Really, that picture could be on my homepage. But not in a literal sense. I’ve just always identified with those who let their freak flags fly. And I’m offended by my own use of the term freak, because that’s what got me here in the first place. . . .
I’ve always been different. Not in a three arms and no head kind of way but more that I just didn’t think the same thoughts as other people I knew. At some point early on I wasn’t aware of this. I guess I just figured we all had our own unique and cool thoughts, ideas, and feeling. I suppose I knew there was enough common ground to facilitate a society but I eventually started to feel like most other people agreed about stuff and I just didn’t.
I’m sure it started earlier, but my memories tell me that it started with football. I didn’t really like football, or other organized sports, and certainly didn’t follow it with the same passion as many boys my age. I was also a pretty small kid so it was kind of a joke to think of me playing football and I suppose a lot of kids my age made that joke. I didn’t care but I did.
That “I didn’t care but I did” thing started to be a common feeling for me. Sticks and stones and blah blah – words fucking hurt. As I got in to breakdancing I really started to hear the resistance. I think the first time I was called ‘fag’ (I hate that word) was when I was thirteen, had moved to a new town, and was really into breakdancing.
I don’t know why I have always been into different things. Breakdancing, bicycle freestyle, bluegrass music, mandolins, home brewing, stream ecology. . . Most of the things I enjoy and pursue are outside what I would call ‘normal’ or ‘typical’. Part of this could be the narcissism of small differences and part could be leftover from my adolescent development where I first started defining myself by who I’m not to discover who I am. But I truly don’t think I was being intentional, I have mostly just done what I thought I would like.
Anyway, I started being bullied and receiving negative attention. Mostly from other boys but also from girls. Even some adults would express their dissatisfaction with my hair, clothes, or activities. One particularly benign instance was when I shaved my head. Not bald, but with a #2 guard. People flipped out. My hair was really not that different from a classic high and tight, which most of the football players wore at the time, but it was different enough to generate quite a reaction from the world around me. One particularly beefy jock actually told me I was the bravest guy I knew for doing something so out of the ordinary.
So even though some of the attention I was getting was not negative I was dumbfounded. Why did people freak out so much when I did things that were not within their standards of what they considered normal? Why did I matter?
Well, as I look back, I realize I decided the whole thing was a reflection of my inadequacy as a human being. I decided that I was creating problems for people because I was inferior. There was something wrong with me that led me not to conform but to stand out and do my own thing. I started viewing myself as an outcast and out-of-place in the world around me. I think this is when my anxiety and depressive episodes started.
Now that I look back, though, I see that I could have made different assumptions. For whatever reasons, I chose to view this attention pessimistically. Perhaps it was teenage angst or an inherent tendency toward depression, but I chose to a pessimistic perspective or mindset. I made up a whole bunch of stories about myself that described my lack of value. I went further to develop strategies about how to deal with my inferiority – to compensate. I became a people pleaser, a chameleon, a mind reader, and started showing people an inauthentic version of myself. To varying degrees.
And to varying degrees these strategies worked. Though mostly they didn’t. I became shy and somewhat reclusive. I didn’t feel safe around people I didn’t know. I guarded my true self, showed new people an inauthentic version of myself and, if they liked that person, because exhausted maintaining those masks. I had friends who knew me and even a few girlfriends, but the world was not my oyster. I struggled. We all did, but I think I created more problems for myself than I really had.
And it was all about my mindset. I told myself a pessimistic story rather than an optimistic one. Today my therapist suggested that I may have drawn attention not because I was weird but because I was charismatic. Perhaps people admired my ability to be myself. I was, back then, being pretty authentic, I’d say. I’d sure like to get back there.
I could say I wish I would have made a more optimistic decision but I am not revisionist. My hope is that I can now look back with a new perspective and mindset to tell a different story about my past. I will redefine my history to reflect the qualities in myself that make me good. That give me value. That make it ok for me to be a person in this world. I hope to understand better that I matter to people and that I deserve forgiveness. Because I have learned, thanks to a pessimistic story I told myself, that I hold myself to a ridiculously high and inhuman standard. All because of choices my teenage self-made.
I will continue to develop this line of thinking. But to summarize I think today I learned that the stories I told myself might not be accurate. Or, there are other stories I can tell myself that are at least as true and potentially more authentic. I have the freedom to choose a more optimistic interpretation of my life experiences that does not detract from my value and allows me to free myself of the negativity I cloak my personality in. I can learn that I am a regular human being and deserving of forgiveness and empathy – especially from myself. I can learn to treat myself better because I am not only allowed to be myself but that the person I am might actually be valuable to others.
Moreover, I hope to better understand what happened to me. I want to learn how to create new beliefs and how to heal. I then want to understand how to help other people either avoid the same mistakes I made or to move beyond their own beliefs that may be harming their abilities and lives.
I have never really understood what people mean by saying ‘Be optimistic’ or ‘Show gratitude’ or any of those rainbow and unicorn approaches to tricking yourself into being happy. But I think I am an example of how pessimistic thinking contributed to much bigger issues. Who knows whether things could have been different but I can now see how choosing a positive attitude can have broad effects. And I can see that being positive has at least the possibility of affecting the future. And, for me, that’s a shift in mindset. And that’s something.