“You have to be careful about what you fix….If you irrigate a desert, you might empty a sea. It’s a complicated business, fixing things.”
-Percival Everett, “The Fix”
I’ve been told basically the same thing from a number of people in a variety of different ways: That there’s nothing wrong with me.
Or, as one person put it, “The only thing wrong with you is that you think that there’s something wrong with you.”
It did not compute. For a number of reasons.
First off, if there were nothing wrong with me, then why was I so unhappy? Why did I seem to attack life a different way from the people around me? Why was I too much for some people and not enough for others?
Why was I always so lonely? And why did attempting to get rid of that loneliness annoy those closest to me?
That was the second thing. If there were nothing wrong with me, I reasoned, I wouldn’t be hearing the same complaints from other people over and over again. And I’d heard “don’t you ever stop talking?” so many times. Was told that I couldn’t.
Which was patently untrue. I was the world-reigning champion of my mother’s favorite car activity: “The Quiet Game,” in which we were all tasked with remaining silent for the longest time. Normally very chatty, I never cracked.
And growing up as a Catholic child, I was never carried out of church for being too loud. Not once.
So that wasn’t it. It just seemed that way. I was too intense, I decided. I had plenty of self-control and could adapt my behavior to meet the demands of the situation, but my max volume was simply too high. It gave the illusion that I didn’t have an off switch.
One “Fix”: Becoming a Protean, Chameleon, Self-Monitor
So that’s what I did, for many years. Whenever anyone complained about me, about my default mode, I’d start adapting my behavior to meet my environment.
It became incredibly easy to make friends and attract lovers. The only problem is that I had countless social connections that were draining. Relationships in which I was deeply unhappy.
And even in this state, I wasn’t immune from criticism. When I’d eventually feel comfortable enough to level with someone about how much I self-monitored — or they happened to see me in a state that was exhausted enough that I couldn’t keep up a facade — I’d run into a new problem: Being told that I was fake.
As one former partner put it, “If people knew the real you, they wouldn’t like you.”
Paradoxically, they are also the person who told me, “The only thing wrong with you is that you think that there’s something wrong with you.”
How could both of these things be true?
I didn’t think they could — not for years and years. But with a tiny bit of tweaking, I can see it now: “If people knew the real you, not all of them would like you.”
Because that’s the truth. There’s no form of authentic self that’s universally palatable. That could be considered “perfect” in an objective sense.
The best you can do is play act at in short bursts. But it’s largely a fool’s errand. One that I literally wasted decades on.
But it’s taken me a very long time to internalize this and to really believe it. And that’s for one simple reason:
The Idea That There Might Be Nothing Wrong With Me Is the Scariest Thought of All
The idea that there might be nothing wrong with me is the scariest thought of all.
Because if it were true, that would mean that the bad things that happened to me weren’t necessarily deserved. And it would also mean that I can’t self-improve myself into a person who will never experience stress, hardship, or disappointment.
True, it’d mean that the things I’ve assumed were “flaws” all these years are probably just features, some of which actually come with accompanying strengths, ones that I wouldn’t have without the sometimes-inconvenient tradeoff.
But it would also mean that all the boring grumpy adults who intoned such trite truisms as “life isn’t fair” or “bad things happen to good people” were right.
And that I can’t edit myself into being the protagonist of a fantastic technicolor tale.
But then again, you don’t get something for nothing (another stinging bromide), so why should self-love be any different?