I want to be known, and to know other people. I crave intimacy, and not just physical intimacy. I realize everyone wants these things. But I am afraid I will never “be known.” It seems that no matter what I say or do, no one will ever know the REAL me, not in full. When I talk to people I often feel like I’m talking to them through a thin glass wall. I want people to benefit from knowing me, and for me to be able to reach out and help other people, and empathize with them, and build proper relationships.
Part of the reason I can’t seem to is because I always feel so conflicted and complex and hidden—a packet of lies. I am frequently a coward and seem to revert to speaking in cliches whenever I talk to people. It’s as if I can’t ever say anything original or even true, and instead just mirror other people’s energies and opinions back to them constantly. Lately, maybe as a result of growing up a little (I am nineteen), I have begun to move from comfortably cruising along, content to spin a web of fakery, to craving honesty. I am learning almost everything I usually say is just a reaction, and depends on who I talk to and the circumstance. I have started consciously trying to think and be honest, and in fact I’ve swung the other way now; it’s almost as if lately I get a kick out of being blunt and slightly jarring in my vulnerability.
I open my mouth and what comes out is never what I mean. I’m not just talking about a slight lack of eloquence, or slightly jumbled thoughts—rather I seem to have NO brain to mouth coherence. I am honestly surprised every time I hear myself. It’s either a blundering, babbling shadow of what I mean to say or, more frequently, it’s something completely different. I find what comes out of my mouth almost novel. No amount of concentrating seems to help. To make it worse, it is always a lie. Not ever a lie as in a full-on, made-up lie, but rather a bunch of things I’m sure I don’t really think, or if I did, I would not have worded that way. I often sound dumb and fake and shallow, or worse to me, insincere. I don’t think it’s just fear, either. It even happens when I am around people I’m comfortable with, about trivial things. It’s as if I can’t get ever straight what I think, while at the same time it’s somehow crystal clear; and then my mouth ignores both of that anyway and makes its own stuff up. Whenever I sit down to write, the truth seems a lot more apparent and comes readily—but this is real life, and I want to be able to communicate honestly and in the moment more than just, say, online.
If I can’t communicate with any consistency or honesty, then how can I have any real, valid relationships with anyone? And the worst part is I am not really exceedingly awkward or shy. People think they know me. How do I deal with the guilt that they don’t know me and that I’m constantly presenting them with an instinctive half-version? Trying to be more real seems impossible and complicated for the above reasons, and then I start over-analyzing to what extent I am meant to be open with them anyway, where do I stop, and how to say it, and do they REALLY understand what I’m saying, and why don’t I understand THEM. Then I just give up and start thinking that I am just a more complex person with too many different shades of thought and opinion and history, and maybe it would be better to ignore everyone and embrace that and blah blah blah.
I know how ridiculously self-centered I am being. There are more important things to be focusing on than whether people know me. But I want them to know me fully so badly, and I can’t help thinking it would make me a better person. I guess I’m asking: How? What can I do? Why can’t I seem to be real?
Thanks so so much.
Dear Miss Perceived,
Your letter feels a little sad up to the point where you mention, in passing, that you're nineteen years old. At that point, I'm pretty sure most of the people reading your letter rolled their eyes and clicked over to a video of a puppy falling asleep. But the three nineteen-year-olds who read that thought, "Oh my god. Why don't I remember writing and sending this letter?!"
At first glance, in other words, your current difficulties are very age-specific. That's not a way of discounting your feelings. It's simply a way of saying that you are not alone. What you describe exquisitely well in your letter is the sensation of recognizing, for the first time, that the self you present to the world is an amalgamation of emotions and circumstances—a mix of calculated, self-conscious reactions that doesn't seem to bear any relation to what you carry around inside of you. I remember that feeling so well. When I was very young, I wanted to show my REAL SELF to someone, anyone, but instead I was always skimming the surface, saying stuff that felt insincere or untrue. When I did break through with a bold statement, even that felt like a lie. It was like I had to build up a big head of steam to tell the truth, and that head of steam itself undercut what I was trying to say so much that it all came out jumbled and disingenuous.
Here's something that people don't admit very often, or don't remember very often: Talking and listening is really fucking hard when you're very young. When you're smart and complicated and you're just getting to know yourself, putting all of that into words without feeling like a self-involved asshole is pretty much impossible. And if you REALLY want to be known, if you REALLY want to be accurate, and genuine and real? Well, it takes a long time to get there. It takes a lot of recalibrating. How much do you want to say, and to whom? Who are your real friends? Who will understand? Even if you ONLY factor in the self-consciousness of talking to people you're not sure will get it, that alone is enough to make you feel sick to your stomach half the time. And I say this as a fellow introverted extrovert.
I need to write a book about being a fucking extrovert. Because it's an illusion, the notion that people who like to show off and speak up feel any more comfortable or genuine or at ease with themselves than the introverts. Sometimes knowing exactly how to "seem" and how to behave is more of an albatross than anything else. You're so good at being what people want you to be that it's a serious struggle to be what YOU want to be.
And that's a lonely formula. I was pretty good at being liked by other people when I was younger, but I wanted someone to appreciate the REAL ME, the worried, sad, scared, fragile, messy me. I couldn't imagine how to make this person known to other people, particularly the sorts of people who already strongly preferred the plucky, carefree freak I pretended to be. It's tough to drag out your messy inner self when you get a lot of love—and praise, and, you know, boyfriends—with your skin-deep charm and your empty swagger.
And we ALL fall back into our old tricks over the years. So your letter is valuable, not just to other nineteen-year-olds who are struggling to calibrate how much they reveal and keep to themselves (see also: all of them), but also to people, old and young, who unexpectedly ask themselves, "How much of what I say is genuine and heartfelt? How much is pure habit? How much is pure bullshit?" Because it's easy enough, on a bad day of imperfect interactions, to look back and think, "Everything I say is either the habitual, knee-jerk flavor of bullshit I've been spewing for over a decade, churning out the same old watery talking points repeatedly, or it's self-involved drivel that no one could possibly care about. I'm either engineering responses that maintain people's comfort levels, or I'm returning to crusty old 'opinions' that I'm not even sure I still hold."
Now, clearly, there are those who will read this and think, "What kind of a mixed up motherfucker are you, anyway?" But here's the good news: You're the kind of mixed up motherfucker who will have extremely honest, intense, probing conversations with other people in your life. You're the kind of mixed up motherfucker who will meet like-minded souls and REALLY get to know them well. You're the kind of mixed up motherfucker who will evaluate and reevaluate where you stand in relation to others, who will work hard to grow, who will try very hard not to hide behind the standard rationalizations of personality and social convention.
When I was a few years older than you, I fell into a strange place where I felt like everything I said was overbearing and abrasive and maybe even untrue. I noticed that I had a bad habit of making bold statements that I didn't necessarily believe, simply for the sake of not prattling along and satisfying other people's expectations of me. Maybe I was trying to get attention. Maybe I was lonely and in pain and I was trying to find someone who would support me, and it was coming out all wrong. But around that same time, I noticed that my then-boyfriend mostly said things that he decided a decade prior and had been repeating ever since ("Every boy should own a dog"). Occasionally, he'd also make statements about superficial aspects of the future. ("I am going to fill my house with mahogany furniture," "The bar I own will have red leather booths.") Because I was (and still am) kind of an asshole, I soon fell into the habit of challenging everything that came out of his mouth ("You don't even like working at a bar, what makes you think you're going to like owning and therefore living in one? You think just because you picked out the red leather booths, that's going to make it all feel like a dream come true?")
Eventually my comments formed a direct assault on what I saw as the superficial, unexamined nature of his personality. I was tortured (by my own nature as a mixed-up motherfucker) and unhappy (because I truly didn't know myself yet and therefore didn't know what "me" I really wanted to present and share with the world) so I couldn't stand to see him skip along, happy as a clam, burbling on about bars and mahogany and red leather booths. He wanted to pick out a nice red wine and talk about its subtle hints of cherry and spice, and I wanted to take his feeble ego, freeze it, and then slice it into very very thin slivers and examine it under a microscope.
This didn't go well for either of us. I still remember the day that I found his journal—an honest attempt to comply with my demands that he examine his longstanding assumptions instead of persisting on such a shallow path studded by empty distractions—and I read one mundane entry after another. There was no self-examination. There were no personal insights. There weren't even colorful anecdotes. There weren't any subtle hints of wit and spice. It was just "Spent the morning folding clothes. Sort of dreading work tonight. Went on a long walk to clear my head." Would someone this concrete ever want to hear about my tangled thoughts and complicated emotions?
Apparently not; he dumped me a few weeks later. "We're too different," he told me. "Thinking too much the way you do makes me crazy. If that's shallow, then I guess I want to keep being shallow." Even though I had been a condescending asshole to him a lot of the time, I cried my eyes out. "I'll never date a guy who's this hot again!" I thought. (He wasn't the only shallow one.)
The point here is that it's really tough to be authentic and genuine when you're around people who aren't well suited to appreciate your particular flavors of authenticity. My authentic self is wordy and vague and emotional and second-guessing and concept-focused and digressive and pretty goddamn exasperating to your average bear. You average bear just wants someone to smile and sip the wine and giggle and eat up the shit about the red leather booths. Your average bear does not have much interest in mixed-up motherfuckers like me and you, Miss Perceived.
And let me tell you something else I've learned since then: My authentic self comes out on the page in a way that it doesn't in person. That doesn't mean I'm a big liar in my interactions with other people. But because I'm not a total sociopath, I do cater to other people's needs. I listen. I adjust. I play a lot of different roles and not every role is compatible with mixed-up motherfuckerdom. That's called being a fucking adult. Not everyone needs to know about everything. I'm not lonely, so I don't feel compelled to tell everyone everything. I don't even feel compelled to tell many people all that much.
The real knot here, for you, is that you want to feel genuine and real but you don't know who can stomach it. You want to be known, and know other people, and you just don't know how to go about that yet. You may not know anyone, yet, who can handle knowing all the things you want them to know. You may not know anyone who WANTS TO BE KNOWN.
A lot of people don't want to be known. A lot of people would very specifically prefer NOT to be known. A lot of people would like to stick to the facts, to concrete plans, to preferences, to something they read in a book or in the paper. Originality is not the goal for many, many people. Unique, independent perspectives don't necessarily interest them. Liquid intelligence is nothing to them. They want to hear facts and figures. They don't want imaginative rambling. They want you to shut the fuck up, mostly. They won't say so. You'll just feel all queasy and weird when you talk to them, and you'll quite naturally start lying whenever they're around.
That is not abnormal. That's healthy. That's you trying to figure out how much to share, and with whom.
You are a very expressive writer and thinker, particularly for a nineteen-year-old. I want you to write at least two pages, every day. None of it should be polished. Let yourself ramble. Explore new ideas. Express mixed emotions. My guess is that you're not going to feel known by others, and you're not going to feel satisfied with the way that you SEEM to other people, until you master the art of expressing who you are in words, on the page. You don't have to aim high at all. You just have to write down your thoughts and emotions in plain language, as you did in your letter to me. You have to do that often. You need to get to know yourself through your writing. You need to get to know what's true and what's a lie, and you need to work on appreciating and feeling proud of who you really are. You have a lot to feel proud of. Practice that. Make it a part of your day, every day.
Then go out into the world and try to be genuine, but stay in the background a little more. Focus on listening to what other people say more. Pull your focus away from how they perceive you. This is one of the most freeing things you can do, and I didn't learn to do it for a long, long time. Try presenting a slightly flat person to the world—experiment with that. Just be another person in the room. Try to become comfortable with showing only small hints of who you are to other people. Stop trying to explain yourself and stand for something all the time. Stop trying to swim against the tide. Run the risk of boring people with your silence. Women often find that challenging when they're young. They feel like they have to make a mark, they have to be CLEAR in what they believe and feel, they have to be SEEN AND KNOWN AND RECOGNIZED AND APPRECIATED.
What if you just showed up and remained an enigma? That might feel pretty refreshing, actually. To appreciate other people, breathe them in, without asserting yourself. To take in the camaraderie of the moment in a simple way, without reminding yourself that you're really alone, that no one will ever understand you, that everyone is different from you. Most people ARE very different from you. Once you know yourself and love yourself and find a few people who are very, very similar to you, that will be OK with you.
Have faith that someone will understand. You're lucky, because you express yourself really well in writing. In time, you'll find complicated people who are EXCITED to know you, and to be known. Trust that this will happen. In the meantime, just be with people, and write. You don't have to choose to be an introvert or an extrovert. You can be both. You don't have to choose between the truth and lies. It's not actually that black and white. We all say some things that feel incomplete and not totally accurate—every single day, we say things out of habit or out of some compulsive, emotional reaction. It's okay to be messy and experiment with what you want to say and who you are; it's ok to be inaccurate and blustery and flat-out wrong sometimes.
I learn a lot about how I feel by writing. The more I write, the more genuine and relaxed and happy I feel, out in the world. If I couldn't write, even now, it would be harder for me to be pleasant and appropriate around people who are very different from me. And if I didn't have some close friends who really appreciate my nasty sense of humor and my bad ideas and my overly critical notions and my mean streak and my occasional blasts of insecurity, I would struggle. I would feel lonely. Instead, I feel KNOWN. I feel known because of the things I write, and I feel known because I am free to be myself in some circles. I have people to call when I'm feeling confused, or tired, or intolerant. It's nice to feel known.
You are the kind of person who will be known—and seen and appreciated and deeply loved—by other people. Trust that. You will get there, and you can give that to yourself right now. Every day, you have to step back and take a second to say, "I am one mixed up motherfucker." Say it with pride. You are someone who's naturally committed to tapping into the richness and complexity of life. Your mind contains colorful, violent, ever-changing galaxies. You will honor who you are, no matter what. You will walk among the cliché-spewing creatures of habit, wearing a peaceful Mona Lisa smile.
Have you been waking up in a steaming mess of your own filth every single day, and you can barely walk? Write to Polly, and she'll reassure you that you're only five months old!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.
Photo by Leo