An Emoter's Story
Ever since I was a small child, I've been seized with bouts of anxiety and trepidation based on the fact that someone, somewhere, very possibly doesn't like me. Maybe they don't like how I look. Maybe they don't like how I act. Maybe they don't like who I am or how I think. Maybe they just really, really strongly disagree with my opinions. But they don't like me and they're angry with me and oh my god, here comes the vomiting and the stomach cramps.
Parents and lovers have persistently failed to understand this response to what would appear to be a universal constant. After all, if you searched long and hard enough in this wide world, you would quickly find someone who doesn't like them. And you don't seem them getting all bent out of shape over it, do you? In their well-meaning, loving, kind way, they attempt to rationalize away the fear: Why do you care? Why does it matter what they think of you? Why can't you just ignore it?
I don't know why some people react in the way that I do and others react in other ways to the universal constant of being not-universally liked. I wish I did know; I have spent hours of my life fervently wishing to be Just Like Them, those lucky ones who seem not to care, who seem to be able to go days, weeks, months, or even years without evaluating what others think of them and being reduced to tears at coming up short. But I can tell you why I care. And maybe this will help someone else, like me, explain to another.
I care what others think of me because I was raised in an environment where the judgment of others affected my life more strongly than anything I could say or do. A man I'd never met and only seen once or twice in the mall decided what sorts of gifts I would receive each year, based on whether he judged me to be naughty or nice. My parents, who I loved dearly but rarely understood, monitored my behavior seemingly constantly and bestowed rewards and punishments based on their evaluation of my actions. A distant god, who I loved but had never actually seen, would one day take me to heaven and if my soul wasn't sufficiently clean from sin, then I would spend eternity separated from my family and burning in eternal torment. There was no appeal process for these judgments; no way to explain or justify or even prevaricate. The decisions handed down from God, from my parents, from Santa Claus were final and unflinching, and all too often came down to how likeable I was.
I care what others think of me because I was raised to understand that anyone older than me held authority over me as judge. I was repeatedly taught, by word and deed, that it wasn't just my parents who were in charge of me, but a seemingly endless line of adults. The pastors and Sunday School teachers were to be obeyed, the teachers and principals were to be followed, even the parents of the other children at church were to be deferred to as though they were proxies of my own parents. Some of these adults were capricious; some were outright cruel. Their natures had no effect that I could see on their fittingness to command me: if I could see their cruelty plainly, then surely my parents (so much wiser and more intelligent than I) could see it, and if they could see but still believed them to be appropriate guardians in their absence, how could I argue? The only way I could see to survive these adults was to be as likeable as possible.
I care what others think of me because I grew up in a world where being liked and being loved determined whether or not I was bullied. For more than a decade, I attended schools where I was bullied for speaking with "big words", for having glasses, for having frizzy "afro" hair, for being too skinny, for being too fat. I was pushed, punched, kicked, and my glasses were broken. I was ostracized and verbally abused. None of the adults in my life did anything to stop or prevent these actions, despite occurring over multiple schools and over multiple years. One year, in high school, a boy decided to harass me by following me around saying "penis, penis, penis" over and over again. Our teacher didn't tell him to stop when I complained; instead, he put us on a team together with two other people for a group project. The concept was literally beaten into me, through physical and verbal abuse, that what other people thought of me affected my physical and emotional safety. Being likeable was linked inextricably to survival.
I care what others think of me because I was raised in a religious order where the personal was public property. I went to a private Christian college -- one that was valued as being socially liberal and 'relaxed', not like those other colleges that we spoke of in hushed tones -- where minor accusations, no matter how unfounded, could result in your expulsion, in massive student debt, in complete destruction of your future career. When I failed to respond to the advances of my boyfriend's roommate, he falsely reported to the school authorities that I was sexually active with my boyfriend. My dorm mother -- a woman who was new to our school, and was in charge of over one hundred girls -- was assigned to secretly follow me around town to gather evidence of sexual immorality for expulsion. When I loaned my car to my boyfriend and it stayed at his apartment complex overnight, I was very nearly expelled permanently. The administration was against me, for I was perceived as being critical of authority; my saving grace was the friendship of a teacher, who threatened to go public if the school carried through on its threat to expel me. If the administration had liked me more, I'd never have been in danger; if my teacher had liked me less, I would have lost everything.
I care what others think of me because I live in a world where sexual violence against women is common. I've been raped on three different occasions, each time by men who claimed to love me but apparently didn't like me enough to not rape me. I've been betrayed by a counselor who reported my rape to school authorities in another attempt to get me expelled. I've been disowned by friends and family who didn't believe me when I shared with them my stories of sexual violence. The first week at my first serious job, a co-worker spitefully told me that I was "too nice" and that "girls like you get raped". I didn't tell him that I'd already been raped twice already; I couldn't have told him that I would be raped once again before the year was out. Sometimes I wish I had told him, that maybe he would have realized how hurtful his words were, but other times I wonder if he wouldn't just take that as confirmation of his assessment. It was from these men that I learned that being too nice was just as dangerous as not being nice enough.
I care what others think of me because I've lived through an abusive marriage. Whether my (ex-)husband was angry with me or not meant the difference in whether or not I was punched in the face, or pushed down a flight of stairs, or threatened or belittled or berated. I've lived through the emotional abuse of believing that I was the 'real' abuser for trying to protect myself -- that striking someone in an attempt to get away from being struck made me a bad person, as bad or worse than my actual abuser. Leaving my husband required leaving my religion and everything I had ever been taught or internalized about marriage, and when I was finally able to do so, it was only through the significant aid of others that I was able to get away. My being likeable -- or, at least, my being liked -- saved my life.
I care what others think of me because I move in a world where I am not advanced by merit. The difference between a meaningful job and a terrible one has always come down to whether or not my boss likes me. I have had bosses who thought I was hilarious and delightful and jovial and good, and these bosses have taken care of me through hard times and given me recognition for my work. I have had bosses who thought I was lazy and irritating and frustrating and bad, and these bosses have publicly screamed at me, berated me, given me heart palpitations, and made me fearful for my safety. The world I live in and the jobs I've moved through have persistently made it clear to me that my abusive bosses will not be countermanded from on high; when I have tried to work within the system, I have been told plainly to find a new job instead. I have learned through experience that my ability to make a living in a safe environment depends on my being liked by the 'right' people.
I care what others think of me because I have a body whose existence depends on the people around me. If I am not likeable, who will come to pick me up when I fall, who will bring me food when I am bed-ridden? Doctors who do not like me, who dismiss me as whiny or a waste of their time, fail to help me with my chronic pain. I bounced around for ten years between dozens of doctors and specialists before I found one who liked me enough to look closely at my x-rays and diagnose my problem. Nurses who do not like me argue with me about my medications, about how and when to apply them. Pharmacists who do not like me may deny me my medications. Administrators who do not like me may refuse me access to handicap parking, or may deny me access to elevators reserved for people with medical needs. I have experienced all these potentialities first-hand. Being liked means not being in pain, means having people I can depend on, means not hurting my body further.
I care what others think of me because I live in a world where I feel that I am constantly being judged by the people around me. If I come up short, if I'm found wanting, that judgment may be as innocuous as their personal dislike, or it may change my life in ways that I vehemently do not want. I may be hurt, raped, or killed if the wrong people decide they do not like me. I may not be able to bring my attackers to justice if I'm not judged sufficiently likeable, or if my past actions are evaluated to mean that I'm unworthy of justice. I am bombarded by advertisements that promise to make me more likeable (Prettier! Thinner! Sexier! Fuller eyelashes!) and underscore the vital importance of that constant likeability (Promotions! Relationships! Protection!). I care what others think of me because I have been plainly told to care, by almost everyone I have ever met from my first and earliest memories. If I have internalized the wrong message, then surely at least some of the blame should fall on the hundreds of parents, teachers, doctors, administrators, religious leaders, and employers who helped me to internalize that wrong message?
Perhaps not. I don't know.
In Margaret Atwood's short story collection "Wilderness Tips", she has a story called "Uncles". The story is about young Susanna, a little girl who craves male attention for the validation it confers.
When she was nearly five, Susanna did a tap dance on a cheese box. The cheese box was cylindrical and made of wood, and decorated with white crêpe paper and criss-crossed red ribbons to look like a drum. There were two other cheese boxes with girls on them, but their decorations were blue. Susanna’s was the only red one. She was in the center, and she was also the youngest and the smallest. She had to be lifted up. In the back, behind, there were three rows of other girls who were not good enough to be up on cheese boxes.
[...] These women, and these outfits, were said to be cute as a button, which was what was said about Susanna also. Susanna didn’t see what was so cute about buttons. She found them hard to do up. But she knew when something good was being said about her.
It was the aunts who said it. They came with their husbands, the uncles, and sat in the front row, and hugged and kissed Susanna insincerely with their stiff arms and powdery faces. The uncles said little and did not hug or kiss. But Susanna wriggled away from the aunts and ran to be taken out of the auditorium in glory, swinging like a monkey between two of the uncles. It was the uncles that counted.
Susanna builds an entire career around being interesting, dazzling, and absolutely perfect -- only to break down when a male friend betrays her with a jealous tell-all memoir that paints her in the worst light possible.
“Why did he do that to me?” she said. “I was always so nice to him.”
“Tell a skunk about nice,” said Bill. “I warned you, if you’ll recall. Come on, buck up, you’ve had bad press before.”
“Not that bad,” she said. “Not from a friend.”
“Some friend,” said Bill. “Face it, Susie. He’s jealous of you.”
“Why is he jealous?” said Susanna. “Men shouldn’t be jealous of women.”
“Why not?” said Bill.
“Because they’re men!” Because I’m the smallest, because I’m the youngest, she was thinking. Because they’re bigger.
“Everyone in the universe is jealous of you, Susie-Q,” said Bill in a tired voice.
[...] When Emmett came home he found her in the darkened bedroom. She held on to him, and cried and cried.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” he said. “I’ve never seen you like this.”
“Do you think I’m a nice person?” she said, while he cradled her and stroked her hair. She on longer trusted herself to know how he felt about her.
After a while she stopped crying and blew her nose. She asked him not to turn on the light; she knew her face was all puffy. “Maybe I’ve remembered my whole life wrong,” she told him. “Maybe I’ve been wrong about everyone.”
“I’ll get you a drink,” Emmett said, as if to a sick child. “We’ll talk about it.” He patted her hand and left the room.
Not everyone is affected by the toxic elements in our culture in the same way. Certainly, I don't think everyone should be. There are people -- or, at least, there seem to be people -- who genuinely do not give a fuck what other people think of them, not if they don't respect those peoples' opinions. Frankly, that seems a lot more healthy than my approach.
This is not a post that attempts to justify why I care. It's an attempt to explain it.
I don't care because I should or because I want to care. I care because I've been told to care. I care because I've internalized that being liked, being likeable, is a survival trait that cruelly and callously separates the safe from the unsafe. I care because I want to be safe, I want the security that comes from being liked. I want smooth relationships, a good job, what health I can cobble together. I want approval and validation, not to "get ahead" but to stay safely in one place, without being jostled or torn down. Like Susanna, I just want to be liked. That is why I care.
It just so happens that, at least for me, once I started caring, I found I couldn't turn it back off.