“Most people take a lot longer to get as genuine as you are,” said the woman I was working with, after observing me a for a few months.
Flattered, I nevertheless tried to figure out what she meant. Weren’t people either genuine or not? How did time change that?
After a lifetime that has included a lot of social isolation, I have spent several months interacting with a large number of people and trying to figure out who I am in the midst of them. I aim for deep and meaningful conversations, and each such conversation changes my mind just a little bit about my place in or my sense of the meaning of the world – as all good conversations should. However, these types of conversations are not always possible, and my conclusion from my most recent interactions is the following: Not being able to interact well with inauthentic people is not a disability.
Allow me to explain.
When you’re a teenager, you are almost by definition insecure, not sure who you should be. Your emotions are raw, and everything likely feels a lot more intense and scary. People have different ways of dealing with this. Some put on personae of pretending to know it all, personae of confidence and happiness. From what I can gather, that was true of the young man responsible for the most recent school shooting in Washington state. Everyone seems like they have it together, but inside, they’re scared and confused.
Some turn to writing, music, or theatre to express their emotions. Some turn to counter-culture styles of dress and behavior. Some bully others to feel better about themselves. Some drink or do drugs. Some get depressed and try to harm themselves. But everyone feels these emotions, although they try to hide them. Most pretend not to feel them at all.
I find myself at age 30 trying to figure out who I was, so that I can figure out who I am now and where to go next. I didn’t put on a persona in high school, and I still don’t. I didn’t pretend to be confident. I didn’t try different ways of pretending to be other people to figure out who I was. I just…. was me. I was me. And I was completely bewildered by the people around me.
Who was I? Well, as far as I can remember, the pre-adolescent me liked cats. A lot. She liked talking with adults. She was very emotionally expressive. She liked to read and write. She was very highly affected by what went on in her world and spent a lot of time thinking. She liked to play word and board games with the babysitters hired to watch her. She was very engaging with those who engaged her.
But among her peers, she was quiet, and, again, bewildered. For a long time, she didn’t really even notice these other kids were there, unless they posed a threat to her. Which was often, unfortunately. Books were her friends. When she did finally notice, as a teenager, other kids having fun being with one another, she wanted in with that too. But she had no idea how to get there. They lacked a common language. Her peers talked in slang and seemed to go out of their way to avoid talking about how they felt about anything. She would write pages and pages about her feelings and thought a lot. They had no common interests. She felt threatened by their bravado, their pretend confidence.
She concluded there was something wrong with her, because she clearly couldn’t communicate with these other beings that she was forced to spend all of her time with. Look at the way they communicate! Look at how happy they are! There must be something wrong with me, she thought.
Meanwhile, a poem was written about her in a school literary magazine, with the words, I wish I knew who she was, she looks so happy. This was the same year she spent all of her time on depression websites, convinced she wasn’t who she was supposed to be.
Is everyone just looking at one another wishing they could be one another? Why can’t we be more honest about who we are, so people could really know us? We’d feel more fulfilled, and others would too, because they’d stop being so jealous. We could all stop being jealous and realize that all our lives have their ups and downs. We could understand what “real” is, and not compare ourselves to characters in TV shows and movies living fake, airbrushed, perfect lives.
I’ve always been able to communicate well with adults. As a kid and as an adult myself. I just can’t communicate well with people who are insecure and pretending to be someone they’re not. I am deep and real and sincere, and I want honest communication. I was not even really aware the rest of the world wasn’t like that until recently.
I communicate very well with authentic people. Is it any surprise I didn’t socialize well with high school or even college-aged kids? Just by virtue of their developmental stage, they are insecure and inauthentic. So defining myself by how well I socialized with that particular group of people is ridiculous. It’s one group of people. That’s all.
When I finally got a label of Asperger’s at age 21, I clung to it like a life raft as an explanation for why I was so “wrong,” why I stuck out like a sore thumb. But nearly ten years of clinging to it is beginning to seem like too much. Self-acceptance would be a much stronger, more effective drug, if I could get it, than a continued focus on my disability label.
Sensory sensitivities? Yes. Different ways of thinking? Yes, but everyone thinks differently in some way. Lack of social ability? I guess that depends on who’s doing the judging, but I’m going to go with no. Sometimes I wonder whether I am actually ahead of where most other people are, not behind. Maybe I have to wait for them to catch up, or maybe I just have to keep trying as hard as I can to find ways to socialize with the ones who have already caught up. They usually end up being people twice my age, people who are not usually looking for friends my age, and this frustrates me greatly. Perhaps that reality will change in time.
I don’t care who you are; age, gender, appearance, interests, occupation, or background don’t matter to me. If you’re authentic and show genuine emotion, about anything at all, I want to talk to you. I have a love affair with real people. Why don’t you all join me in figuring out how to love yourselves, because while it might take a while, the combined light of all of us shining the light of who we are will be enough to light up the whole planet. By showing who we are, we can help fight depression, loneliness, alcoholism, anxiety, suicide attempts, and a variety of other mental and stress-related physical health conditions simply because people will know, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone.
That’s all it takes. Having the courage to say what you REALLY think, not what you think is appropriate. Having the guts to show your emotions, not wonder if they fit the image of some robotic Stepford Wife that Hollywood has brainwashed so many of us into thinking we should be. Do you think you can’t be liked because you’re overweight, labeled with a disability, a member of a marginalized group of people? Guess what, you’re part of the world too. Step up and let your light shine, because when you proudly show who you are, you give someone else the courage to do so, too.
One by one, we can all step forward and show who we are. One by one, we can build a world where we can walk around saying Hey! I know you! You’re just like me! instead of Did you see what she was wearing? or I can’t possibly be liked by another person unless I have those diamond earrings. Somehow, I think this new way will create just a little more happiness than the old way. Happiness is good for the planet. Happiness is good for our survival. For those who care about making money and economics – happiness is good for productivity, too. In fact, whatever cause you care about, happiness will help it.
Happiness starts with letting your light shine, with finding a way to come to terms with who you are and then letting the people around you see your passions, thoughts, desires, personhood. That hole in your heart that feels empty so much of the time – you may find it filled when you let your light shine. You may be hurt sometimes, too, but it’s worth the price.
I often find that older people tend to be more genuine, perhaps because they’ve had more time to conclude that playing games isn’t worth it. They sometimes feel they have less to lose by showing themselves. So I beseech anyone reading this: Let’s not wait so long to love ourselves.[Headline image: The photograph shows a mural with colorful figures of people and animals against a gray background. In the center at the bottom is a painting of a green structure with musical instruments in it. At the top and bottom are a blue border with various shapes painted onto it. Photograph by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg.]
Kate Goldfield is a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome. A version of this post first appeared on her blog, Aspie from Maine, and is reprinted here by permission.