I watched ‘Wonder’ based on the novel by the same name on a plane; then I binge-watched season two of ‘Working Moms’ on Netflix to overcome my jetlag. Oddly, they stacked up nicely with a book I’m re-reading called ‘Ways of Seeing’, by John Berger.
They link Narcissism, defense mechanisms and the common desire to “fit” in. As it turns out, how we perceive ourselves and those around us, are connected by an invisible string that extends from our ego all the way to how we navigate the world.
They reminded me that when I was 14, a grown-up who was meant to be insightful and guiding, told me I seem like someone with a signaling issue. Apparently “I transmit but I don’t receive”. At the time, I was caught off guard and felt really hurt by the comment. But now I see it differently. Shortly after, someone else, a much closer grown-up, accused me of being selfish, and it stung. Again, at the time it upset me but what it means to me now has also changed.
Can Anyone See Me?
I was mortified at the thought that I may be as awful as I thought I was being told I that I was (because I was taught that selfishness is the ultimate vice), and, I began to wonder if it’s true and how I can morph myself into someone “better”.
See, as a young teenager, I seldom responded to adults the way they expected but, I had a clear mind about who I was very attuned to how I felt and what I thought. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind and I had clear boundaries that made authority figures of any age very uncomfortable. Some found it bemusing (usually people my age who wanted a challenge) and others saw it to mean that I needed to be shown who’s boss (basically adults who wanted obedience).
It was hard being that way. I was constantly challenged and I had to keep talking to myself, checking in and making sure I knew what I was saying or doing. Of course, most of the time I didn’t have a clue. But I was motivated by my intentions and guided by what I now know to be my intuition. I may have been a frustrated self-asserting if-slightly-aggressive single-minded girl, but I was striving to be true and authentic – shouldn’t that be all that matters?
Nice is the Worst
As I got older though, there were a lot more things I needed to invest my emotions into, or fight against or fighting for. So I began to feel weary of always having my voice strained and fists up (mostly proverbially but at times it was literal too). Being sassy and pretending not to care what people think of you is exhausting when you’re also raging with hormones, working through a myriad of issues, and trying to figure out what you wanted to study, what you wanted to do and who you wanted to be.
As time went by, I grew tired of always arguing with everyone. As my confidence wavered so did my priorities, and, I started to bend to the ways of the world. The outcome felt weirdly good, it felt easier. Basically, after my early twenties, I became “nicer” and as time went by, the more amicable, palpable, I was, the less resistance I felt within myself or from others. I felt more “liked”.
But, the truth is that being “nice” is problematic. In fact, being nice isn’t “being” anything at all. Being kind or considerate or thoughtful are far more impactful and sincere ways to connect with others. To be nice simply means to be diplomatic; and while that is a good skill to learn, it doesn’t do anything for meaningfulness and authenticity. And it kind of kills your soul.
Narcissus and Pygmalion
According to Dr. Nicole LePera, Narcissism is “a survival state resulting from the severe emotional trauma that manifests as the inability to see another.” That is not to say that she is right – but reading that raised some red flags within me.
When we learned the story of Narcissus in Arabic class in the 11th grade, I remember feeling bad for him, that he would be so taken by something as trivial as beauty, let alone that it turns out to be his own, that he dedicates all his precious time to it. It was around then that I also read Ovid’s Metamorphoses based on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and it left me with the exact same melancholy. How sad is it that a sculptor would fall in love with a statue he himself carved. Those tales must have resonated with me for a reason. Of course, in class, I shrugged them off as more reading material we could do without.
I see now that being “liked” for being “nice” as a young adult was my way of compensating for the guilt I had for being liked because I was seen as “cute” or “pretty” before then. There was attention given and compliments paid about my appearance and I became conscious of that when I was around 12.
This is by no means a complaint. I’m well aware that it’s a first-world problem: Boohoo to me for getting attention. Of course, I fully know that most of the people paying the compliments were doing so generously and kindly and it was very sweet. Still, there was an apparent problem. I got attention without doing anything, and as I grew up and realized that, instead of unpeeling the need for that validation, I replaced the kind of attention, instead.
I know how it sounds. But the truth is that the value of and the importance of physical appearance can be problematic. It can be stifling even when it isn’t intended to be. Depending on the person’s vulnerability, it is flattering at best, addictive at worst.
I was receiving attention – positive attention, for something I wasn’t accountable for. So, for a long time this validation I was receiving felt remote and removed from me so the unsolicited attention was confusing. I had no control over the things that people would comment on: “being pretty” was not something I couldn’t take credit for, so I had no way of valuing it except in the way that positive attention made me feel: good. And I wanted more of that feeling.
So as the world around me got complicated and I struggled to find my outer voice and was wearisome of always trying; I did rely, albeit unconsciously, on more superficial things to keep me going, just to get me by. Like I said, I wasn’t aware of it at first, but, by the time I went to university, the self-realization creeped in and it was all dawning on me.
It was sad in many ways. It filled me with guilt, disillusion, confusing and most of all – insecurity. The more I realized I needed others to validate me the more I hated myself for it, and, the more I realized I needed to start finding out who I really was again. I just wanted to stop caring what people thought me physically and just go back to feeling judged for who I really am at least. So much easier said than done, because of that ego string I mentioned at the very top of this post.
To be honest, I always kind of knew that who I really am, would never be the most palpable, and that the real work lies in having the boundaries, values, and self-worth to have healthy relationships with others despite of that. More importantly, to live authentically and be accepting of myself. This takes us back to the way this long whinge began: being told my emotional transmitter is broken and that I’m selfish and that’s bad way back when.
Pulling off the Plaster
Other people, grown-up people, pass their values and perspective onto youngsters; and when that was done to me, it left me feeling attacked, exposed and vulnerable. So I hid.
First I hid behind the superficial facade of how I looked; then behind a more nuanced facade of how I acted. Be more pretty or be more nice, be more pretty or be more nice. I couldn’t stop worrying about my reflection and I really bowed down to the pressure so for the longest time, I felt like a closet self-hating narcissist.
But recently, I’ve reverted to stepping out and letting things fall where they may.
Whether my relating to Narcissus or Pygmalion was sympathetic, or even empathic doesn’t really matter anymore to me. What matters is that they’re a manifestation of something that resonated with me; something that grew from being a self-assured child to a self-conscious teen, then, slowly, a very self-critical adult. It’s about what it takes for someone who was one way to bend themselves into to be another way before realizing that it’s far less painful to just peel off the giant plaster concealing the raw ego instead.
Stop Telling girls to Play Nice and Smile
A lot of my personal experience explains why the current parenting advise sirens warnings not to keep commenting on your children’s (especially daughter’s) appearance and actions; not to sing the praises of every accomplishment your children achieve and to take a step back from the binary approach to good and bad, naughty and nice. This is exactly why even here is a whole campaign asking the world to stop asking girls to smile. It’s infuriating to be asked to make things more comfortable for else.
As a grown ass woman who often wallows in self-punishment (and at times still the equal harsh blow onto others as well), it is becoming abundantly clear that a lot of time and work is needed to stop judging and completely accepting my younger self in order to embrace my older, worse for wear, version. In order to come into my own – and to actually feel I can own my shit – I need to love and forgive who and how I was. In doing so I can unshed the scabs (yuk) of past injuries and heal the scarring of our my ego so I can be who I truly am.
It has taken me years to feel WORTHY, just for being myself, regardless of what I feel, think, act or look like; or how my appearance has changed or aged. Most days it’s still hard. We are constantly being shown that to deserve love, we need to look and act a certain way, and whether we admit it or not, we do pass on these imprints of self-value and worth to the next generation.
Yes, They See Me
My daughters, who are just over four and six years old, ask me every morning why I put on makeup (those who know me know I put a little). Every evening they ask me why I put on serums and creams (Gua-Sha and whether retinol or not to retinol anyone?) I used to hide my routines from them, but as they get bigger they roam freely and come in to chat while I get ready for work (OK they see me apply makeup in the car to work) or when I am getting ready for bed. And honestly? I try to fudge the truth. But they call bullshit when they hear it.
“Who are you trying to impress anyway?” asks one. “You don’t want to just look exactly as yourself?” wonders the other.
“I don’t need to impress anyone but myself. I like looking the away that I do. This is to look after my skin (fibbing that concealers are vitamins) and to have a bit of fun (besides lipstick, honestly, getting ready every day is no fun at all).” Its half baked truths so they roll their eyes and leave me to it.
What I don’t dare to tell them because it’s far more complicated; is that while, truly, how I look to others has finally come to mean less and less to me over the decades – still, how I am reviewed by others still has an impact on me and I am still working hard daily to evolve past that.
So if you’re nearly middle-aged like me and owning up to your imperfections as you attempt to heal your ego and put up healthy boundaries, I hope you know you can always come to this spot to find someone who’s scarping worse than you are.