I spent the weekend in New York for Luke’s birthday, hanging out semi-constantly with very cool people.
For a long time, I wanted to write an article about being an extroverted introvert. You know the type — it’s that person who goes to the party, hops around laughing and saying hi to everyone, and then leaves at like 9:30. I strongly identify with the whole being-an-introvert thing; I like to be alone, and I like to stay quiet, and I get drained and freak out when I’m around people for more than about an hour. But I am not shy. I ask lots of questions (“Where is the best place to get underwear, do you think?”) and I’m constantly interrupting people to make what I believe will be a very funny and successful joke (“You got a dog? Paws-some!”). There was a time, about a year ago, when I thought my extroverted introversion made me kind of special.
But really, if I am being totally honest with myself, I know what you have already figured out about me: I just want people to like me.
The first time I was in an upper-echelon clique was in high school, when I joined an after-school theatre troupe at the community children’s theatre. It was a teens-only group, with a pitiful teen-type name that made it obvious the group was supposed to be cool, and had been formed by uncool adults. There were maybe 20 people in the group, and it became clear early-on that there was nothing exclusive about it — everyone who’d auditioned had gotten in.
There were three girls I grew to be friends with in the teen theatre troupe whom I am going to call Melissa, Tracy, and Steph. Those were not their names at all, and really, those names make it sound like I befriended a group of teenaged soccer moms, but anyway. It’s hard to describe these three without referencing “Heathers” or “Mean Girls,” but I’ll try. They were stupidly pretty — little waists and little noses and makeup in all the right places — and they wore cool clothes (Melissa, for example, bought all these irreverent shirts at Value Village and knew how to sew so she turned them into sexy dresses). Most critically, though, they shit-talked everyone else in the theatre group. And, because they were so obviously alphas and because they (for some reason I will never understand) accepted me as one of them, I shit-talked everyone else in the theatre group too. Let me tell you: we were mean.
I smoked my first cigarette with this triad, and went to my first abortion clinic (Steph got pregnant, just like she would on a TV show, and we all went with her to the clinic and bought her cake at Fred Meyer after). I kissed Melissa on the lips, and Tracy took pictures of it. I drove them around in my parents’ car before I was allowed to drive other people. We used our mutual knowledge of the other kids in the theatre group to develop a juicy dialogue composed of gossip and insults. As it was happening, even though I knew it was unethical, I thought, “This is the luckiest I have ever been."
This is because Melissa, Tracy, and Steph really liked me, and everyone around us gaped in awe. There were times when I felt we were moving in slow motion. It wasn’t just that these three girls liked me; it was that everyone liked me. Or, at least, they acted like they did.
In case you didn’t know me when I was in middle school, let me describe my young self very briefly. Picture the least popular girl you remember going to middle school with. I was despised and rejected by that girl. I ate lunch alone in the choir room, where I read Francesca Lia Block and gazed out the windows at the pretty girls who knew how to pull off faded flared jeans.
It is possible that, as every show or movie with a strong female lead has shown us, popularity meant more to me because I’d never had it. But in truth, doesn’t everyone feel that way? An inner circle means that there are people on the outside who, best case scenario, wish that they could get in. When you feel like you’ve found something like that — and I think most people have — you learn to perform so that you can stay there.
Everyone wants to be liked. There is nothing unique about that, or really wrong with it, either. But I’m beginning to realize that when I come home from a short party more exhausted than I feel after a long run, it’s because I am spending a lot of my energy performing. Maybe it is fitting that I started to learn how to do it while I was in a theatre group.
Performance is a kind of lie. You become the person you believe other people what you to be, and it takes energy to be that person. For adults, this usually manifests itself in statements like, “I don’t like being around people because I am just too concerned that everyone have a good time, and that stresses me out.” I’ve said that (and still say it often); but it’s bullshit. What that sentence really means is, “I don’t like being around people for too long because I am afraid that people will get bored and, for some reason that I can’t explain, they will blame me for not adequately entertaining them, and then those people will not like me."
This is okay, and it is normal. It is one of the ways we humans try to control things, which is what we do all the time. This life is too bizarre (trees!? solar systems?! time!? death!? WHAT IS ALL THIS STUFF!?), and we are too vulnerable; it’s hard to not know what other people are thinking or feeling, and it’s hard to let your ego slide away from it. The ego tells you it’s protecting you; it wants you to believe that if people don’t like you, then you will get hurt and your life will be painful. The ego is as slippery as it is coy. It’s the same voice that tells you, constantly, that you are not good enough.
In fact, though, all this performing isn’t really necessary. You know that already, in your heart, but you might not truly believe it.
In fact, the people in your life — sorry about this — don’t think about you or talk about you or judge you nearly as much as you think about and talk about and judge yourself. People at parties don’t need you to be constantly aglow; they’re not expecting you to make them happy or provide them with pleasure. If you feel you don’t have anything to talk about, you can just listen. Or, crazier still, you can let there be a little silence. A little silence at a party between friends never hurt anyone.
I’m bringing this up because in the end, performing around people can spiral out of control. You don’t mean to, but you get nasty and vicious. You don’t mean to, but you stop being genuine. You don’t mean to, but you get to a place where you feel like you can’t tell the people you love how you really feel. It is a lonely place to be, because no one knows you’re there. They see someone else, whom you may not relate with all that much at all.
I’ll struggle with this for the rest of my life, I am sure. Some of those grooves in my psyche are VERY deep, and I will always tend to push against my discomfort rather than sink into it. But today, in a car with four cool people, I found myself feeling like I needed to ask a big group question and fill the silence that was stretching out the minutes, and I didn’t. I just sat and looked out the window. And when my ego came along to yell at me — “Sophie! These people are going to think you’re boring! They’re going to think you’re selfish and sullen! Quick! Make a joke!” — I told it to look at the damn Statue of Liberty and leave me alone. Maybe, Ego, you could even try to enjoy it.