing, I know it’s just a social nicety and I’m expected to say, “Fine.” I have learned that.
But I still get confused when someone asks me how someone else is doing. If I treat the question the same way and simply say “Fine,” they continue looking at me expectantly, as if waiting for more information.
What is it they want to hear? Is it gossip? That’s what I suspect. They are wanting to hear gossipy details about other people’s lives.
But I don’t gossip about people. The people who confide in me do so because they feel safe with me and they know they can trust me. I’m not going to use the things they confide in me as fodder for casual conversation with other people.
This is done both to me and about me. My mom told me one of my cousins sent her a message through Facebook asking how I’m doing. But the thing is, I too am friends with this cousin on Facebook. Why didn’t she send the message to me and ask me directly? She didn’t want to talk to me, apparently; she wanted to talk to someone else about me. Or did she not care about me at all, and she was just using inquiring about me as an excuse to contact my mom, who was the one she really wanted to talk to? I don’t get it.
Another one of my relatives does this kind of thing all the time. Let’s call her Sharon. She talks about nothing except other people. I have heard details of the lives of people I never have and likely never will meet, and they know details about my life. While visiting the town Sharon lives in, strangers came up to me and asked me if my husband had gotten a certain job he’d applied for and asked me about the health conditions I’ve been diagnosed with. While I stammered in shock as I tried to process who these people were and how they knew about all this, they laughed and introduced themselves. They were friends of Sharon’s, and they’d heard all about me and even seen photos of my wedding.
I hated every moment of that encounter. I hated that strangers knew things about me and were now wanting more information from me about the things they’d heard. When I tell people things, it’s because I’m already close to them and already consider them emotionally safe people to talk to. And since they know me and already like me, I think they’re not going to be judging me based on one or two bits of information. They know my character and my history, and will take any details shared with them in context. A stranger who doesn’t know me might judge me on the individual details they hear about me because they don’t know me as a whole person.
Because I feel this way, I am not going to put other people in such a position. The Golden Rule, and all that.
So anyway, Sharon often asks me about my friends (whom she doesn’t even really know except having met them once through me), and when I don’t say anything except, “Fine,” she gets almost annoyed as if she thinks I’m being unfriendly, stubborn, and uncooperative. Sometimes she asks follow-up questions like, “Does she have a boyfriend yet?” or “How old are her children now?”
But I don’t understand why she needs to know these things. Of what possible relevance could it be to her whether my friend has a boyfriend or not? Or how old children she’s never even met are? And why am I expected to be forthcoming with these details, to the point where I look like a jerk if I don’t provide them?
Perhaps I just need to throw out some additional, innocuous details to satisfy her, and others who ask such things. Like, “She’s fine. Still living in Vancouver. Drives a Toyota.” Would that be enough to seem friendly and communicative? Or do I need to provide all the intimate details of their lives and relationships? Is that how normal people interact?
It’s funny how my own friends never do this. We share details about our own lives with each other, but we don’t inquire about other people we know, and we rarely even talk about other people unless it’s something that really affects us. This is not the way we socialize at all. So it’s something I really, really don’t understand and have trouble socially navigating. As usual in social situations, it’s knowing the correct way to respond that’s my real problem.
My mom says one of my gifts is my ability to attract and be a comfort to hurting people. She says when I was a child, sad or traumatized children would be drawn by my quiet, calm demeanor and would confide things in me. She has pointed out that this pattern has continued throughout my life. It’s true that complete strangers will tell me their life story. I don’t know why. I don’t think I do anything to encourage it.
I do have great empathy for hurting people, but I don’t always know what to do about it. I’m not sure of the right things to say or the correct way to act. But it doesn’t seem to matter in these cases.
It’s the people who have it all together who tend not to like me. They see me as weak or too sensitive or a loser. They think I need to grow a thicker skin, go out of my comfort zone, make more of an effort to be like everyone else. Those are the ones who call me unfriendly or unsociable. But other people who are perhaps a little different, who have struggled in life, or who are currently hurting, seem to find me extremely approachable. Those are the people I’m here for, I guess. Or at least that’s what my mom thinks. I’m still processing the idea.