I recently ran into someone who had always made me feel terribly about myself. When we were younger, when I was more deeply tied into exactly what everyone around me thought of me, his approval or dismissal defined how the rest of my week would go. I wanted to be his friend so badly, thought so much of who he was, that I was willing to spend my time with him altering my personality in small increments to make him like me more.
When we saw each other this time, though, it was a light, incident-free experience. We hung out, we talked about what we’d been up to these past few years, we traded plans for the new year. There was nothing profound about it, but it also didn’t leave me spinning in agony about what I could have done better, or whether or not he found me charming. Though I didn’t hate him by any means, I had become largely indifferent to his opinion of me, and not because it had no value — but because I knew my opinion of me, and that was what actually counted.
Since coming to New York a few months ago, my life has been a constant stream of meeting people in real life for the first time, assessing my place in things, and trying to rebuild the nest of comfort and social ties that I had before I came. It’s not quite an unpleasant experience, but one that calls into question a lot of what you take for granted about day-to-day life. I have been introducing myself over and over, making that first impression and hoping that it lives up to the expectations someone might have of me. At first, it nearly crippled me. Every time I would meet someone new, I would spend the trip home asking myself what I could have done better, wondering if there was something I should preemptively apologize for.
Quickly, though, the anxiety of having to represent the most appealing version of myself was worn down by the sheer tedium of doing it so often. While everyone should absolutely try their best to be kind and thoughtful when meeting someone new, it shouldn’t be a tightrope walk of trying to be less who you actually are, and more what you assume they want you to be. Accepting the idea that some people might not like me, or that everyone is not meant to be my friend, was a hard reality that reminded me of the insecurity I felt around people like the high school friend I recently saw. It was, emotionally, the same kind of challenge brought on by deciding where to sit on the first day back in the cafeteria.
To combat it, I have forced myself to, for lack of a better word, love me. I think about what is good in me, what I have to offer the world, and why I would totally hang out with me if that were an option. I laugh at my own jokes, and read and write the things that I enjoy, because ultimately I am the one who has to go to sleep at night in my own head, with my own successes and failures. Moving to a new place and having to re-establish myself completely in a world of near-strangers is intimidating, but only insofar as you allow their reception to define you. I have made some friends, and have many acquaintances, but the quantity of people I bring into my life is unimportant. If we wanted to be surrounded by people at a party, we could be. If we wanted a few choice people to come visit us in the hospital when we are sick, that is a much harder thing to ensure.
But the only way to do that — the only way to single out the friends who should be in your life, and who love you for you — is to be yourself. Be kind, receptive, and compassionate, of course, but don’t do it while diluting your persona to please others. Love yourself, ask yourself frankly what your strengths and weaknesses are, and work on them because you want to feel better in your own skin, not because you want to impress someone at a cocktail party. Loving yourself, and wanting to be happy with yourself, is not narcissistic at all, it’s the fundamental activity we must engage in if we want to form fulfilling relationships with the people who are right for us.
There was something very satisfying about seeing that old friend and knowing, in an unshakeable way, that his opinion of me was no longer something to lose sleep over. I could walk away from the table and be just as happy about myself — and secure in my decisions — as I was when I sat down. Because the difference between living and dying by the whims of other people, and having the courage to seek out the ones who won’t be so fickle, ultimately comes down to how much love you think you deserve.