Any Particular Person: On Growing Up Catering to Difficult People

a close up of piano keys, bathed in red light
Image by Juan Antonio Segal / CC BY

Born with a Target on My Back

I wasn’t allowed to be particular.

Growing up, only two people in my family were allowed to be particular. One was my sister Alice. Her default state was disgust. Dismay.

Alice was nasty. Particular. And catered to. She was consulted first on where she wanted to go whenever the family went out to eat. Because my parents knew she’d complain the entire dinner if it weren’t to her liking. Ruin the ambiance.

If Alice didn’t like what was being served, she wouldn’t eat it. And she insulted everyone and everything that challenged her.

My very existence was a challenge to Alice, and as such I had been born with a target on my back. Alice was 5 years older and had loved being the youngest child. Having a little sister was not at all what she had in mind. Especially when I started to pick out melodies on the piano. The soundtrack from Dragon Warrior, my favorite game.

Piano was her talent. And I was a copycat. Not that she called me that. She preferred “fatso” and “buttfuck.”

Alice terrified me. I had enough bruises to know what she could do. And yet, for the piano, I risked angering her. I’d sneak into the laundry room when I knew she was gone, where the piano was, and make up little songs.

“I’m staying out of it,” Mom would say. “But your sister will kill you if she catches you. And I wouldn’t blame her. There are so many other things you could be doing. Why do the one thing she loves? Can’t you pick something else?”

Drafted as Mom’s Sidekick

The other particular person? Was my mother.

And what she needed most of all was attention.

She wanted to be adored. To know she mattered.

My entire day revolved around my mother’s mood, whichever one she had woken up in that day. I had to be careful. To listen intently and never contradict her. But the agreement couldn’t seem feigned. And she wasn’t interested in what was going on in my world or what I had to say, so I must never share in a way that detracted from her.

I was her sidekick.

When she got lonely or bored, she’d take me out to the mall. She’d float from store to store, pointing out the flaws of everyone we passed. She was a stream of constant criticism. And if I were lucky, she pointed it away from me.

When we came home, she’d have me shove whatever we’d bought into my backpack to hide it from my father. Giving me a knowing look as she greeted him with a giant hug at the front door.

Boundless Criticism

Mom’s love of criticizing others knew no boundaries.

“Well, well, look who’s filling out,” she said, as we sat in the car outside the middle school, waiting for my brother to get out.

She was pointing at my 11-year-old best friend.

“Someone’s thighs are getting huge,” she added. She laughed and elbowed me.

I sighed and stared out the window, not knowing what to say.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll show you some tricks, so it won’t happen to you. Although you have your father’s genes, too, so who knows. They’re awfully chunky on his side.”

And Mom was fussy, too, although not about the same things Alice was. She couldn’t stand when clothing hugged her. Cut the tags out of most garments. Mom wanted to be comfortable. Like the princess and the fucking pea.

And more than anything, Mom didn’t want anyone looking at her. And certainly not criticizing her.

Better Pretenders

Me? I’ve grown up easygoing. A little neurotic, maybe. But I’ll eat practically anything. I view being too comfortable with suspicion. Not a lot of things bother me.  I’m not easily annoyed. And rather than being terrified of criticism, I expect it.

When I was younger, this meant a lot of negative self-talk. I beat myself up relentlessly. Essentially my mother’s voice had crept into my head and was judging everything I did. Putting things in the worst possible light.

And I feared that everyone was like my mother. That behind their open smiles lurked secret disdain. That I’d get close to them, vulnerable, only to discover that I’d mistaken their begrudging tolerance for love.

I worried that “good” people were just better pretenders.

And in weak moments, I even felt myself falling into her patterns towards others. I thought unkind things. Picked people apart. I was negative and petty. Especially when I was insecure, threatened by another person, especially women.

I’d catch myself, horrified.

I worried I was the biggest pretender of all.

Any Particular Person

Very particular people have one thing going for them: They’re in touch with their desires. They know what they want. And they have little trouble asking for it. Boldly. Directly. Unapologetically.

And I’m actually a bit envious of that. It’s not so simple with me.

For a long time, I attracted very selfish partners. It was like they could smell it on me, knew that I defaulted to people pleasing. And being very accommodating and easy to get along with made those relationships work — even when they shouldn’t.

But when I finally dated someone who wanted to make me happy? I had no idea what to do.

I had previously shown my love through accommodation. Through yielding. And catering to others.

I didn’t know how to accept someone else accommodating me. I had no idea how to identify what I wanted or needed, let alone ask another person for it.

But somehow my partner figured it out.

Because he wasn’t allowed to be particular either.

 

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