My personality/being/abilities have been under scrutiny from the very beginning of getting accepted into this exchange program. Linguistic competence (reading, writing, listening and speaking), multicultural awareness and acceptance, and my own general personality, abilities and interests. While I consider myself to be a decently self-aware person (and just as self-absorbed as anyone, too, if this blog is any evidence), I am continually surprised about the discrepancy between how I view myself and how other people view me.
Case in point: last week I was watching the documentary The Shock Doctrine based on the bestseller by Naomi Klein. In a large part, it’s about the ways that the US has manufactured political/economic/military crisis in other countries mostly because those countries refused to just bow down and do what the US originally wanted, and then has used the resulting crisis to impose unpopular neoliberal free market capitalism that benefits US companies. It was incredibly depressing, especially being in Chile, the first laboratory for this, and with things scaling up in the Middle East again. 15 minutes before the end of the documentary (and the somewhat more hopeful resolution) it was time for onces. I kind of moped around the apartment getting things ready and flatly resisted all attempts by Juan to make jokes. I started explaining the whole situation to Juan and why I was so depressed, detailing the myriad imperialist crimes of my homeland. He kept on saying things that were supposed to make me feel better, like “well, at least you have free speech”. I countered that I wanted to be depressed right now, thank you very much. It was what the situation deserved. “María Alicia and I have talked about it…you’re really quite a sensitive person,” he said, still trying to give me a little perspective about the whole situation.
Now, I don’t think of myself as a sensitive person. I have a thick skin and I don’t anger very easily, mostly because I can rationalize away most annoyances. Have some empathy for their situation, I tell myself, or they couldn’t possibly be over 50% at fault in this two-person relationship. I’ve been an athlete of some sort my whole life, pretty much, which means that I’m fairly physical strong and, at women’s colleges and in Latin American countries, can be imposing, too, at 6 feet tall. I have a tendency to dominate conversations and discussions, especially once I’m comfortable in the setting.
But you know, none of these things actually have to do with sensitivity. They’re all ways that I build on the environment, not ways that the raw environmental stimuli affect me, and thinking about it, I realize that to the latter I really am a sensitive person. Nails on a chalkboard, loud bangs and metal pans scraping metal stovetops cause my face to involuntarily contort and my body to shiver, as if trying to expunge the memory of the stimulus physically as soon as possible. Especially if I’m tired, too many people at a party (read: more than like 3) make my circuits overload and all I want to do is go hibernate in a pillow cave with a documentary. And I’m pretty sensitive to what people think of me, especially my appearance, even though I like cultivating an independent sense of style.
I kind of trace this particular sensitivity back to my transition to public school. My mom gave my brother and I a year to get used to the idea that, after 7+ years of homeschooling, we were to be unleashed onto the public school system for 5th and 8th grades respectively. Instead of going out and making friends in the system during that year, I spent it freaking out about not already having any, self-paralyzed from acting as an agent in the situation.
I knew I was different. I mean, look at my parents and their bikes. Or our house with next-to-no TV, full of books and every kind of building toy under the sun. Or our hippie veggie garden out front. Or the fact that I took a college Spanish class as a seventh grader and then spent the summer after traveling in Costa Rica and China with various family members (this is not, by the way, a fact you should mention in the “what did you do during the summer?” discussion at the beginning of 4th hour social studies class your first day of 8th grade). What I didn’t realize, though, was that not only was I different, but the language I spoke was also vaguely foreign. As a homeschooled kid, I spent a large proportion of my time either with adults, kids of a different age from me or by myself. The public school system constructs a micro-ecosystem of social interactions and norms that are mostly completely different from this. There was the verbal language, like knowing what to say playing basketball when someone else tries really hard or actually scores or you run into them and knock them over. There was also the social language of tables in the cafeteria or where you go during recess. There was the language of what you wear, what your hair looks like and who your friends are. Because I felt that most of these languages were, if not completely foreign, then at least some strange dialect, I responded by mostly shutting up and watching, trying desperately to learn what to do.
Through this constant observation, I became habitually sensitive to the body language of those around me. I can’t really turn it off, at this point, and sometimes it gets to be too much, so that even when I recognize situations in which I should do something (like ask if someone’s really doing ok, because it sure doesn’t look like it), I don’t because it’s just too dang much emotion and overloads the circuits and all I want to do is go hibernate in a pillow cave with a documentary and some chamomile tea.
So, I guess I’m a sensitive person. Time to rebuild one of the pillars to the Theory of Me. But you know, if I’m not building from outside in like this, I’m reworking from inside out.
I’ve always been the type of person to try and change myself and my personality. I saw some traits as bad, and needing to be expunged, and others as goals. It was really a crude process, one I’ve gotten away from, especially since we now know that my self-perception is often off the mark anyways. Here’s an example. We have this coffee table book called Pick Me Up at my house with all sorts of interesting factoids and page spread explanations from everything to philosophy to the exports of France. There are two different page spreads devoted to how boys and girls respond to similar situations. Now, there are many problems with stating these trends as facts, especially since they’re mostly socialized and not necessarily innate, but that’s beside the point. I read the descriptions for boys and girls and decided that I didn’t like how girls responded, they seemed too weak or something, so I was going to be more like a boy. But instead of looking at the root of the difference, that boys are brought up to take more risks than girls for a variety of reasons, I went straight to the behavior, deciding to just act more boy. And boys, among other things, are apparently more likely to oversell themselves and tell more white lies.
I also saw, on the flip side, how girls that were cute and funny and unthreatening got a lot more attention from everyone in general, not just boys. So I spent much more time than I should have (none) trying to make myself look smaller (I know you know that tall-person shoulder stoop), be less overbearing, be more extroverted, be more flirtatious, figure out mascara, not always raise my hand when I knew the answer. Thankfully, the weird, loud, tall intellectual in me was completely incorrigible, and I have left myself mostly intact, adding only an ability to sustain small talk in most situations.
So… what have I learned? I’ve learned that I really haven’t any clue who I am, no matter how much time I spend meditating or obsessively self-reflecting at 2 in the morning when I can’t sleep, taking Myers Briggs personality tests or BuzzFeed which-root-vegetable-are-you tests. I find myself, quite often, flipping through old journal entries or pictures from the past, trying to piece together who, exactly, I was. And the more I dig, the more I doubt. And the philosopher in my starts getting into all these existential questions, but then still really wants a unified theory.
So I have this urge at this point to finish this post with some sort of Culminating Remark, like “I’ve learned just to live in the moment and let me be me,” or “I’ve come to accept who I am and live my life as a free spirit.” I’ll spare you, since neither of those is true. Which means that, since I can’t think of another way to wrap things up, and I can’t do some epic Beatles fadeout, we’ll just have to go about the rest of our days with an unresolved minor 7 or something hanging in the air…
… or, you all can help. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where what you saw in the mirror was different from what the world saw in you? How did you reconcil the two, if at all? Do you think it’s even possible to truly know yourself, either from the inside out or the outside in? I invite your comments and encourage your own self reflection.