“I honestly don’t know how you read Internet comments and not want to f*cking kill yourself!” My friend semi-jokes, eyes wide as she scrolls through my online portfolio with pages and pages of anonymous hate (and love).
I consider how to approach the question. Frankly, I don’t have a great answer.
I think of explaining how long I’ve been posting “content” online and the bizarre numbness that comes with reading the truly heinous stuff. I could even let it get dark and uncomfortable for a second. Oh, I’ve definitely wanted to kill myself, but not because of randos telling me I should!
Instead, I just shrug.
“It’s not my problem.”
* * *
I was thirteen the first time I realized my desire for others to like me wasn’t just a side-effect of entering my teen years, but something that was directly tied into how I viewed and valued myself. I didn’t just want to be liked, I needed to be liked. My self-esteem depended on it.
I remember sitting on the tiled floor of my middle school with a group of adolescent girls, only really knowing two of them. We began discussing our individuals flaws, something that has been (sadly) uniting women for generations.
A waif-like blonde started by saying how much she hated the way her skin created neat folds whenever she bent over. She called it fatness. But I couldn’t see that. How true it is, that others often don’t see the massive imperfections we convince ourselves we have. A petite brunette fretted over the thick hair adorning her upper lip. A girl of color in a fairly white-washed suburb, she said she fought a battle daily with figuring out how to love her body hair. How badly she wanted to wax everything off so she could be “pretty like other girls in school.” I only ever thought how beautifully shaped her smile was and that her eyes exuded kindness.
It was then my turn. And I hated so much, it felt like getting ready to write an essay with so many places one could start.
“My knees. They look like fat old men.”
Everybody laughed. I laughed too. I needed them to laugh too.
* * *
I was a fairly shy child, especially in social situations. An introvert to the core, I was easily exhausted by large crowds and being around people I didn’t know very well. There was nothing exciting about meeting strangers. To me, it was just a special kind of Hell I had to navigate. A birthday party where I wasn’t sure I knew all the party goers was the kind of anxiety-inducing event that had my little body nauseated with acid reflux. So, as you can guess, I wasn’t Miss Social Butterfly floating in and out of gatherings with ease and confidence.
But I had so much I wanted to say. I had so much I wanted to do, but the fear of not being accepted for my inner goofiness kept me stagnant. I fit myself in boxes, smaller. Smaller. Whatever I could do to make sure I wasn’t exposing who I really was. I didn’t want to give people the opportunity to point out how weird I was. That my mind was potentially wired differently from my peers, and to an insecure girl, that’s a terrifying thought.
I thought, if people didn’t like me, why should I like me?
If others couldn’t see my worth, I must not have any.
So I dedicated the next few years of my life to simply be likable. I was the nice girl. I was the girl who would pick you up from the airport. I wouldn’t fight with you or argue. I’d appease all situations, bend backwards trying to make sure everyone around me was happy and taken care of. I did a myriad of things I didn’t want to do — both in platonic and romantic relationships.
But turns out, living like that doesn’t lead to much satisfaction. You don’t suddenly turn into some Beyoncé-like angel when a certain number of people adore you. Your self-esteem doesn’t magically bloom because someone says you’re fun to be with.
People liking you doesn’t make you like you.
* * *
My friend asks another question.
“Does it ever hurt your feelings? When you see people saying mean things?”
But I can’t start apologizing for who I am now. I spent far too long doing it. I created an entire life inside a cage and decided it was better that way.
The day I finally started being my authentic self and not caring if that made me something less palatable was the day life started opening up possibility. It’s a lie to say you won’t care what people think, but living as a version you think will be accepted is a far worse lie. That’s a lie you tell yourself.