Tuesday, April 21, 2015
I've been exploring in therapy how being in the presence of others always feels like a performance, to some degree--like the only way I can truly relax, unwind, take a breath, is to be alone, away from watching eyes and listening ears. Teasing this idea out further, I've learned that the pressure I feel from being around others is largely rooted in my desire to control their perception of me--to exert an enormous amount of effort to be understood, accepted, liked, admired--and so naturally, it is exhausting for me to be around others for long stretches of time.
It was in college that this way of relating to others became dominant. Before college, I certainly still attempted to control and manage my image, but I also spent the first eighteen years of life very rooted in the same community: I went to school with the same group of peers K-12, with new faces added only at the start of middle and high school years. I also attended the same church from age six through age eighteen, and spent holidays with extended family and family friends who had literally been present at the hospital when I was born. There was less temptation to control the perception of those who had known me before I even had consciousness of myself, although of course there is a different kind of danger in these well-worn relationships--it can be more difficult to change or be seen as truly different to people who have known you for that long.
But it was in college that I found myself in new territory for the first time: a brand-new city, new friends, new living arrangements, new church companions. It seemed to me that everyone was trying desperately hard to impress one another, to be well-dressed, intelligent, successful, well-traveled, ironic, adventurous, clever, wise, witty, hip. It overstimulated me, overwhelmed me. During my freshman year, I mostly hid in my room, behind the familiar stacks of books and homework, and intensely invested in only a few relationships with girls on my dorm floor. I always think of that year as a painful year, a year likely marked with my first bout of depression, and have often told people it was only in my sophomore year that I began to enjoy college, finally beginning to get involved and make deep friendships and blossom as a person. In retrospect, that second year carried its own marks of pain and shame, because while it's true that I had emerged from the heavy wet blanket of freshman year into a lighter and happier season, there were also new burdens and pressures that came along with my new, more social self. In a way, there was a sort of freedom from freshman year that I lost--when I was so sad I simply didn't care what others thought or wanted from me--and from sophomore year on, the pressure to control my image only grew and grew.
In fact, I consider the fact that both seasons of depression for me have allowed a kind of freedom I couldn't find or carve out for myself any other way--the sadness and confusion and hollowness served as a method of saving myself from participating in some game I didn't want to play anymore. In that way, depression has actually served me well, can even be viewed as a way I have loved and been loyal to myself, even if it didn't feel that way.
I think it was my senior year that I discovered a method of relief from the pressure, and it was so simple: secrets. If no one knows, then there can be no pressure--I can be authentic, genuine, even experimental, and no one can misinterpret it as trying to be impressive because no one even knows. And so it became a way to feel connected to myself, to buy things or commit to new goals or visit with friends in secret. Asking for the opinion of others only made things confusing, complicated. Alone with my secrets, I felt able to decide what I wanted without any confusion over my motive. It feels like relief to me, to be hidden and quiet.
I have used this secretive method often this year. When I returned to work last June, suddenly we had two incomes and way less financial pressure. We bought new things for our apartment, and a new car. We are making plans to travel. We make dinner for friends. We offer to pay for things. And through all of this, I have been so secretive, telling no one about our purchases or plans, because it feels like the only way I can figure out what I want.
The problem with this method is that it doesn't foster intimacy. I think secrets are fine, to a point; I plan to be secretive in how I give my money away for the rest of my life, because Jesus says to do your good deeds in private and because I think there is a richer joy that comes from being generous in a very quiet manner. But I also think about how left out I feel when friends make important (or even minor) decisions and I'm in the dark until the very end. Often I wait to announce the end result but doesn't allow others to join in on the process of wrestling and deciding. I suspect others may sometimes feel shut out of my life, not invited to be part of the process, not trusted as confidants.
Secrets bring a sort of freedom, but they're also rather isolating. They put everyone on the outside. I imagine my next step in this journey of healing is to learn how to let others in on my process but keep my skin on as a separate being, recognizing they are not inside with me. The goal is to keep in mind that I am separate from them, and that I can listen and consider other perspectives but feel able to hear the still small voice for myself, without needing to go away and be alone every time. I might gradually need less and less time alone to be truly well, to be sorted out and healthy, if I can build and develop this muscle.
Can I accept the inevitability of being misunderstood or exaggerated or even judged and still feel the freedom to live my life, not worrying over how others see me? Can I slowly relinquish my desire to manage others' perceptions of me, so I might be able to figure out what I want and who I am even in the presence of others?