Monday, May 13, 2013

why we should actually care what other people think about us (as long as they are halfway decent human beings)

       In high school I used to think I was dumb. I suck at math, and so to my hyper-achieving, hyper-critical self, that meant I was dumb. Granted, I am really quite horrific at math (and I can be a bit of an airhead) but I am clearly not dumb. My mom tried to tell me this over and over again, but I never believed her (or my standardized test scores, which were fine). Being homeschooled didn't help. I had no one to compare myself to, except the imaginary perfect girl in my head, and it didn't count that my mom thought I was smart, she's my mom and thinking I am cool is her job. Her voice didn't count.
        So I went around thinking I was dumb and wallowing in a lot of self hate.
This issue extended to other areas as well.  I always found a reason to reject other people's good opinion of me and replace it with my superior self-knowledge and self hate. Either they didn't know me well enough to judge, like They only think I am smart (or kind, or selfless, or worthwhile) because they don't know me well enough to know otherwise, or they knew me too well. They only think I am kind, or smart, or whatever, because they're my close friend-relative-drama-director-who's-known-me-for years etc, and they have to. My drama director was a close friend of the family, and he would have torn his hair out trying to affirm my acting abilities if he had had hair. It wasn't until my senior year, when Mr. Keena was the assistant director of my last show, that I finally got it through my head that I was a pretty decent, actually really good, actress. He basically danced in his seat every time I came on stage. Literally.
        One time I had a particularly melodramatic and disdainful upturned nose motion, and he skipped and shook his arms with glee at what a snobby bitch this mild pastor's daughter could be when she was acting. I acted the entire show with the corner of my eye drinking in Mr. Keena's unassumed delight in my acting. His voice counted. He had double majored in theater, and had performed in off-Broadway musicals. Basically he had the credentials to give his favorable opinion weight, without the long acquaintance with me to negate it.
        The same thing happened with my I'm dumb attitude when I came to college. All my smartest professors thought I was smart. It was amazingly affirming. They had the PhDs and decades of grading papers to back their opinions up, and they weren't obligated to like me. I couldn't argue with their PhDs, or my grade average at the end of my first insanely stressed out semester. I was smart. It was a beautiful moment of dawning comprehension.
        All of this is to say: So often positive-self image campaigns or slogans are all about not caring what other people think of us. And I totally support rejecting our society's messed up standards and the opinions of shallow, judgmental people.
       But all my life I was surrounded by beautiful, phenomenal, caring, intelligent people who all thought I was phenomenal, caring, intelligent and beautiful. And I was like "yeah no." And there is a certain arrogance to thinking that our own negative self-concept outweighs the positive opinion of the people who care about us most. If I really think that my mom is smart, and that my drama director knows his job, I should listen when they tell me am brilliant and bold and worthwhile. If they are so smart and brilliant, surely their opinions count? Surely they have a voice that matters, and we should let it in.
       And it was a long process, but I am learning not to dismiss the compliments and affirmation people give me out of hand. I started by letting myself just consider the possibility that they were right, and it was such a beautiful possibility I had trouble breathing. But their voice does matter, and listening to it, and not the perfectionist in my head, gets easier.
       I think to a certain degree we are all hungering for an outside voice with weight to tell us that we are beautiful, smart, worthwhile, whole. And I think to a lesser degree, we can all help each other in that hunger, be voices that speak love and caring and sheer delight in each other's existence.
       Let's echo the voice with great weight, great gravitas, which insists on being heard.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.