I remember sobbing hysterically in the middle of the soccer field, while the blonde girl in front of me tried to figure out why I was so upset. We had gotten into a fight, and I can’t for the life of me remember what it was about. But I remember feeling like my ten year old heart was breaking out of me and leaking onto the grass of Kennedy Field.
“I just want you to like me,” I managed to eke out, grubbing my tears out of my eyes with a grass-stained hand. The girl looked at me incredulously. “Alysa, you are one of my best friends!”
“Really? I never knew that!” I said, equally disbelieving, choking back more tears. I just couldn’t believe it. It was the best thing I could have ever hoped for. I had wanted this girl to like me for so long, and she did. She had always liked me. I just had never allowed myself to see it.
Now, at nearly 30 years old, I find myself tearing up about that broken little girl who just desperately wanted to be loved – to be seen – because she didn’t really like herself all that much.
When I was a little girl, I constantly felt alone. I had/have wonderful parents, great siblings, and pretty good friends. But I still felt very much alone. A lot of that was my choice – while my family played games and talked in the living room on vacations, I would go upstairs and read by myself. I fell into worlds that didn’t exist, all while studiously avoiding my reality.
I was always told I was the “strange” child. When you’re constantly told you’re an Other, you begin to believe it. You believe it so much, you internalize it. And then you start to cling to people who give you a bit of relief from the crushing sadness you feel inside.
I was never a chubby kid, but I was definitely bigger than all of the other girls in my grade by the time I hit middle school. We’ve already established that middle school wasn’t a picnic, but I desperately wanted everyone else to like me. One time at lunch, in order to impress a popular girl, I used the word “bitch” to describe a girl that bugged me. The word felt like aluminum foil in my mouth – tangy, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. But I spat it out anyway, because I had heard this girl use it a hundred times and she had tossed it out of her mouth as easily as a mother feeding her young. I thought it would get her to like me, to validate me. To see me.
She stared at me. I think even she knew that the word felt weird on my tongue, and it landed in the middle of the table like a lead balloon.
I’ll never be good enough for anyone, I thought miserably, staring down at my lunch of Cheetos and Push Pops, as the conversation picked up around me and left me in the dust. I had started to buy my lunch from the junk food stand in the cafeteria, avoiding the healthier lunches my mom would offer, because the popular kids were doing the same thing. The food tasted good, but hollow, because I was just trying to be accepted.
I’ve always wanted people to tell me I’m doing well, or that I’m accomplishing something, or that I’m on the right track. This desire to be validated started early. In seventh grade, in order to blend in with the popular kids, I begged my mom to buy me L.E.I. and Mudd jeans (ah, 1997). She refused to get me the giant elephant-bell ones but I made due with the casual flare. One outfit she bought me I wore at least fifteen times during that school year – black flared stretchy pants, a white collared shirt, and a vest with a diamond argyle pattern on it. Trust me, it was late 90s perfection and I wore it the hell out, but I also felt a strong sense of pride when I wore it to school the next day and the popular kids complimented me on it. I felt older than my years and accomplished and generally bad-ass, despite the fact that I had braces and probably hadn’t brushed my hair that day. But any time someone told me I looked cute, I felt victorious.
In high school, I once again felt a sense of isolation and loneliness, but I found a group of people that “got” me. While other girls were going on dates with the boys from Avon Old Farms and buying Gucci bags, we were walking down to the off-campus pizza place and screaming out all of the songs from Moulin Rouge. But bracketing those moments were other moments of deep shame over how sloppy and passive I was in comparison to my classmates. I wanted them to see me. To notice me. To say that I mattered. But that never came. Finally, senior year, I started to gain more confidence and earned the respect of those around me, but then we all graduated and I found myself at square one all over again.
College was a whole different thing. First of all, I was in a different dorm than the rest of the people in my drama class, so physically I felt left out. Then, due to the proximity of all of my classmates to each other, they formed insanely tight bonds that I attempted to break into but couldn’t because of my own self-loathing. For the first two years in college i would sit in my dorm room and cry, desperately wanting to be out and about with my friends but not really being able to figure out how to hang out with them. When they didn’t hang out with me, I assumed it was because I was worthless. I even created a sick game – at lunch, I would sit silently at a table filled with my friends and wait for someone else to talk to me. I wouldn’t speak at all. I would just wait and see if anyone else would talk to me. Of course, nobody would, because I was stonily sitting there like a damn vampire, and then I would get up and head back to my dorm, cursing them out my head. Why wasn’t anyone talking to me? They all suck. It also didn’t help that I was desperately in love with one of my classmates and basically pinned all of my validation on him for a solid two years. Any attention he threw my way I gobbled up like a dying man in a desert. At one point his a cappella group sang to me on Valentine’s Day and I lived on the euphoria of that moment for about three months. If he didn’t respond to my IMs I mentally flagellated myself.
I never addressed these issues. I stuck Band-Aids on them.
This is how you destroy relationships and yourself – You make other people the focal point of your validation and happiness and you never figure out how to erase those patterns. You can’t live unless they’re constantly reassuring you that you’re pretty, that you’re sexy, that you’re smart, that you’re awesome. When they don’t, you implode. Basically, my thought process is this:
They didn’t even notice the outfit I had on. I mean, they told me I look “nice.” Which means they don’t think I look beautiful. So they suck.
I’m with a group of new people and I desperately want them to like me. So I’ll just shut down and not be myself because “being myself” means “being weird”.
Why isn’t this person rescuing me? I came into this waiting to be rescued, and they’re just, like, their own person? Screw that!
I don’t think they think my story is interesting. I mean, they’re listening and everything, but they aren’t giving me the right response. So I’m going to get really quiet and not talk because clearly my voice doesn’t count.
PAY ATTENTION TO ME.
If someone brings up something I’m doing that isn’t necessarily for the best, I’m going to react like they shot my dog.
This person is flawed. Well, that is unacceptable.
I feel like this person doesn’t like me anymore SO I WILL TEXT THEM ALL THE TIME.
They aren’t responding to my texts. I WILL LIKE ALL OF THEIR SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS.
Someone is doing something I don’t like. I’m not going to tell them, because God forbid they get mad at me and then I’ll feel horrible and everything will be terrible.
This person isn’t giving me their full undivided attention 100 percent of the time. So I’m going to not speak to them and they’ll just have to figure out why I’m upset.
We’re going on a trip and I probably would like to do certain activities on that trip but instead, I’ll just let them run the show. Otherwise I’ll feel like I’m not being “chill.”
I’m going to stop doing all of the things I like to do because otherwise this person won’t like me.
They didn’t text me back right away. That fucker. I mean, sure they have work, and a life outside of contacting me. HOW DARE THEY.
They liked everyone else’s Instagram posts but mine. I AM THE WORST AND THEY HATE ME.
I am a destroyer. I am exhausting.
I don’t want to be a destroyer. I don’t want to be exhausting. I don’t like doing this to people. It kills me to admit that I do this to people. Because I don’t just love people for who they are. I annihilate them. I grind them into the dirt under the weight of my crushing expectations because I myself have self esteem issues. I myself don’t know what the heck I’m doing most of the time. I myself had yet to forgive myself for not accomplishing the things I thought I would.
When I realized this pattern in therapy, I felt a white hot searing shame course through me, so painful I could barely take it. Because if this is how I am with people that I love most in the world, I will never truly be happy. I never learned how to be happy by myself. I spent so much time blaming other people for my self-loathing, that when it finally came time to look at myself in the mirror, I was shocked to discover that I was the source of my sorrow. I know why I do it – I wasn’t seen for a long time in my young life. As a result, I keep magnetizing that experience to myself because it triggers those feelings of isolation and loneliness I felt as a child.
I become a happiness vacuum. Nothing is okay unless the other person in an interaction is validating my experiences, my thoughts, my feelings, and my appearance. I completely lose myself in every single situation I’m in because I lay myself at the complete mercy of someone elses’ thoughts and feelings. Which is probably totally normal in tiny doses – everyone wants the people they love to think well of them. But if you make it your sole mission to try and pin your ENTIRE universe of happiness and validation on another person, to the point that if they don’t say exactly the right thing you fall apart, you will suffer. You will suffer more than you ever thought possible. And here’s the kicker – they suffer too. Because you are literally crushing them under the weight of your own expectations.
I’m not saying I do this all the time. But when I do do it, the consequences are huge. Life-alteringly huge.
It’s easy to blame other people for your shortcomings. It’s much harder to look at a situation, to examine it from every angle, and to realize that you did plenty of damage on your own. And that’s where I’m at. I’m looking intensely into the abyss, and the abyss is staring back, going, “You did some stupid, stupid shit, and you have no one to blame but yourself.”
Whenever I get afraid I’ll lose someone – as a friend, colleague or something else – I hold on so tightly they suffocate. I suffocate things because I love them so much. Because I want them to see me. Because I have make them see that I am more than the sum of my parts. I take my fire that is so positive when applied to my career and my self-care and I set my relationships ablaze.
The good news is, I have help, and these tendencies are getting addressed in my therapy sessions and I’m working hard to make my brain work in better ways. I have yet to fully understand where this need to please and to be validated comes from (although the bullying I got as a kid probably has a lot to do with it). But I do know that I can’t ever be happy unless I learn to be happy on my own first. Which is where this summer comes in.
This summer, I’ve been learning a lot about myself. Not all of it is good. A lot of it is terrible, actually. I’ve been observing the ways I react in certain situations and I’ve been working a lot of my shadow.
I am vain. I am mean. I am spiteful. I am selfish. I am needy. I am greedy. I am insecure. I am neurotic. I am anxious. I am a little bit crazy. And it has cost me a lot. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I wish I had been stronger. I wish I had been less needy. I wish I would have been able to let validation come from me. I wish I had just let the people who loved me love me without feeling like they needed to fix me or babysit me. I wish I had loved other people more, but not in a needy, “don’t leave me” way. In a “I trust you, and I’m my own whole person” way. And I wish I would have just let myself be…myself. Because that’s what anyone should do in a relationship. No one should get into any relationship, friendship or otherwise, expecting to get ‘fixed.’ It never ends well. I know that now. And there are some choices I made that I will regret for the rest of my life because I thought I’d get fixed and I wasn’t. Because that’s not someone else’s job. No one can fix you except you. You are the only person who will be with you for the entirety of your life. So be okay with you.
I’m getting better. I’m realizing my patterns and I’m developing coping mechanisms. Instead of sticking people on pedestals I’m learning to see people as they are – complexly, in all of their flawed and beautiful humanity. As I would want myself to be seen. And I’m starting to get off my own back, and to allow myself to just…be.
The other night, I walked down to the beach at sunset and listened the water slap against the rocks. I put on some music, sat very still, and waited for the sun to go down. I felt a deep sense of ease and contentment that I haven’t felt in a long time.
Happiness can’t come until it comes from yourself. And in that moment, I felt genuine happiness that wasn’t derived from wishing someone else would tell me how to look at myself. It was a happiness that came from the best possible source. Me.