I sometimes joke with my friends that there is no way I could ever be in a polyamorous relationship.
And the joke isn’t the statement as fact, because I’m all for people doing what they want; it’s the reasoning behind it. I’m not too closed-minded to try it. I don’t cling to a traditional set of values. I’m not a sap who believes in the one. Actually, I gag a little bit every time someone uses the phrase “forever person”. It’s just my brain.
I evaluate everything. Everything and everyone. I am always over-analyzing. And analyzing means comparison. It means judging in the most critical way, seeing things for what they are, arriving at a conclusion of preference. Long story short, it means I’m going to like someone better, even if the whole point is that I don’t have to.
If I feel more strongly about Person A, that’s all I’ll be able to think about around Person B. Talking to Person B, kissing Person B, watching Person B eat food. And it will create so much anxiety that it drives me insane, because the most basic logic will make me ask myself, over and over again, why I’m not with Person A instead.
But, you might say, the whole point of polyamory is to find partners with different qualities that you can connect with in different ways. Maybe Person A has all the qualities Person B is missing, and vice versa. I argue that “separate but equal” doesn’t exist, unless, that is, I’m equally uninterested.
Put a bowl of hot fudge in front of me, tell me to eat it, and I’ll feel sick. Do the same with a bowl of plain vanilla ice cream, and I’ll find it just as unappetizing. Combine them, and now, holy fuck, I’m salivating in the most sensual way. But, you could have me taste two different hot fudge sundaes, and I would still know which one I liked better. Absolutely. Positively.
It’s just the way I am. The way we all are, polyamorists included. Because no one can live a life free from evaluation in any of its many shapes and forms.
Why are we programmed to pick and choose, to compare and contrast? Is it Freudian or Darwinian? Did it begin with the ancient Greeks and their Olympic winners and losers? Or was it the Egyptian pharaohs gunning to build that bigger, better pyramid? Something tells me, our current president in mind, that it was the first cavemen examining the size of each other’s genitals.
And maybe that’s it. The socialization of observation, from the self, outward. How are we different from others? How are we similar? As humans we classify, we quantify, we measure. Everything gets catalogued, down to our thoughts. Pun intended. And somewhere along the line, we assign a value to these differences, these similarities, and their qualities. We evaluate.
It raises for us questions of skill, of ability, of fitness for something. Questions of better or worse. Questions of “good enough”. Sometimes this happens collectively, as a society, and sometimes it’s an individual experience. Almost three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election, but I was the only one who had to decide what to wear yesterday. In both instances, those involved were uncomfortable with the results.
Because I myself am not exempt from evaluation. And while, like any other ego, mine secretly fears being constantly judged for even the most minute details – that one thing I said when I was drunk or how tight my pants are – I know how delusional those thoughts are. We are always harder on ourselves than others because we’re all too self-absorbed in our own flaws to fully pay attention to anyone else’s.
Unless of course, there are other delusions at play. Those of grandeur. Because evaluation is a two-edged sword. We are programmed to seek out praise. Compliments. Flattery. Validation. We all want to be acknowledged as individuals. Buttered up like a piece of toast. Maybe this is why monogamy in its most traditional form can seem so appealing: Tell me why I’m great, just me, forever.
Except we don’t exist in a bubble or a vacuum. We have to let others be thrown into the mix. We have to live in a world that is selective and competitive and acknowledge our own insignificance in it all.
Virginia Woolf wrote:
“Life […] is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in a cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority […] for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination – over other people.”
Woolf touches on a key truth – comparison has the power to make us feel better about ourselves, to let us build ourselves up through the delusion of tearing others down. Because when we start to really question ourselves, when we start to ask “Am I good enough?”, it’s never a comfortable feeling. We don’t actively seek out or place ourselves in situations where the answer is clearly “No”. For example, I’m not going to get in the ring with a WWE wrestler or enter a singing contest because I don’t enjoy experiencing pain, or creating it for others.
But the scenarios where we have to ask those questions because we genuinely don’t know the answer, the “could be” scenarios, they might be worse. Because there is something to lose. There is hope, which means there is room for disappointment. Those scenarios require us to confront our insecurities, our fears, our doubts, and determine our own self-worth. They require us to admit to ourselves that we really do give a shit, that we actually care, before admitting it to others.
Because it’s easier to assume the worst. To not submit work that could get rejected. To not try out for something you could be cut from. To not tell someone how you feel when you don’t think the feelings are reciprocated. Because when you’re the one who decides you’re not “good enough” it means not having to relinquish that control and allow yourself to be evaluated by others. It means not having to be vulnerable in the most terrifying way possible.
It also means lying to yourself. Because those questions of “good enough” never really get answered. Sure you can pretend it wouldn’t have worked out anyway, but you’ll always know that wasn’t the case. You’ll always know you were too afraid to put yourself out there and find out for yourself. To give something your best shot and see how far it takes you.
And giving something your best shot only requires a change in emphasis. From one syllable to another. From “good enough” to “good enough”. It means the uncertainty that lives between the certainty of not being the best, and the safety net of not being the worst, is all the qualification you need in order to try. It means someone being better than you isn’t justification for you to give up, isn’t a guarantee that you can’t improve, isn’t reason enough to not bring everything you have to offer to the table.
I had an improv audition this month that I had been dreading for exactly these reasons. Because to move forward with this thing that I loved, I had to put it all on the line, and face the possibility of losing it. I was nowhere near the best in my program, and I really didn’t know if I’d make the cut, so I prepped myself for the worst, knowing I hadn’t gotten in on my first try, and readied myself to be disappointed again. But instead of bluffing, instead of pretending I didn’t care, I decided ahead of time that if I didn’t make the cut, I would try again.
There have been plenty of moments in my life where I’ve had to give up, where I’ve had to walk away from things that weren’t working. I’ve ended an engagement, and I’ve quit a job where I walked out that day without giving notice. And while these may seem like big, dramatic, life-defining moments, they really weren’t; they were just logical conclusions to their respective situations. The real life-defining moments, the ones that say the most about who I am, have been the things I’ve given second chances: other people, opportunities, or just myself, plain and simple, because they required a true self-confidence, not Woolf’s bravado of putting others down, but one I had to find inside myself.
I found out this week that I passed the audition, and that for the moment, I had arrived at that magical land of “good enough”, albeit for a temporary stay. I want to tell you that it was a climatic, cinematic moment. That I was skipping down the street in a Canadian tuxedo with Cindi Lauper’s theme song from The Goonies blasting in the background. That maybe, just maybe, I sang along. “It’s good enough for meeee, ay yay yay yay yay.” The end.
Not quite. Because there’s one more kind of evaluation I’ve yet to touch on. Not our evaluation of others, the determination of our preferences, or the world’s evaluation of us, those tests of our ‘fitness’, but our own self-evaluation. When we leave behind both praise and criticism, fleeting feedback specific to one particular moment in time, and turn the questions inward, to the place where “Am I good enough?” becomes “Is this what I want?”, “Am I happy?”, “Is this enough for me?”.
And again, the reason these questions are terrifying is the chance that the answer could be “No.” Except these answers aren’t superficial; they don’t live on the surface of our lives for everyone to see. We’ve got to climb down into the deep, dark hole of our own psyche to go looking for them, for the answers and for the “whys” behind them. We have to be willing to get our all-denim ensembles dirty, to uncover old skeletons, to confront wishes that didn’t come true, those pennies at the bottom of an old well, and recognize the things that aren’t meant for us, the treasures that aren’t ours, before getting the hell out of there with exactly what we need, with the treasures that belong to us.
Some of my “treasures” include finding new restaurants, rapping in Spanish, and making metaphors out of literally anything and everything, including my favorite childhood movies. But humor aside, another of my “treasures”, all the negative aspects of evaluation, the insecurity and doubt and fear, they absolutely suck. There’s no way around it, no sugar-coating it. But when confronted, those moments we decide to call our own bluff, because no one can do it for us, and we can’t do it for anyone else, those moments bring us to destinations of worth, to things that are true and good and full of love, for ourselves and the things that are important to us.
Because like Woolf said, the struggle is perpetual. “Good enough” isn’t a real place, it’s not the happily ever after of fairy tales. It’s not a destination, someplace we can stay, the end of our story. It’s a pit stop. It’s the customs agent between one point of our lives and another. Moments for us to check in and check up on ourselves, to see how we’re doing, how we’re feeling, what’s important to us.
Imagine for a moment a world without evaluation of any kind. Where nothing was better or worse than anything else. What would it be like if there was no differentiation between our attractions or connections with other people, why would we bother with commitment of any kind? It would either be a giant orgy where everyone was perpetually swinging, or we’d just give up on interpersonal relationships altogether and everyone would be Joaquin Phoenix in Her, home alone with our sex computers.
If there was no evaluation of our abilities, there’d be no professionalism, no elite level of anything. No one would have a degree. There’d be no teachers to teach anyone. All books would be internet fan fiction and music would just be your next-door neighbor singing in the shower. Sports would become some dads playing softball on TV, and there would be no art, no entertainment. Just a bunch of mediocre ways to pass the time. Because tests are what help us grow. A way to show we’ve retained some knowledge or skill and are ready to move on to something more difficult. We’d have no way to discover who is good at what. To appreciate all the different talents we each possess.
If we never stopped to ask ourselves how we feel about our own lives, we’d just float on by, passively, down a lazy river free from any decisions. Forgoing the questions and pretending that everything is fine, living in a state of denial, doesn’t make anything better. It leaves things stagnant. Lets them fester. A wound will never heal unless it’s cleaned. Things of value won’t shine unless they’re polished. A garden cannot thrive if it’s not pruned. The same is true for our lives. They too need to be cleaned and polished and pruned. We cannot take care of ourselves without recognizing what needs to be cared for. We cannot fix anything we’re not willing to admit is broken.
But we can, we absolutely can, and the result is something to be proud of. Evaluation, pausing to give things we care about a value, to care in the first place, brings us everything of worth in our lives. The fear of losing things gives us reason to hold onto them, to pull them close and squeeze them tight. Acknowledging what isn’t ours is part of the way we learn what we can call our own. And the tough questions, the ones we’re afraid of, are what bring us the answers they ask for. All we need is the self-confidence to keep asking.