There are two stories that stand out for me in my childhood memories.
In the first, I’m in 6th grade, standing off to the side while the new girl, surrounded by the most popular girls in my class, decided who was cool enough to hang out with her, and who wasn’t. We all played the game, though secretly I thought it was stupid. Who did she think she was? She’d only been there a week and had managed to leap to the top of our school’s social standings. So far, everyone had made the cut. It was no surprise that the prettier, more popular girls were waved on through. But when I saw some of the girls like me get the nod of approval, I stopped seeing this as a stupid game. Instead, I realized I better join in or I’d be left behind.
So, I stood in line, watching as each person faced the new girl and her two new best friends sitting on the bench of judgement. The rules were this: the applicant would ask the new girl if she could hang out with them. Then the new girl and her friends would tell that girl to wait a ways away so they could confer. They would whisper with each other, and then, when they’d decided, would call the girl back to let her know if she was worthy or not.
I reached the front of the line, and asked the obligatory question, “Can I hang out with you?” I’d just seen my two closest friends waved through, so my chances felt pretty good. But following their whispering session, the outcome was not what I expected…and everything I expected—I was not cool enough to be their friend. My friends swore their allegiance to me, telling me this girl was stupid and they weren’t going to hang out with her anymore, but the damage was done. Everyone but me, the slightly chubby girl in the handmade dress and pink Keds, was cool enough to hang out with the queen of the playground.
The second memory is years later, in high school. My social ranking stayed pretty much in the middle. I wasn’t on the bottom rung, but I had a pretty far climb to reach the top. I was hovering at average, completely self-conscious, wishing I could stand out but afraid to, just the same. My core group of friends seemed content as a band of misfits, the ones who smoked at the outskirts of campus, were on a first name basis with the school’s truancy officer, wore punk clothing, and were actively against the status quo. I was by no means a trend setter or activist, but I did like to belong. This group accepted anyone, especially those who didn’t fit the mold of the popular crowd. I was warmly welcomed. However, I stayed at the outskirts, always keeping an eye on the popular crowd—the pretty, the wealthy, the ones with cute bodies and tan legs outfitted in the latest fashions. I hid my pale skin and body shape under baggy jeans and flannel shirts, trying to disappear while still longing to be noticed. In the band of misfits, I could relax and just be me. Even still, I wished I could shine bright enough to join the happy, beautiful people that reigned in the center of the quad.
It was at a football game that I ran into an old childhood friend. As kids, we’d played together, the lines of social standings completely non-existent. But now, she was tall and beautiful, came from money, and held a solid place in the popular crowd—completely opposite of me. However, the lines between us evaporated once again, and we were friends in the moment. I was funny and brilliant, she laughed at everything I said, and then…she invited me to stay at her house that night. I suddenly had a taste of the other side, and it was glorious. We listened to music, watched a movie, slept in her princess room, and made fancy crepes for breakfast. That weekend, my whole identity changed from being the rejected 6th grade girl to a teenager that had friends in the popular crowd.
That Monday morning, I crossed the threshold that separated the misfits from the elite, and headed for my friend. She greeted me warmly, and I basked in the warmth of her shadow as I stood nearby, silent while everyone else seemed to have someone to talk with. Deep down, I knew I didn’t belong, but I pushed that feeling aside. I was here with all my new friends. And then, just as quickly, I was cast aside.
“What is she doing here?” one of the girls said, looking straight at me. The words were a magnet to the feelings of inadequacy I’d been trying to hide. Now they covered me, exposed me, left me naked and raw in front of everyone I looked up to. I had no words to defend myself. Neither did my friend, who gave me an apologetic shrug. The line was drawn. I didn’t belong. I slunk back to the misfits, and never tried to leave my caste again.
And yet here I am at 40, still playing the comparison game.
This morning, I marinated in these feelings of jealousy and personal lack. It was pretty intense. My favorite author re-released one of her series with beautiful new covers, and suddenly, all my books seemed plain and outdated, in desperate need of a makeover. Then, I began following a new friend on Instagram, and saw that all of his photos had at least 100 likes. Mine get about 25 on average. To cap it all off, I spent the weekend surrounded by a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds in an astronomy class. Every single one of them was adorable. We all had a wonderful time. And yet, I couldn’t shake feeling like a waddling grandmother in comparison.
I started going over all the things I needed to do to up my game. I could take out a loan to pay a cover designer. I could be much more strategic about my Instagram, taking much better photos and committing to a specific filter, and maybe even coordinating which photos to take and when to post them so that I have some sort of scheme to my page. I could starve myself to get thin again, care more about polishing my appearance, be the cool, glamorous 40-year-old everyone wants to be instead of the plain, average girl I’ve been all my life.
The overwhelming feeling was that I’m not measuring up. My 6th grade fears came back to haunt me. Everyone is excelling and I’m the girl no one wants to play with. Everyone knows the rules, but I was reading in a corner when they were explained. Now I’m lost while everyone else is having a great time, effortlessly living their best life while I’m still trying to find my way.
Comparison is a bitch, and it will paralyze you in your tracks.
So, what’s the cure? First, it’s to get off social media. But then, it’s to be still. What is it you’re really feeling right now? Not the jealousy, but the feeling underneath? What are you stuffing? What are you avoiding?
What am I stuffing and avoiding?
I feel like the things I truly want are always going to be just out of reach. I know what I need to do—perfect my writing, pay for quality covers, get better at marketing myself and my books, stick to a healthy eating plan, get stricter with my spending habits—but I can’t seem to do it. I’m afraid to fully invest because I might give it my all and still fail, and then have nothing left. I’m sure that all the things I want—being attractive and in good shape, being successful as a writer, living a life free of money worries—they’re all for other people…better people. I want what other people have because I’m average, stuck on one plateau and unable to move to the next. There’s no ladder to climb in this caste system, and I have to scale the wall unaided while everyone watches, probably while they’re laughing. And if I make it, that one popular girl will be there, asking everyone “What’s she doing here?” There will be no one there to back me up, and I’ll retreat back down the wall to my comfortable plateau.
But…what if I change the narrative?
What if I looked that girl in the face and asked her the same question…because she probably asked herself that question every day. What am I doing here? What mistake will bar me from this place of privilege? What do I need to hide of my true self to remain here? What would everyone think if they knew my secrets, my true identity, my fears, my flaws?
Then, what if I asked myself the same things? What am I being inauthentic about in my effort to be loved? Accepted? Appear popular?
How’s that working out for me?
What actually IS working for me?
A friend message me yesterday about reading that North Bay Woman magazine article I was recently featured in, the one about going gray, and how it helped her come to the decision to finally take the silver plunge.
“See, you’re an inspiration, and didn’t even say anything,” she wrote.
I can’t even begin to tell you how much that means to me. I’m constantly in a battle between the real me and the one I believe everyone wants me to be. So far, I’ve never reached the latter. And all too often, I try to hide the former. But it’s the real me that wins every time I let her shine. I don’t know why that’s so hard to grasp.
I’m still going to strive for success, but I need to get clear on what that looks like. Maybe I’ve reached it and haven’t even noticed. Maybe all the doubts I have are blocking my view of the things I’m doing right.
Maybe I’m my own worst enemy—I’m the 6th grade queen of the playground or the high school caste enforcer, and no one is holding me back but ME.
Maybe I’m just like everyone else, finding the perfect filter to hide the flaws I want no one to see, only to hide the flaws that would inspire someone who desperately NEEDS to see them.
Maybe I’m full of flaws, but also some pretty damn awesome accomplishments.
Maybe I’m just me, and that’s not a bad thing.
P.S. The central theme of my book, Forever Thirteen, is based on bullying among middle school students. Find it here.