Live Through This

I Am Whatever I Say I Am

A persona is a handy thing to have.

Illustration by Beth

When it comes time for my mother to tell anecdotes that illustrate my character, she has one story in particular that’s her favorite. It’s the story of The First Time Sady Got in Trouble. And it goes like this:

I was in first grade. It was recess. I was playing on a fence between the playground and the parking lot—not a high fence, but high enough that I could have fallen off and cracked my skull open—and a teacher I’d never met before came over and told me to stop. I turned to her, and I said, “Why should I listen to you?”

It was an honest question! I wasn’t insulting her; I really didn’t know who she was, and I wanted her to explain why she had the right to tell me what to do. Regardless, I got in trouble for two things: playing on the fence, and mouthing off to a teacher.

There are a few morals to this story. One of them is that children should listen to strangers, apparently! But also: I have a big mouth. There must be a mechanism in many people’s heads that separates their thoughts and feelings from the things they decide to say. They might, for example, notice that the person giving orders is much bigger than they are and thus probably an authority figure of some kind, and avoid asking for a detailed breakdown of the recess-yard hierarchy. But I, for whatever reason, did not develop that mechanism. For most of my life, if I thought something, I would automatically say it. And from this most of my personal bummer times have arisen.

In high school, I was “the girl who made a teacher cry.” (It was my geology teacher, and I didn’t see tears; I think my mouth was just so big that it started to spawn its own urban legends.) In college, I broadcast every single detail of my romantic disappointments to anyone who would listen (which is not the best way to ensure a total lack of romantic disappointments, because then you’re the girl who can’t keep a relationship together).

Now, I enjoy having a big mouth. I think it’s an important, brave thing. A woman’s personality is supposed to work like Silly Putty: if you press clean Silly Putty on a comic strip, you’ll pull it up with an imprint, a mirror image, of that strip. Girls’ personalities get pressed up against the emotions and opinions of everyone we care about, over and over, with a perfect mirror image expected each time. We’re expected to be accommodating, sensitive, and self-effacing in the extreme, and to care about whatever the person in front of us happens to care about. So facing the world with your own feelings and values, rather than someone else’s, is a way to change the game.

But there’s a difference between being able to speak up for yourself, between choosing to be honest about yourself, and just spitting it out because you can’t keep it in. It’s the difference between going parachuting and being pushed out of an airplane. Openness entails vulnerability; if you’re sharing yourself with the world, you’re outlining places where you can be hurt. Every time you share a belief or a personal fact, some people—let’s use the scientific terminology “total weiners”—will only hear one more thing about you that they can insult, mock, or exploit. Therefore, you are going to have to develop what is known as a persona.

I didn’t think much about developing a persona until I moved to New York in 2002. I’d always lived in a smallish town where everyone knew who you were; there was no changing how people saw you. But when I looked out of my window in New York, down onto a street where hundreds of people walked every day and I never saw the same face twice, I had a strange realization: These people don’t have any idea who I am. And the second thing I figured out was: I get to decide what to tell them. Like, did they need to know that the guy I kissed the summer before sixth grade dumped me, because, as he said, “I have a chance to make the basketball team, and I could be cool,” and that kissing the Doyle girl would tank his chances of coolness? Did they need to know about my bad relationship with my father? They did not. That was not a part of myself I planned on bringing to New York. Out here, people would only see who I was now; who I chose to be. The intensity of former years was simply not their business.

The word persona suggests a facade or a mask, but I don’t like that connotation. A mask is deceptive. You put it on and pretend to be someone else. A persona is more like an exoskeleton. If you look at creatures with exoskeletons—lobsters, bugs—they’re invariably gooey and vulnerable inside. A lobster is just a puddle with legs. But they have a tough outer shell, which gives them a shape and allows them to move around without being damaged. And that’s what your persona is: it’s your real self, but it’s the part of you that is strong enough to be exposed to the outside world. It’s the reason you’re a person and not a puddle of goo.

A functional persona is not about being fake, because being fake doesn’t work. You attract people for the wrong reasons, and when they meet the real you, that relationship invariably ends, sometimes in disaster, because you aren’t the person they expected. A persona is about being true to yourself while also being able to weigh the risks and rewards of vulnerability. You have to read the room. It’s not a question of lying, but holding some stuff back instead of laying everything on the line—at least at first. The most reliable test for reading the room is seeing how the people you’re with talk about their friends (or “friends”). If you know every unflattering detail about a friend of theirs whom you’ve never met, this person should know nothing about you. In fact, you should probably leave the room and not look back. You may think you’re the exception. You may think that if you’re nice enough to someone, you’ll never land on their bad side or be in the crosshairs of their mile-wide mean streak. Let me tell you now: you’re wrong.

This is also true of The Internet. I hate that guy! The Internet always seems like a nice, reliable friend—at first. You can tell The Internet anything! He will listen! He will listen and listen, in fact, and then Cindy Lewis (an imaginary person I just made up, who is also a jerk) might take the things you wrote and use them to start rumors, or share them with her friends out of context on Facebook, or do any of the numberless other things that Cindy Lewises do with their spare time. The Internet is a notorious turncoat. Approach him with extreme caution.

It’s OK to experiment. What stories do you feel comfortable telling? Which feelings are you OK with being public? Remember: you are goo. It is your job to make sure the goo does not get poked with a stick or smeared on the walls. If someone had the worst possible reaction to what you’re saying—if they made fun of it, told everyone they knew, blamed you for it—how long would it take you to get over that? If the answer is the rest of your life, that doesn’t go on your Facebook profile or into conversations with a casual acquaintance.

My own exoskeleton contains a lot of chancy information. It contains the fact that I’m bipolar and that I’m a feminist. In each case, I decided to share these things because (a) I thought I might help someone by doing it, and (b) I worked through what would happen if people reacted badly, and decided I could handle it. If I lost friends by telling them that I’d been sick, or that I thought ladies should be able to have abortions and be presidents and such, that was fine. Because they wouldn’t have been friends, they would have been sexist jerks. Everything I share is an opportunity to cut some jerks from my life. And hurrah for that!

But I make those choices. If I worked for a super-duper Republican who thought Bill O’Reilly was a genius—and I have done precisely that, in my life—I’d look for another job. But until I found one, I’d do a lot less talking about my politics, because I wouldn’t want mini-Bill to think of me as a godless abortion-mongerer when it came time to hand out raises. This isn’t fair, and it isn’t fun, and if I had my way I’d talk about my godless abortion-mongering from dawn till dusk. But my primary concern in that particular interaction is not fairness or fun: it’s paying my bills. Similarly, when I’m out on the town and some guy nearby starts talking about “crazy bitches,” I have two impulses. One is to go “YOU WANT TO SEE CRAZY?” and then throw a drink into his face and tell him I had an “episode.” My second impulse is to not get kicked out of the restaurant. So I smile, and I try to sit somewhere else so that I don’t have to hear the noise coming out of that guy’s face. Sometimes a persona involves making sacrifices, or rather making a choice about how fully you’re going to represent yourself.

Of course, those are relationships with built-in distance. But even with the people closest to you, there are moments when you need to censor yourself a little bit. Not every feeling needs to be expressed at every moment. Maybe you’re jealous that your friend is dating someone, or maybe you think that person is a jerk, but instead, you try to force yourself to be happy for them, because that’s what friends do. Maybe you’re angry at your senile uncle for calling you a “communist” at Thanksgiving, but you understand that there is no point in ruining the meal to debate him, so you pretend it doesn’t upset you. Part of your persona involves being the person you want to be, and maybe you don’t always want (or need) to be soul-baringly honest.

At one point in my life, this felt intolerable. I would have felt that I was being untruthful, or weak, if I didn’t say precisely what was on my mind, in any context. But now, I know that’s not true. I can calibrate my responses and still be myself.

I have a very, very big mouth. And for most of my life, that was a liability. But it became a strength when I learned how to use it. And the thing is, when I don’t turn every situation into an opportunity to take a stand or be completely emotionally naked, when I do speak, people tend to listen. ♦

39 Comments

  • jenaimarley November 6th, 2012 3:11 PM

    WHY I LOVE ROOKIE WITH A GOOEY PASSION.

  • vintagewhimsy November 6th, 2012 3:23 PM

    I love this.

    I’ve moved schools 4 times in my life and every time I do, I feel the need to reinvent myself, or come across as more confident than I did in my other schools. I’m often scared of coming across as fake though. One thing that Rookie and blogging has taught me is that I don’t need to hide. Dressing differently than everyone else also helps my confidence..

    Thank you, Sady, for this very helpful piece of writing.

    http://vintagereverie.wordpress.com

  • ecw November 6th, 2012 3:29 PM

    This is so, so fantastic. Thank you.

  • ijustreallylikebands November 6th, 2012 3:36 PM

    Ahh yes, using the term ‘total weiners’ makes everything very professional!:D

    http://www.glitterycatqueen.blogspot.com

  • Abby November 6th, 2012 3:57 PM

    This is so, so ridiculously good I have no clue what to even say…. This was the best thing about moving two states away for college, though. Because in my high school, even though it wasn’t that small, even if you didn’t know a person, chances are you knew something about them. And me? Everyone knew shit about me, because I was weird. And I also kind of had a big mouth… so it’s partially my fault. But anyway, I moved far away to college, because I knew that no one here would know me. When I meet someone, I can decide what they’re going to know about me, rather than them already knowing it. It’s wonderful…. amazing, actually, to be able to tell people things on my own time. I definitely have a persona, because not everyone needs to know everything about me right away. And it’s working pretty well for me so far. :)

  • raggedyanarchy November 6th, 2012 4:07 PM

    Thank you for saying “godless abortion-mongerer.” Now I know what to call myself when I’m feeling extra-cynical.
    Also: “total weiners” is totes a scientific term.

    • Abby November 6th, 2012 6:29 PM

      OMG I KNOW, RIGHT??? I’m totally calling myself that ha.

  • dizziestdaydream November 6th, 2012 4:09 PM

    “Everything I share is an opportunity to cut some jerks from my life.” This is too true. I am a self-professed and recovering people-pleaser.

    In college, I had the first real opportunity to create my own persona. NO ONE HAD TO KNOW I WAS A PREACHER’S KID! At least, they didn’t have to know that in the first minute of knowing me. I had piercings, I got a tattoo, I started smoking *gasp* with my co-workers at the local indie coffee shop. But since graduating, I no longer smoke, I’m down to just 5 regular ear-lobe piercings, and I wear office clothes on a regular basis. Quitting cigarettes is definitely a triumph, but I’ve also lost a bit of the persona that made me feel comfortable. Now I’m like a lobster wearing a business suit and I hate it.

    Lucky for me, I’m quitting my job this week so I can be a day-sitter for my husband’s grandmother. I am getting my nose pierced again this Saturday night, and have plans to never again feel like it’s a necessity to wear crappy office attire. If I go into the medical field and have to wear scrubs–fine. But I’m not working in offices that don’t suit my PERSONAL interests ever again.

    I’m all of 25 years old, but that may seem ancient to some of my younger Rookie girls. So in all my infinite wisdom, hear me now: If you enjoy doing something, that’s probably a good indication that you should figure out a way to make that into a career. I feel like sometimes we are made to feel that if we enjoy doing something, it must not be worthwhile. BUT IT IS! Follow your heart, but use your brain on the journey too.

    • Pashupati November 7th, 2012 4:44 AM

      I really needed to read the last part of your comment. Thanks. NOBODY EVER TOLD ME THAT.

  • Laura Lemon November 6th, 2012 4:11 PM

    This is totally useful and totally great for pretty much every situation involving new people. or being the new person.

  • litchick November 6th, 2012 4:28 PM

    Thank you for this- the advice is great and I love the lobster analogy.
    :)

  • ItsKelsey November 6th, 2012 4:34 PM

    I was bullied a lot in elementary school. When I got to high school I did this exact thing for a fresh start. I pretended to be super confident and relaxed around everyone and eventually that was how I became, because I didn’t have to worry that other people “knew the old me.” It didn’t happen overnight by any means, but by grade 12 I was known as the sarcastic, funny and smart girl that I was always supposed to have been. So by showing my best traits and leaving the insecurity, loneliness, and frustration behind I got back the old me that I was before the bullying. Thanks Rookie!

  • Majel November 6th, 2012 4:57 PM

    Sady, you are so inspiring.
    I like the expression “to read the room”!
    That sort of thing really is great when you’re in a big group of people you don’t know.

    On the evening after my first day at university, everyone was in a bar. I didn’t feel like buying an over-expensive drink, so I joined in the clinking of glasses with a candle in a glass from one of the tables. I could instantly see the difference between who thought it was funny or just didn’t mind, and the ones who started commenting on it in a negative way!

    • Pashupati November 7th, 2012 4:46 AM

      That’s beautiful. You should find some folks to do that, without any drink but only candles, and take a picture!

  • saramarit November 6th, 2012 5:59 PM

    I hope to be as level headed as this every day.

    “If you know every unflattering detail about a friend of theirs whom you’ve never met, this person should know nothing about you. In fact, you should probably leave the room and not look back.”

    Yes!

  • GlitterKitty November 6th, 2012 6:12 PM

    I love the voting “reminder” in the corner. That link is pretty funny yet informative too.

  • yumi November 6th, 2012 6:13 PM

    Thank you Sady, you wrote just what I needed to read. I could hug you right now.

  • SoPoe November 6th, 2012 6:18 PM

    Aaah this is sooo true, when I had to go to a new school where no one new me, I decided to not tell people things about myself unless they asked or I felt it important sharing. I went from the enthusiastic opinionated girl to the quiet girl in the corner. It was kind of an interesting experience. One time I was in class and it was the first time a teacher called on me and after a little bit he said, “Woah, I totally thought you were going to have some little quiet voice. I didn’t expect you to be so loud.” I started cracking up.

    P.S. I am back to my enthusiasm, I like it better. It was fun to be a wallflower, but I like being a tad crazy. Whenever I am around people from that school, though, I feel myself kind of falling back into the old persona.

  • Ariella95 November 6th, 2012 6:22 PM

    This article is very well written and relevant to me right now. In general I do not share any personal information except with a few friends, but i have noticed that most people who seem friendly do. But I have to say that I only agreed with part of your statement that anyone who did not want to be friends with you after you told them you supported abortion woul be a “sexist jerk”. They certainly would be wrong for ending a friendship over a political disagreement. However, I do not think it is fair to say that they would be sexist because most people who support abortion do so out of the belief that an unborn child is a full person, not out of disrespect for women. I know the issue of abortion has been brought up several times on Rookie, but I just wanted to point that out.

  • Lillypod November 6th, 2012 11:44 PM

    Self -efficacy is a huge pet hate of mine.
    I hate it when people (but predominantly women and girls) undermine their own achievements and goals so they don’t seem pushy or ambitious.
    You are worthy of every thing you have worked hard to achieve!!!
    Rookie please write an article on this next

  • Jane Lane November 7th, 2012 1:17 AM

    A little off topic but, OBAMA!!!

  • Isabelle97 November 7th, 2012 7:58 AM

    hell yeah! I was PUMPED when I heard the news XD

  • Mary the freak November 7th, 2012 1:14 PM

    amazing piece.
    (And I am sooo glad that Obama one. He is way better than romney.)

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • dreamweaver November 7th, 2012 1:34 PM

    I can definitely relate. I did not, however, appreciate the anti-prolife standpoint. I am pro life, not because I believe women shouldn’t have control over their bodies, but because I believe it’s not their body that they are directly affecting, it’s the baby’s. I definitely believe that that’s not sexist. But aside from that, good piece.

    • puffling November 8th, 2012 10:46 AM

      lol, pregnancy and childbirth definitely does “directly affect” women’s bodies.

      • dreamweaver November 8th, 2012 11:10 AM

        Terminating the pregnancy kills the baby. I’d call that directly affecting the baby’s body.

        • puffling November 8th, 2012 11:45 AM

          I don’t want to get into a debate about that, but you did say:

          “I believe it’s not their body that they are directly affecting”

          I think everyone, whatever their opinion on the rights or wrongs of abortion, can agree that pregnancy and childbirth definitely DO directly affect women’s bodies!

  • sophiethewitch November 7th, 2012 9:44 PM

    I relate to this so much. Thank you.

  • stellar November 7th, 2012 11:52 PM

    and there’s also the reason why one might feel they ‘have’ to talk about personal stuff–because others may have tried to make u feel bad about yourself (‘wierd’, ‘sneaky’, etc.) if u didn’t make yourself available (vulnerable, accessible) to be attacked.

  • rockin981 November 8th, 2012 7:55 AM

    Omg this is amazing

  • Stacey November 8th, 2012 10:37 AM

    I love this and I love rookie! I feel like rookie is filled with people that are just like me!

  • puffling November 8th, 2012 10:51 AM

    i am amused by your “my uncle called me a communist story” – once i was talking politics with my brother and identified myself as a communist and he argued with me and told me i wasn’t and couldn’t be.

    i definitely am.

    embrace the commie love!

    anyway, this story reminded me of being about 13 and obsessing over the idea that one day I might move to a new town, and become this different person – I even wanted to change my name – and then I would be happy. But of course we never moved, and I was always stuck being who I was.

  • z33zy November 9th, 2012 3:11 AM

    I love your definition of “persona”. I totally relate to this! Thanks for sharing!

  • hollierose November 10th, 2012 5:47 AM

    I love this so much <3

  • fourfootdisaster November 14th, 2012 10:55 PM

    I really needed to read this.

    I also tend to have a big mouth and feel the need to let everyone know I think guns should be regulated and women should be able to choose what they want to do with their own bodies.

    I have been learning to think people I speak but this really put it into perspective.

    I’m also Bi-Polar and that’s one thing I always attempt to keep quiet. I find is curious as to why she chooses to let it be done to everyone. Thoughts anyone?

    • fourfootdisaster November 14th, 2012 10:56 PM

      think before I speak*

  • fourfootdisaster November 14th, 2012 10:56 PM

    Crap, I really didn’t read this twice..
    let it be known to everyone*

  • Nikilodeon November 16th, 2012 8:12 PM

    oh man, i really needed this. thanks for writing this article. i was just about to tell you this whole situation i’m having wherein i’m beginning to realize the consequences of me and my big mouth, but then i stopped myself and remembered, “i can’t just blurt out everything!”

    really, thank you for your sage advice. i’m a little worried about how and where to begin with this whole persona thing . . . i mean how does one assess how they want to portray themselves? hopefully i’ll figure it out. thanks!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 15th, 2013 1:43 PM

    I’d like to express my admiration of Beth’s collage :D This was an interesting and enjoyable article, too :)