I think it’s pretty much a given that recognizing and identifying a pattern of thought is the first step toward gaining control over it, taking away its power. Not the only step, of course, but the first one, and therefore indispensable.
A pattern that I’ve recently recognized in myself is my suddenly strangely pervasive anxiety in the face of second impressions. Or third ones. Or fourth or fifth or sixth. But mostly second.
And not first. I am weirdly zen about first impressions, for the most part. The very first time I meet someone, I have no reason to respect their opinion — I don’t know them, they could be a total jerk for all I know, and I’m not in the business of caring about impressing total jerks or worrying about what they think of me. And even if they’re not a jerk, they’re still a stranger in whom I have no investment or relationship. So I have no reason to be anxious or care about making a good first impression.
But second impressions — sometimes they seem to scare the living crap out of me. Whether it’s meeting someone for the second time ever, or meeting someone in person after having “met” them already online and made my first impression that way, second impressions sometimes seem to push me to the edge of my last nerve.
Because if you don’t like me when you first meet me, fine, whatever, you get filed away in the “people I don’t need to waste my time on” folder. But if you like me when you first meet me, and then you stop liking me when you get to know me a little better, if I don’t live up to the high standard that my first impression set — that would suck. It would mean that while what’s on my surface is all fine and dandy, what’s underneath is rotten. And it is so much worse to be rotten underneath than to have a less-than-pristine surface.
It’s a combination of classic Imposter Syndrome and this little other nerve-fraying cocktail I like to call my “Shiny Thing Complex.” I’ve talked about this Shiny Thing Complex with a bunch of people, but I’ve never written out anything comprehensive, and I really think I should for my own sake and peace of mind. So I’m gonna talk it out here; I don’t really know where this is going. Bear with me.
You see, I am well aware that I have many shiny, flashy qualities that have wide appeal and catch people’s attention — funny, pretty, smart, honest, curvy, sarcastic, confident, insightful, emotionally supportive, with eye-catching style and unconventional career choices — and these qualities have and continue to hook people on a fairly regular basis.
But because they are so flashy and so shiny and so very much about what I can do for you and not about what I am, I feel like they will catch your attention very intensely but very briefly, before you move on to the next shiny thing. When these qualities are new and novel to you, you will think they are the bees knees, but once you get used to them, you’ll take them for granted and start wondering what else I have to offer, and I’ll have nothing left to pull out of my hat because I am all shine. Even my substance: my mind, my observations, my unusual interests — it all becomes shine because it’s all part of what makes me “cool.”
And I have so many conflicting feelings about this.
Allow me to bring Exhibits A and B from the Hall of Ex-Boyfriend Quotations:
“You are one of the coolest people I know. And I really wanted to believe that I could attract someone like you and keep you interested.”
~ One ex, spoken at the time of the breakup, when I ended things
“At the end of the day, I knew we weren’t right for each other, and I know I shouldn’t have said yes when you asked me out. But I – I just really, really wanted to be able to say that ‘that amazing girl, that super smart, hot, funny girl with the amazing notes and the hilarious facebook comments — that girl is my girlfriend.’ ”
~ another ex, spoken at the time of the breakup, when we came to the mutual decision to end things
My ex-boyfriends are gracious as hell, and it’s not my intention to use these quotes to condemn them. I just want to illustrate a point, which is: I am a trophy. An atypical, multidimensional trophy, perhaps, but a trophy nonetheless. And being a trophy is SO complicated, it really is.
On the one hand, I deeply understand the need for one’s partner to be the kind of person that you respect and admire and are so proud of that you want to show them off to the world like that (in fact, if I don’t feel that way about a guy I’m with, that’s a major red flag), but on the other hand, it makes me feel super shiny and flimsy and objectified as a prop whose value is determined by what I can do for your image and your self-esteem, with no intrinsic worth of my own.
And on yet a third hand, in some ways I like being capable of being that kind of prop. I know that being a pretty, smart, charismatic woman carries a power — of being able to make guys look good or feel good just by dint of associating with them or being seen with them. And I love being able to use that power for good; I loved making my boyfriends feel like hot stuff just by being with them. And when I’m single and have close male friends who are crystal clear about my boundaries, I like to use it to help them too, e.g. by spending time with them when they’re feeling down or their confidence is shot, or maybe dressing up or doing my makeup when I hang with them, or just by being generous and open with my compliments. Because for lots of straight males, getting attention from an awesome, attractive girl is its own unique brand of confidence-boosting, even when there’s zero chance of romance. I’m not sure why this works, but it does. And I really like being able to boost the confidence of my straight male friends when they’re feeling crappy. I like using my powers for good.
But then I wonder if I’m just feeding the Shiny Thing Complex by embracing it, and that maybe I’d be better off if for a while I just decided to constantly dress poorly and stop making jokes and keep quiet or be rude and obnoxious, and thus reject everything about me that makes me shiny.
But I highly doubt that’s the answer, because, well, that basically translates to “reject a whole bunch of things that make up most of my entire personality.” So…that makes no sense.
I guess what it boils down to, like everything else, is that I need to learn to own my shininess. I need to accept that these qualities are a huge part of me, and that just because they make me attractive, doesn’t mean they’re shallow. And that just because there are a few people who’ve expressed intense interest in me and then quickly moved on, doesn’t mean that they thought I was all shine (and even if they did, that doesn’t mean they were right). I need to keep remembering that most of the best guys who’ve expressed interest in me and gotten over it when I couldn’t date them have subsequently become my friends, not because they’re still clinging to the hope that things can work out between us, but rather because they value me as a person and not just a shiny thing. And I need to remember that just because my exes start dating really soon after having had their hearts broken by me doesn’t mean that their feelings for me weren’t real and that they just latched onto the next shiny thing that came along, because that’s not how it works.
And I need to accept that just because I am shiny, doesn’t mean that’s all there is to me. So I don’t have to be scared those times that I worry that I’m not shiny enough, because that’s not all I have going for me. I don’t have to be the prettiest girl in the room. I don’t have to be scared that in 10 years I’ll have lost what makes me appealing just because I probably won’t look as good as I do now. I don’t have to get nervous when I meet friends of a friend for the first time; I don’t have to worry that now that they’ve seen me shoulder to shoulder with their other friends, they’ll realize I don’t measure up. Because I will.
And I don’t have to be scared of hanging out with someone a second time, or a third time, or a fourth. Because no matter how much time they spend with me, they’re not going to find anything that rotten underneath. No one ever has. No one’s ever hung out with me, say, 5 times and then suddenly on the 6th realized that I am a complete waste of oxygen. It’s not going to happen.
The worst of me just isn’t that bad.