I wonder how much of mental illness and self-esteem issues would be solved if we saw ourselves through others’ eyes. I don’t know. Maybe the problem with that is that they are too charitable whereas we are too oppressive in our estimations of ourselves. Even people, friends, students, whoever, who have the same situations as me, I view them radically differently. While I know which one is authentic and that I mean what I say to them when I try to be supportive, encouraging, to offer perspective to push back at least some of their inner critic, the part of me that knows those same vocal chords would sound radically different when talking to myself questions which one is real. Is the way we view others or the way we view ourselves more accurate? I don’t know and I sure as hell don’t know how to go about figuring that out.
Anyways, in my Hunter S. Thompson style of musing and stream of consciousness, I’ve gotten off on a different foot than I wanted to. The Latin word for left hand is sinister so, since I went in an unintended direction from the one I initially planned, let’s say I’ve gotten off on the sinister foot, just for fun. My fun probably. Not yours.
Buy the ticket, take the ride…
Eh, too much used car salesman vibe… how about–
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Anyways. Just like the harshest things people say to us seem to stick, the comments that are most surprisingly reassuring stick right alongside them. I have always been surprised by people’s uncanny ability to say what seems like a seemingly flattering but unimportant observation at just the right time, right when you couldn’t need it any more than you already do.
Two years ago I was walking out of a graduate class and I was with this person who I knew casually from the program. She was older than me, maybe in her early forties, I’m not sure. But for that reason, I think on some subconscious level I thought her feedback had more credibility and had to be more genuine. I can unpack why later. But she looked at me and shook her head, saying, “Hey. You are like, wicked smart.” At first, I was struck by how generous it was to say that, how if I had the confidence to tell somebody that I would partially be exposing myself to a comparison which validates that I’m not smart.
Then, I probably did what I always do when somebody compliments me–retreat into my turtle shell and panic because I don’t know how to navigate the situation. But it really touched me. I always worry people perceive me the way Snape perceives Hermione in HP book 1, obnoxiously eager to engage in academic discussion and get the gratification that comes with positive feedback. I don’t know if I deserved to hear that or if I had just fooled her and, indirectly, could be fooling myself if I accepted the compliment but it meant a lot to me. I am constantly questioning my intelligence–no feedback, no grades, getting an article published, having degrees, none of those things change that. (Humble bragging makes me feel dirty and just saying the things I have done objectively to support my statement feels gross.) I am always, and I mean always, able to come up with some impostor syndrome-related reason for why it was a glitch and does not accurately reflect my actual person.
But when another student after my last graduate class asked me how old I was and was surprised I was 28 because he said I looked so young but also seem to him “like this Doogie Howser.” It was that same validation the other woman gave me. Totally serendipitous, could as easily have not happened, but still like this rogue encouragement that sparks a little fire inside of me. Dramatic, cliche, I know. But in all the grey matter and the black smog that is the small container through which I perceive myself and the world around me, that little fire or little spark, as seemingly overblown as it is, is just enough and it always comes at the right time. That kind of desperate hope that maybe the comment is both entirely genuine and accurate is just enough to drown out all of the awful things I say to myself.