Live Through This

Dropping the Act

To get you to like me, I thought I had to put on a show.

Illustration by Dylan.

Illustration by Dylan.

Chuck Klosterman wrote, in the essay “This Is Emo” from his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, “My witty banter and cerebral discourse is always completely contrived. Right now, I have three and a half dates worth of material, all of which I pretend to deliver spontaneously.” I related to this so hard that it hurt. I am always extremely aware of how I am presenting myself to strangers, and I have been for as long as I can remember. If I’m at a party and someone asks me a question, I rifle through all the possible responses, then all the possible reactions to each response, in my mind before opening my mouth. The answer I settle on is designed to satisfy curiosity, inspire more conversation, and hopefully get the other person to like me.

As far as I can remember, this all started when I was six or seven and my parents were told that standardized tests had placed me in the “gifted” category at my school. My parents were (understandably) proud, and I remember their bragging about me to their friends, who’d look at me approvingly and cry, “How smart!” Hmm, I thought. Being clever and precocious gets me all kinds of positive attention. I started memorizing stories and facts to dazzle people with, gleaned from “factoid books” they used to sell at gas stations. “Did you know a duck’s quack doesn’t echo?” I’d ask visiting adults. Or: “Did you know that some people can draw on a grain of rice?” I would then smile and haul out my stuffed animals for a round of introductions, which always delighted my parents’ guests. Being a clever kid gave me a routine, a shortcut to adult approval, and a tiny little bit of identity to cling to.

As a teenager, I decided that I’d rather be seen as “cool” than “smart.” My older sister was conventionally gorgeous, and I didn’t feel like I could hold my own next to her unless I was completely different, so I picked a direction and went for it. I dressed in men’s pinstriped pants and animal-print shirts and dyed my long hair a multitude of bright colors. This look, I believed, expressed “who I was,” and it had the bonus effect of making other people think I was “weird.” I continued my habit of researching random things to impress people with, but this time the stories I collected were about Kim Gordon, or people surviving being buried alive, or just weird piercings. I wrote poetry and short stories about machines that ate feelings. I wanted people to believe that I was special. I wanted to be the cool, mysterious, irresistible person in the movie who comes along and enchants your life. I wanted you to wish you could live in my world every single day. Basically, I wanted to be a living, breathing Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

This was a ridiculous aspiration for many reasons, not least among them the fact that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is never the focus of the movie, she’s just a plot device. I had no model for what such deadly fascinating girls were supposed to do a year into a friendship, or a year into a job, or anytime they were by themselves. Were they still delightful? All through college and for a long time after, I skipped from job to job, working until I felt bored by the place (read: felt like I was becoming boring to the place). In my personal life, there were a handful of people who really knew me and “got” me, but the majority of my relationships were as brief as they were intense. We’d have all kinds of adventures and what I thought were “deep,” “profound” talks late into the night, and six weeks later, we’d just drift apart (read: I’d start getting anxious that I couldn’t keep up the mirage much longer and skedaddle). I couldn’t make the shift from being the “mysterious cool girl” to just being a loyal, dependable person, a crucial transition if you’re trying to turn an acquaintance into an actual friend. Friends are people who see you cry, who notice if you’re having a bad day and try to cheer you up. Mysterious cool girls, I thought, didn’t need cheering up. But I did.

Looking back, I can see that I was scared. I put on a big show for everyone to protect myself from rejection. No one could resist the mysterious cool girl, and even if they did, they weren’t really rejecting me, just this other girl I introduced them to. If they saw “the real me,” the girl who is sometimes overly emotional or has nothing funny to say, I believed, people would not find me worthy of their time. I didn’t think my regular self deserved friends, and I felt lucky for the few who tolerated her. The fact that people liked being around “the cool girl” just confirmed my fears. (You see how sad this merry-go-round is?) In short, I felt unlovable, and I didn’t want to give anyone the chance to confirm this feeling.

Always being the new girl is a hard lifestyle to maintain, though, unless you’re a serious drifter/vagabond. It also gets exhausting, and lonely. I had a few friends I’d made as a teenager, close friends, but I’d left them behind when I moved to college, and my single-serving friends just weren’t cutting it. I needed more connection in my life. I needed to bond over more than just being fun. It was less risky to keep myself fun to be around, but after a while it got hard to keep people at arm’s length. I learned that no matter how hard you try to be a weirdo fairy tripping around in the breeze, some people and some places will force you to get comfortable. Those people and places feel like home, and you can’t help letting your guard slip down a little bit when you’re around them.

I slipped out of my role and into being a person slowly, cautiously, and gingerly. Over time, I allowed myself to demonstrate affection and competence rather than quirky charm, and I found that caring can keep things just as interesting as taking people to hot dog festivals in the middle of nowhere (something I did more than once to prove how weird and interesting I was). At this point I’ve had the same job for almost four years, more than double the time I’ve spent anywhere else. I’ve been in the same relationship for almost seven years. I have three best friends from high school and college that I took the time to reconnect with, because when I thought about my future, I wanted it to include those parts of my past. This job and these people are so fascinating enough to me that I knew I couldn’t let them go, so I was forced to take a chance that they’d still be there even when my “new car smell” wore off.

I still have to fight the urge to put on a show when I meet new people—old habits die hard. But lots of the people in my life now have seen me cry, and they’ve seen me get angry. They’ve seen me fall down and be dull and shoot snot out of my nose while laughing. I’ve discovered that I don’t have to put on a façade to be liked, which feels pretty exhilarating. I may not seem as mysterious or cool as I used to, but I do get to have truly meaningful relationships with other people, and we can still dazzle each other with factoids about seahorses or arcane rituals from faraway lands or Victorian death photography anytime we like. ♦


  • Lillypod July 14th, 2014 3:44 PM

    this resonates more i like to admit. That Chuck Klosterman quote is gold! Unfortunately, I don’t want to change yet.

  • doikoon July 14th, 2014 3:59 PM

    Thank you for the article, it really decribes my own misuse of self awareness. Your differences from me were equally nice to know. Seeing how far you’ve come makes me feel happy.

  • KCKasem July 14th, 2014 4:00 PM

    I know this is completely irrelevant, but holy moly, I LOVE Victorian death photography. I was so excited to see it mentioned in this article (which is great, btw) that I had to sign up to Rookie just to comment.

    Anyway, this was a really great read. While I have never ended up putting on a radical persona, I would always just shut down and be completely quiet and timid around new people, hoping that they would like me since I wasn’t actively rude or mean. Reading this reminds me that I should just be putting my genuine self out there and letting the people who don’t take to me leave, and letting the ones who do stay!

  • spudzine July 14th, 2014 5:13 PM

    I used to be this person to the point that I feel like this article was meant for me. Honestly, I have been spending greats amount of time (since the fourth grade) trying to get people to like me based on an image I think they would like. But it gets exhausting having to maintain said image, anf sonetimes I forget that I’m talking to someone who likes a certain image of me, so when they see what I percieve as my “natural self,” they wonder what is up with me. Which is a normal response, it just doesn’t feel too good. I guess the only way to stop this habit is to stop caring about how people see you.

  • onlyawallflower July 14th, 2014 5:19 PM

    i relate to your past habit of wanting to have a specific persona, or a very specifically ‘cool’ way that people perceive you so that you aren’t just like everyone else, all in the hope of having some perfect set of movie-quality relationships. i also realize the problem with that by reading this article–you really identified that scenario very well, and i enjoy your happy ending that is still true to yourself and your own interests.

  • ElyseAnna July 14th, 2014 7:00 PM

    This article came into my life at seriously such a prime moment. I’ve just begun to realize when I meet new people I feel the need to pack all the interesting things about me in the first ten minutes in order for them to like me and think I’m cool. I really am trying to listen and talk about myself less because I thinking that’s how you make people actually like you…

  • cestlaviee July 14th, 2014 10:16 PM

    I just scrolled down this article thinking ‘this is me this is me this is meeeeee’.
    I’ve only recently realized why my relationships with people haven’t been as long-lasting as I’d always hoped. My dramatic and self-concious mind has always made me feel like I needed to be someone else, someone more interesting, to be liked by other people and I’ve always been afraid to bore people but I always end up feeling exhausted.
    I’m trying to be more authentically myself, whoever that is. It’s kind of funny because I’ve always been very self-aware but I’ve never actually taken the time to get to know myself.

  • clocksheep July 14th, 2014 11:47 PM

    This hit a lot closer to home than I wanted it to. Really astutely written, and you’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks.

  • fabulousmuscles July 15th, 2014 12:38 AM

    Thank you for this article! I’ve always had an unshakeable feeling of alienation and inferiority, so I found myself doing just the thing you described. I worked incredibly hard to come across as clever and exciting to everyone I met, and yes- I desperately wanted to exude ‘cool’ on sight. When I was very young that meant lying and all kinds of shadiness. I’ve learned to tap into that side of me that craves authenticity, and it’s done a lot to take down the facade. Like the other commenters said, learning to listen and to talk less helped me shake of the veneer and become a person again.

  • steviencks July 15th, 2014 4:06 AM

    great article, really resonated with me. it’s like i’m constantly torn between finding my authentic self and being liked

  • Areeba July 15th, 2014 7:46 AM

    No please! This article takes me back to my high school life where I wanted to be special and look coolest girl in school. I didn’t make any friends, I didn’t even have one. Because the truth is, you have to be real for real friendships. I have no idea what I’m going to do in college life, it hurts. I can’t show my inner broke, always complaining, always fearing of rejection girl. It looks hard to me to show my real side to people. I’m sure they wouldn’t accept it. Just wish me luck that I get a way that leads me in the right direction of myself :)

  • Maradoll Mynx July 15th, 2014 10:39 AM

    Thanks so much for your generosity in writing this. (I’m kind of surprised to find a lot of people seem to have had extremely similar experiences!) It makes me feel better that this resonates with many people. For me, I was raised in an environment which was verbally and psychologically abusive (read: bullied) by those close to me. After reading your article, I can see exactly why I, too, put up a shield and always have to have some facade. Underneath it is still fear. I have a lot of work to do still, but I’m really glad you got through it. It proves I can too, hopefully.

    • Maradoll Mynx July 15th, 2014 5:51 PM

      P.S. I forgot to mention that I would love to read the stories you alluded to about machines that ate feelings.

  • itssabine July 15th, 2014 11:14 AM

    This is so extremely relatable, it’s almost creepy. The last few months I’ve begun to realize that I constantly behave myself in a way that I know will make people like me. This article is like my life written down, even the whole “gifted” thing happened to me ass well.

  • Emilee537 July 15th, 2014 4:34 PM

    I feel like I’m doing the opposite. Not trying to open up and care so I can distance myself from people. I keep telling myself I want to be mysterious, but now that you bring it up, your way seems a lot better.

  • katie_o July 15th, 2014 10:28 PM

    oh man, i relate to this so much. thanks for posting!