Sometimes, insights come from unexpected places.
Yesterday, I had the chance to read an article by Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point), first published in 1998, about Judith Rich Harris and her theories about child development. (The article can be found here on Gladwell’s web site.)
The gist of the article, and Harris’ theory, is that what we learn outside the home—i.e., what we learn from our peers—has more impact on how we turn out than what we learn from our parents.
As I read the article, a lot of things suddenly started to make some sense—among them my lifelong struggle with self-doubt, my tendency to have an easier time doing things for others than I would doing the exact same things for myself, my general lack of assertiveness (I keep a lot of things to myself), and my constant vigilance for any signs of approval (or disapproval).
* * * * *
Now, I didn’t have a bad childhood. My family lived in a nice house in a good neighborhood; we were pretty well off. I was an only child, so I never had to worry about sharing anything with siblings, and never got stuck with hand-me-downs. I even had a TV set in my room. My parents weren’t the most emotionally demonstrative people in the world, but I was never abused or mistreated. If anything, I was kind of spoiled—did I mention I had a TV set in my room?
My parents encouraged me in just about everything I did. Swimming? They paid for lessons for several years. I was a good swimmer, too; by the time I was 9 or 10, I was in an intermediate class with teenagers. Bowling? I had my own ball and shoes, and bowled in leagues until a finger injury made it difficult to continue. Music? My dad let me use his saxophone and music books to start learning how to play; later, my folks got me a guitar. I even had a couple of piano lessons (my dad went, too). Photography? My dad helped me get a 35 mm SLR, and would often let me use the one he bought for himself at the same time. He also paid for a lot of film processing. In short: my folks have never tried to discourage me from pursuing my ever-changing interests.
* * * * *
It was primarily at school where things sometimes became difficult (and not just because of The Nikki Incident). I had it much better than some folks, but I often got crap from my classmates for being smart, for the music I liked, for my lack of athletic ability, for my lack of drawing skills, and so on. If there was something that made me stand out in one way or another, or some way in which someone thought I was lacking, I got crap for it.
Fortunately, a lot of that got better as time went on. It helped that folks sometimes needed help from the smart kid, or that the tyranny of low expectations sometimes worked in my favor when playing games at recess or in PE class. For the most part, I was comfortably ensconced in the middle tier of the social strata.
Unfortunately, folks sometimes needed help from the smart kid; the rest of the time, I may as well have been invisible to those people. And the criticism of my musical tastes never stopped. In elementary school, I got crap for liking The Partridge Family. When I moved up to Elton John, I got crap for liking Elton John (and this was at the peak of his popularity, mind you). In junior high, I got crap for liking Elvis Costello. One girl even wrote in my 9th grade yearbook that “it was nice knowing you—even though you have the cruddiest taste in music I’ve ever heard!” As late as my second or third year in college, I was still taking flak for my musical tastes.
* * * * *
Granted, I never had it as bad as the kid who was picked on a lot because of his weight, or the girl some of the boys refused to touch during square dancing week in PE. But I could never figure out what was so bad about being smart, or liking certain music—or why something was cool when other kids did it, but not when I did it. I figured it had to be something about me.
The resulting insecurity made it difficult for me to handle praise or accept compliments. In fact, when I wasn’t simply embarrassed, I became extra sensitive to any possible flaws or shortcomings in everything I did—and developed the uncanny ability to point them out before others would have a chance to say anything.
For example, in 9th grade, I put together a slide show (using actual 35 mm slides and a carousel) for a PTA event. I set up the slide projector to advance at a particular interval, only to find that it was actually running a little slow. As a result, instead of the slide show ending at the same time as the second piece of accompanying music, it ended about 3/4 of the way through the next song on the tape (which I had to manually fade out). After the applause died down, I made a point of mentioning that the third song shouldn’t have been there. But nobody would have noticed had I not said anything.
Then there was the time I showed my mom some poems I’d written. She was effusive in her praise, suggesting that we put them together in a little book that we could give to relatives as presents. Instead of being excited by this, I was mortified. I threw them all out the next day.
* * * * *
As an adult, I have found it easier to put things out for public scrutiny. In the ’90s, I released one CD and several cassettes of my own music and sound experiments; I’ve had three or four pieces of artwork shown in galleries as part of group shows; and I’ve had an online presence of one kind or another for my creative pursuits since 1994. (Currently active are my Flickr photostream, a version of my portfolio on Behance, a Bandcamp page, and this blog.)
Of course, those things all allow for a certain degree of anonymity, even though my name is attached to them. Interactions with real, in-the-flesh humans have been tougher. Whether they have been friendships, potential romantic relationships, job applications, or some other situation involving contact with other people, that voice that comedian Christopher Titus calls “the inner retard” has more often than not found some way to either hold me back from participating fully, or (especially when women are involved) talk me out of it altogether. It hones in on differences that it suggests are irreconcilable, reminds me of my own perceived flaws, or both. It convinces me that calling people to invite them to do something with me is pointless because they will be busy, or simply won’t be interested. At its worst, it has had me frequently parsing sentences for the smallest signs of where I stand with someone. (It’s possible for me to reach several different conclusions within the space of a single conversation—or even a few seconds.) And it tells me that I can’t just be myself around people because I’m not worthy of them unless I keep my flaws hidden.
* * * * *
These are all things I’ve known for a long time. But reading that article was the first time that I consciously realized what has been going on. It suddenly made years of insecurity and social anxiety make sense, and explained why I’ve had such a difficult time overcoming those things, even though I’ve found people along the way who like and accept me the way I am.
As I explore this more, I should have a better idea of how to proceed. For now, this latest insight has strengthened my resolve to find my own voice—however shaky it may be starting out.
(10 January 2014)