The other day I posted a Facebook update about the different psychologies of fear associated with movie monsters, specifically Alien and Predator. It was just a weird, random thought that happened to pop into my head, but after giving it some more thought, I realized there is more to it. There’s a reason why this was on my mind, and it has to do with identity crisis. Now, bear with me, because this is coming together in my brain as I am typing it.
I was born, and lived the first thirteen years of my life in a small European country, going to school with the same group of twenty kids from the first day of kindergarten to the day my family packed up and moved across the ocean. I was a straight A student, with a steady group of friends, I was on a swim team, and I had a tight-knit family around whom I spent a lot of time. I knew exactly who and what I was.
And then we moved.
Because of the bad timing, I ended up being very reluctantly accepted a year early into an all girls Catholic high school where one semester of P.E. satisfied the requirement for four years, but we had prayer every morning. Talk about culture shock.
The result was not really surprising. Socially speaking, I had no idea what was going on, most of the time. I was thrust into a group of girls who already had their cliques, who gave me weird looks every time I said something “unacceptable,” and whispered to each other about the weird girl who didn’t shave her legs–I had no idea I was supposed to! I didn’t know how to relate to these people. I came home in tears most days because I hated being the weird one, the one everyone stared at. The only one a year younger than everyone else, and halfway through freshman year already getting “academic awards” for excellence. Half the time people probably thought I was damaged, and the other half they had to watch the foreign kid breeze through exams and essays like it was nothing. Trust me, it was not a good combination. I spent a lot of time on my own during the first few months, especially at lunch. Because no one had told me there was a cafeteria where everyone always ate.
When you find yourself in a situation like that, you have three choices: disappear, stand out, or fit in. That’s a hard enough choice as an adult. Try making it as a kid in your formative years. Most of the time, the choice is made for you by the people around you, and you just go along because it’s easier to swim with the current than against it. The thing is, you’re not just battling the social currents; you’re also fighting with yourself, trying to find out who you are. When you’re a kid, you take growing up for granted. It’s just something that’s going to happen naturally. But the moment you hit high school, they expect you to actually choose. Choose what you want to be in life. Choose where you want to go to college. Choose where you want to live after high school (because moving out at eighteen is the social norm, and if you don’t do it, you will most definitely be labeled a loser).
Demons within trying to shape your future life.
Demons without trying to rip it out of your hands and mold it to their standards.
I lost so much of myself in those four years. I lost sight of everything that used to make me who I was. I shut in on myself, hid in books and stories, I didn’t go out after school because the Big Bad City is nothing like the little town I came from, where all the neighbors knew you and the kid down the street was your principal’s daughter, who stopped by your uncle’s bowling alley on the weekends.
The best thing that ever happened to me at that school was finally getting the hell out. But by then, the damage had been done. Two years of drama class had given me something I’d never had before–a chronic case of stage fright. To this day I can’t talk in front of a large group without starting to hyperventilate after a few minutes. Spending time around so many girls, I lost my ability to talk casually to boys. They were a different breed of animal now. They weren’t potential friends, they wanted something from me, and the expectation was that if I talked to them, I was willing to give it. Enduring four years of judgments had made me super self-conscious and hyper aware of being scrutinized, so I withdrew even more.
It all had a very strange effect on me. By turning inward, closing myself in a shell, it concentrated me at my core. I shut out external influences, filtered out the diluting forces trying to mold me into something I wasn’t, and I grew myself back. I built myself up again one brick at a time. I decided what I liked. I chose which parts of me were acceptable and which were not. I started to depend on myself more, and on others less. I was voracious to learn about everything. Science, history, mythology, it didn’t matter. College became my best friend, because it opened up the world to me in the pages of textbooks and essays.
I stopped seeking approval.
That was the biggest breakthrough of all for me.
Approval is like a drug. The more you get, the more you want. You become dependent on it; give it more value than it deserves. You give control over your self-worth to a hive of rabid demons who have their own agenda and would love nothing better than to rip out your skull and spine to set it among their trophies, because their success is based on your failure.
Approval can also change you. By pandering to other people’s tastes, you lose your own. You forget why you started doing whatever it is you’re doing. The demon without slithers inside you and makes you needy, desperate, trying so hard to please, and it doesn’t just stop at one or two people, either. The more you get, the more you want. But everyone is looking for something different. You can’t please them all. Approval stops coming. And then… the inevitable disapproval shatters you.
I’ve seen it happen. I’ve felt it myself. It sucks big hairy Yeti balls to be on the receiving end of it. It makes you feel like nothing you do will ever be good enough. You’re shit, you don’t belong. You should just quit and move on, get back to your safe little cubicle job where no one will ever want more from you than you can give. Leave the craft to people who actually know what they’re doing.
Here’s the thing. You can fight the crowds. You can deny the Predator his due. You can choose to flip off the trend setters, the sheep, the followers, and go your own way, never once looking back. But if that demon is already inside you, if the Alien becomes part of who you are, it’s one hell of a fight. You can’t kill it, because it keeps growing back in cycles. You’ll feel highs of success at having pleased yourself, and lows of self-doubt and depression when someone else doesn’t like it. You’ll change again, to please them, and the high of their approval will validate you for a while, until you “screw up” and lose their support. Some people never escape that vicious cycle. They keep feeding the alien, losing more of themselves, until nothing is left except a faded facsimile of who they once used to be. They become the alien, spreading the infestation to validate themselves. They gave up their own power, so they need to take it from others. And the cycle continues.
In a way, I am glad high school sucked for me. My battle happened at just the right time, before I had established a bad habit, and before I could become too comfortable with mediocrity. It’s a long war, but in many aspects simpler than it might have been if it had started later on. My struggle crystallized my passion, and started me on the path to writing. It also forced me to go it alone. I’ve lost myself once, I wasn’t about to give myself away a second time. Instead of seeking help from others, I learned through trial and error. In the absence of feedback, I wrote thousands of pages of crap before one turned out decent. It took me years, but step by step I honed my craft, and developed my own voice. I did it not by listening to what others said, but by listening to the way they spoke. No one told me it might be a good idea to analyze the lilt and rhythm of prose, I had to discover it myself. It forced me to pay attention. Every single word is chosen for a reason. Every sentence has a deeper meaning. Every sentiment is a window into the character’s soul.
Am I done learning? Absolutely not. But I am much stronger than I used to be, and more than ready to continue the struggle.
I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.
Until next time, fight the good fight, my friends. And don’t ever give up on your dreams!