I read a question posed on Quora recently, asking whether something might be “wrong” with a person who others generally don’t like. A respondent then described a young woman who’s intelligent, witty, socially aware, confident, and physically attractive but who sometimes breaks down in tears during the school day because she has no friends. The respondent confirmed that, indeed, she has no friends. She then said the young woman was a little too perfect. She did damage to others’ fragile egos simply by failing to demonstrate faults and vulnerabilities. She was the sort of person against whom the rest of us measure badly, the response said.
The answer to the question took me back to high school. That situation wasn’t that the “perfect” girl wasn’t liked. Everyone liked Jane; she was almost worshiped. She was beautiful, socially adept, and as sweet to everyone she encountered as anyone I’ve ever known. She was a cheerleader, an accomplished artist, and of above average intellect, though not brilliant. I remember wanting to ask her out. But I was not of her caliber. I was painfully shy, socially clumsy, not very attractive, and avoided extracurricular activities for fear of making a fool out of myself. I remember thinking a young woman like Jane would never go out with me. Even though I never saw her make fun of anyone, I remember thinking she would laugh at me if I ever asked her to go on a date. So I didn’t. In fact, I asked only two or three girls out during the entire time I was in high school; each time, I felt like I was putting my life on the line.
Many years later, in my late fifties, I happened to meet Jane again. We had lunch and engaged in conversation about “old times.” I wasn’t quite so brittle as I had been as a high school boy. I told her I’d had a crush on her in high school but didn’t have the nerve to show any signs, for fear of rejection. She told me she’d felt that something was wrong with her back then. She was rarely invited to go on a date during high school. Later, she realized it was because she was seen as “too perfect” and other guys, like me, were afraid of rejection. We collectively protected our egos; by protecting ours, we subjected her to feelings of inadequacy. During high school, she’d felt unwanted. Her radiance and beaming smile concealed a lot of pain.
I have no children. I don’t know how to rear kids and can’t offer advice on how to do it. But I do wish there were ways to instill in children resilience in the face of rejection (so I would have not feared it so much) and deep empathy and acceptance of people at all stations in life. I’d like to see children taught to truly love and appreciate others and to reach out to those who seem isolated, whether drawn into themselves or standing alone on a pedestal. This is an aside; I don’t know quite where it came from.
My self-inflicted protection—against a make-believe wound from which I felt I might never recover—lasted a long time. I was shy all the way through my undergraduate years and into my brief stint at graduate school. Only in my mid-twenties—after I took a job in which only a gregarious, social, extremely outgoing person could excel—did I come out of my shell. That is to say, I faked it. I can’t say whether the forced extraversion was a good thing or a bad one. On one hand, I overcame (rather, I learned to disguise) the shyness that had impinged on my ability to have much of a social life. But on the other I may have erased the personality from whence that shyness grew. I may have “overwritten” the real “me” to such a degree that the person remaining is artificial.
Perhaps I’ve faked it for so long that I don’t know who lives beneath the armored veneer. The idea that I may not know who I really am, at my core, has been on my mind for quite some time. Years. It’s an odd sensation, wondering whether the person who speaks and behaves and thinks as I do may have been manufactured, as a defense mechanism, by the person I once was. There’s a story in there somewhere. It would be about a boy who is so afraid of rejection that he radically changes his personality; later, he realizes he had rejected himself and can no longer even reach back to that abandoned child to apologize for the abandonment. That sounds a little too melodramatic, I guess.
Children can be fragile things, though most of them weather the bumps and scrapes of childhood and young adulthood to become reasonably well-adjusted adults. Some of us, though, create pockets of fragility that we carry with us well into our adulthood and even into early old age (I can’t bring myself to acknowledge that I’m in middle old age, at sixty-four). I wonder at what age the act of exploring hidden aspects of one’s personality becomes a pointless endeavor? When are you too old to see a psychologist or psychiatrist? Of course, it may not be a matter of being too old. It may be a matter of being too afraid of what one might find. The fear that what may be uncovered will reveal inadequacies happily hidden for decades.