Let’s play a game. Think about a close friend – the entirety of that person – and now summarize her in exactly two adjectives. It may sound initially daunting; after all, people are infinitely complex. How can anyone be condensed into just five syllables, give or take? But if you try, you’re likely to notice two or three traits that immediately jump out. You may struggle to find the exact words, but the ideas themselves will be clear in your mind. It’s not that she doesn’t have other traits, but rather, the first few that come to mind truly define her, while her other qualities merely describe her.
I came across this game when, sometime during high school, I came to the realization that I’d been the subject of it for most of my life. Whenever one of the people in my life described me, they used some variation of two words: intelligent and kind. And with few exceptions they only ever used those two words. If I made a word cloud out of the words used to describe me, you’d see synonyms for “sweet” and “smart” in big letters, and a smattering of dots made from words in 1-point font. I realized that I was never attributed as cute, funny, interesting, able, acclaimed, acrobatic, adorable, adventurous… you get the point (and yes, I grabbed from the top of a list of adjectives at the end there).
For a mix of reasons, this upset me. Admittedly, it was mostly because when courting a girl at that age, intelligent and kind seemed to fall miles behind the likes of tall, confident, impulsive, and tall. But also, I didn’t want to feel so narrowly defined. I played multiple varsity sports. I sang in choir. I went camping. Why didn’t people call me athletic, talented, and druidic? I knew that I was more than two words, and I wanted to shout, to no one in particular, that it wouldn’t be so easy to place me in a box.
So I fought against it. I worked to change the impression that others had of me. I tried to be impulsive, mysterious, and smug – and I was exhausted before I made it to the weekend. As it turns out, being intelligent and kind are fundamental components of who I am, and trying to change something like that takes a mental and emotional toll. Regardless of how I modified my behavior, my feelings and orientation toward the world remained the same. Feigning disinterest didn’t make me any less eager to learn. Acting callous didn’t stop my heart from bleeding.
I had to stop and ask myself exactly what was I fighting against, and why? Early in my life, I came to value kindness and intelligence over other traits. All I wanted was to be a good person – someone my friends knew they could turn to for help. Without even realizing it, I had achieved my two highest priority life goals, before obtaining a license to drive. If I was going to be summed up in two adjectives, intelligent and kind were really the best I could have hoped for.
And so, predictably for you readers, I returned to being myself with a little more acceptance of who that was. And with time came the understanding that those closest to me weren’t trying to box me in – rather, they were elevating the pieces of me most worth noticing. That people can be multiple things, but we all have a few traits that stand out and define us. And that if the qualities that people most see in us are the same qualities that we desire most to see in ourselves, we should be thankful to be so lucky.
Try the game with the people in your life. Have fun with it. Learn from it. Don’t let it stop you from being who you are. Do let it help you reaffirm who you want to be.