It is so often as though I watch myself from afar. That girl of gesturing hands, light, easy laughter, she seems so confident. She seems so comfortable in this space of interacting with another. She doesn’t even know the person, yet she throws herself into the role of a conversant with apparent absurd ease.
But I am here. I watch her from this distance, incapable of changing the trajectory, knowing how it will end. I hold her panic for her in the midst of the interaction. I clutch her anxiety to me as though she truly is someone else and I am its guardian, waiting to give it back to her when she is alone again. I want to tell her to stop. I want to tell her to quit laughing so much, to stop asking questions, to be herself. To let the person see her because she is making it impossible. Because this? This is not her. This girl of feigned surety, this is not her. This is not me.
I fill my arsenal with questions. I plan out what I will ask a person before I even see them, because I then won’t have to scramble when the time comes. I allow them the space to talk, filling any silence with a new question for them to answer. If they ask me something, I answer in as little detail as I can reasonably get away with, and I redirect back onto them, knowing full well I would hate to be in their position, knowing full well that they cannot get to know me if I never reveal myself, knowing full well that conversations are a two way street and I am disobeying all of the traffic laws.
It’s easier this way. It’s easier to erect facades of easygoing to mask the uncertainty beneath. I fall into the role with such ease that I frighten myself. I am afraid of how easy it is to avoid even the barest hint of vulnerability in favor of learning as much as I can about someone else.
I am the one onto whom strangers settle their burdens. I am the one to whom they tell their difficulties, who listens willingly and curiously, intent on relieving them of some of the pain they feel. I feel honored at the opportunity to fill this role, to be present for someone in ways I don’t allow others to be present for me.
I sat outside one day after class waiting to go home. Something had happened which was causing me an inordinate level of anxiety, and it was all that I could do to hold myself together long enough to get somewhere safe. I was so close to failing when a woman walked up and asked if she could sit with me for a few minutes.
I said yes, even though interacting with another person felt like the hardest thing in the world to do in that moment. In intermittent bursts complimented by surprisingly comfortable silences, she shared with me how she was having one of her hardest days and didn’t know how she was going to make it through. Her struggles, though vastly different from my own, nonetheless felt like a mirror in that moment. I wasn’t alone, but there was more to the conversation. I had no energy left within me to build my carefully constructed mask of invulnerability, of lightheartedness, of easy banter and comfort. I had no energy to fill silences I normally would fear. I was clinging to each of her words, the shape of them helping to anchor me to the present.
As she left to go to class, she thanked me for talking with her and told me that she hoped she would see me around again but expressed that I probably wouldn’t want to because of her dumping onto me.
A new kind of panic surfaced at this, and I hurriedly reassured her that she was always safe to talk to me, and that she had been appreciated and welcome. I was terrified of someone feeling how I often felt: as though any display of emotion is regrettable. I don’t know if she believed me, but I also don’t know if I’d believe a stranger if they said the same to me.
What I learned from the interaction was that I can survive without a mask. I answered her questions without redirection, because I couldn’t find it within myself to play the mental chess game I needed to. I didn’t tell her anything remarkable about myself–I think she was asking me questions simply so she could feel more comfortable sharing with me—but it was one of the only conversations I have had in years where I didn’t let my anxiety win.
It made me reflect on why being seen is cause for so much distress. I write these blog posts, after all. I share my words for the world to see. When I am within a group, I suspect I would not be described as quiet, private, or difficult to get to know. So, I have to wonder, what marks the difference?
* * *
Cardboard is one of the most familiar textures to my hands. We donate anything we haven’t used in three months; the rest gets packed away. Hallways are lined with stacks of boxes so familiar to me that openness sometimes feels strange. Where to next?
From Arizona, to Washington, to Colorado, to California, to Oregon. Always wondering what the next stop is. The world is so vast and moving around so much as I grew up instilled within me a thirst to explore all that it offers. I am endlessly fascinated by people, their histories, their cultures, their customs. I love the feeling of a vehicle in motion, an unknown or at least unfamiliar destination ahead, my whole life contained within just a few cubic feet. I have learned to live lightly, to hold onto only the most sentimental of possessions.
Yet there remains something else, something deeper, something darker that has not relinquished its hold on me throughout my journey. When you know you will only know someone for a year, where is the point in getting too attached? What is the purpose in building a connection that will inevitably be broken by distance, by the requirement of communicating through a phone? Ironic, coming from a person whose majority of friends were found online in the first place.
So, I didn’t. My best of friends were defined by how much time we spent together rather than requited sharing of ourselves and our stories. I think I recognized it, on some level, when my father died, and I didn’t tell the two girls with whom I considered myself to be the closest. I flitted from social group to social group, stepping into them just long enough to be recognized and to soak up the positive energy, withdrawing in time to prevent any lingering knowledge of who I truly am.
The closest I ever got to my friends was in the moments of their sharing with me their hardships. I began to define myself according to this dynamic, until, as I have written previously, I didn’t know who I was when someone wasn’t needing me. But I didn’t reciprocate. When I was asked, I would lie, minimize, and redirect. And with the busyness of life, with the experiences plaguing each and every one of us, it was the rare person who ever pushed further.
When you give people little to hold onto, it is no surprise when they don’t hold on. And how terrified I was of being held onto, not for fear of being cloistered or suffocated, but because I was afraid of being let go of by their choice rather than my own.
I don’t like attention being on me. I am never more uncomfortable than when the focus shifts to me, and this is amplified considerably the smaller the group. I can write these words, I can share them with hundreds of strangers and dozens of people I know, and I feel little more than a slight anxiety of being misunderstood.
I have myself so thoroughly convinced that people will not genuinely care about what I have to say that I give nobody the chance to prove me wrong. It is an assumption rather than a fear, and I have lived my life according to it, giving almost nobody the chance to show me otherwise. It is unfair and, to some extents, quite cruel to those who have wanted to get to know me but whom I have disallowed the chance out of my own sense of worthlessness. I, in my arrogance, somehow believe that I out of everyone am unimportant, uninteresting, not worthy of focus.
There are brief moments when someone will ask me about myself, about my day, about an experience, and they actually, actively listen when I tell them. They prompt me to continue. They treat my words the way I try my best to treat others, and it is in these moments that I find myself overcome with a childlike joy. I’m that little girl doing tricks on the playground, and I am being seen.
There are other times when my openness is met with little regard or care, and I recognize that there are a thousand reasons for why this is the case, few of which have anything to do with me or are reflections on me as a person. They linger, though, and sometimes in ways which poison my hope for trying.
At his request, I grabbed lunch one day a few years ago with a friend I had on campus but who I had not seen for a few months. My mom called me after I had gotten home, and in the midst of telling her how it went, I inexplicably found myself crying.
He had spent the duration of our time together on his phone. I tried to ignore the vibrations of incoming texts, the sound of him putting it back on the table after responding, the distracted way he would pause his stories and ask me to remind him where he had left off. I wished so desperately that I could see him, that I could know if my relaying of my own stories was being received with interest or was an excuse for him to keep texting uninterrupted. It was bizarre, uncomfortable, and deeply discouraging, because though he couldn’t have known it at the time, he was the first person I had said yes to in response to being asked to hang out. I’d declined offer after offer, until eventually my friends stopped trying.
It is easier, in a group, to fade out of view. The clamor of voices can easily disguise my own if I would like it to. My words may not find a place to land, but I can assume it is because I wasn’t heard rather than because there was not a willing listener. If they do land, if someone replies, it is so easy, so seamless to withdraw without notice if I feel overwhelmed by the attention. Groups are often not an exchange of words but rather a waterfall of them, open hands catching what they can, many more falling through the cracks, unnoticed. It is safer this way. At least the words were shared, even if they did not find a home within someone’s palm. And that anxiety of being unseen is so minimal because mine are not the only ones. Mine tangle with those of others who were overlooked or accidentally missed, making a home of sentences and fragments, building a story that may not ever be seen. But they aren’t alone.
I speak of so much in a group that I am so stricken with fear over telling a single person. I hope that the ones with whom I would like to share such things hear them, but if not, I do not feel the panic as much as I would were I to share them directly and be disregarded. It’s a blurry, bewildering, often broken line that I can’t quite figure out how to entirely erase.
I do not fear vulnerability because of the subject matter; I fear it because it has a place inside of me, and though that place sometimes feels too small, too full of stories, too overwhelmed by the intensity of it all, to offer it to someone else, to specifically hold it out to a person is to risk it not finding a home within them. My words will succumb to gravity, settle into the earth, find space among the grass and leaves. I may never find all of them again.
It is a strange type of loneliness, where I am surrounded by so many people whom I love so strongly, where I know I am welcome to be honest and vulnerable, but where I feel so in capable of connecting one-on-one. Because what if this isn’t real? What if this support and care that I feel from them as a whole is nothing more than something I want to be genuine? What if it all breaks down when I take that step toward trust?
How will I know if I never try?
How do I even begin to try?
I am overwhelmed by what feels to me to be a herculean task, but I know what I would tell a loved one in my shoes:
There is no way that you will have a 100% success rate in choosing whom to trust. It will go wrong, and you will get hurt, and you will regret having been open with a person. But it can and will also go right. It can remind you how beautiful of a thing trust can be when well-placed, and nothing will ever replace the feeling of offering your story to someone who hears it, respects it, and sees you for it. To not trust is to destroy your ability to feel that safety, that security, that incomparable comfort of being known. Masking will feel good in the moment and may seem like it is protecting you from getting hurt, but it will never allow you the genuine relationships for which you yearn so deeply.
I suppose it is at this point that I should flip the script and believe the words for myself.
As always, thank you for reading. ❤