As with any navel gazing, I re-read this about a 1000 times to make sure it wasn't self-pitying, overly negative or presenting a false impression of what is merely one facet of myself, and most of all didn't ring out like some sort of, "Don't hate me because I'm so beautiful...it can be hard, really!" I hope I have presented the following self-indulgence as the productive journey it really has been. If not, please, feel free to edit and correct for me in your mind. :)
Don't mind me. I'm just having a developmental spurt aka identity crisis. It makes me a little cranky, and a lot self-involved. Believe it or not, this isn't a mommy identity crisis. This is a personal identity crisis. It might even be a mid-life crisis, which makes me worry for my longevity, but at least takes off the pressure for planning for 50 years of retirement (as if I'm the sort who will ever retire) (or am I) (who knows) (it depends) (on who I am or am not).
What precipitated this?
Well a lot of things. But the straw that broke the camel's back came in the form of a nightmare the other night about Harry.
Harry is this guy I knew briefly about a decade ago, and had more or less forgotten until this nightmare. I met Harry when I started a new job in Cambridge at a small technology start-up. Some red flags had gone off more than once before I even took this job. I'd actually turned it down, twice. They talked me in to taking the job anyway.
On my first day, I met Harry, who would be training me. Harry dressed as if ready to bolt out the door and climb a mountain. He had on hiking boots, multi-pocketed REI special shorts, and several layers of shirts under a sweater (it was March, in MA). He was too tan for the region and the season, but he was my age, seemed like an interesting sort, and would be training me. As is typical of me, I thought, let's make friends!
Harry put the kabash on that lickety split.
Harry, you see, was losing his cash cow, thanks to me. Although I had been told that I got the job because Harry was moving to South America, in actuality Harry was a contractor being replaced by an employee (me). I had no clue that the South America jaunt was his annual cycle and prior to me, he'd always had work to come back to.
Each year, while living in a cardboard box to the side of Boylston or something like that, he'd work until he'd earned enough money to hike his way through South America. He'd come back and work more when he ran out of cash.
I thought that sounded really interesting...what a different life. I had no idea one could do that, but I was immediately smitten with the thought, and figured my husband would not need his arm twisted to agree.
I tried to be nice and inquire about this whole contractor and travel lifestyle but Harry basically told me to mind my own business. Sometimes he forgot to be an asshole, and would wax poetic about traveling hither and yon, share a tale, tell me about a great local restaurant that did that native cuisine well...but then he'd snap back and recall I was Public Enemy Number 1.
During all of this I was baffled by what seemed like a nice enough person treating me with such resentment and impatience. He was doing a dreadful job handing off the job. In fact, sometimes it felt like he was trying to sabotage me. I didn't understand why. I didn't even comprehend the depths of his hatred of me, until he made The Comment.
He was running through a file with me, explaining his logic, showing me his code and where he stored text. It wasn't making sense to me and I must have asked about three times about it. He was getting irritated with me, and I with him. I was thinking that him on a mountain in Ecuador sounded good about then.
Finally he whipped around and snapped, viciously, "I told Boss she made a mistake hiring you. I said you were too high-maintenance, too high-strung!"
I'm not really sure exactly what high-maintenance means---I never have been. It seems to vary by person. However, a statement like that means more about the speaker than the target, in my experience.
I'm not even sure how either trait---did I happen to possess them, which I admit I do to some degree---is necessarily a negative. I had kinks to work out. No doubt.
However, I had always been well-liked at work. My performance reviews were always great, and bosses and co-workers had always said they were glad to have me on their team.
Of course Harry's comment was sour grapes.
But man, it stung. First, because I couldn't believe that he had actually been trying to sabotage me. That's low. Second, because it wasn't the first time I'd heard that dig.
I've lost track of who and when and where and how many times I've heard something similar about me just being "too big" or "too much" or "challenging" or "scary" or "intimidating" or "overwhelming." I was just plain "too."
I think it must have been in my early teens when I first started trying to be who people wanted me to be, just enough, so I could be accepted, just enough.
I was still me but I kept it under wraps and developed a public persona. I spent years trying to tone myself down to an acceptable level for public consumption. I realized I needed to get by.
The problem was, my public persona was only good for a limited duration. Sometimes I was so busy sustaining it that I missed some really important things right in front of my face. Sometimes I was so busy focusing on being this persona that I was careless or thoughtless. Sometimes I was so tired of being this persona that I retreated entirely for a while to fluff up my mask. I often had many different types of friends in order to allow different aspects of myself out of the bag every now and again. Because I was frequently spread thin, I rarely formed deep and abiding friendships.
Ultimately, I lost not so much who I was, but got off-track with my goals and priorities about who I should (and needed) to be. Thus, instead of spending my youth maturing, I am spending my adulthood maturing.
I've spent many years working to understand who I am, what is valuable, and how to be okay with who I am, as I am. To stop trying to be who and what other people want me to be, as if there is something wrong with who I am. It's hard, though, because I'm not the easy breezy covergirl sort of girl that people often prefer---which, trust me, I often hear about.
On the whole, I am okay with me. What I am still not okay with is the reaction to me that I sometimes get.
I've never quite understood why certain personality traits are so preferred.
I suspect---and I do not mean this cruelly because it truly is fair enough to a degree---that in large part it has to do with which type of person makes it easier for me to go along my business with less need and demand, perceived or real.
My next boss was described as "high energy," which, although true, was a euphemism for something negative. She was very busy, very active, did many things, most of them quickly. She moved fast, spoke fast, and expected fast results.
One day, out of the blue, she came to my office, really frustrated, "I used to think David was my favorite employee," she confessed, referring to one of the engineers on our team, "And I like him, I really do. I always thought I preferred laid back employees like him to any other sort, you know, like someone really motivated, like you. But you know, sometimes, okay almost always, these laid back people have no sense of urgency. I just can't seem to light a fire under him!"
"Umm, uh, okay," I stammered, "Uh, did you just need to share, or are you looking for some ideas about how to motivate him to meet our deadlines?"
She just wanted to share. Vent, really.
But there it was again: the backhanded compliment. Over time, smart, motivated, talented, organized, capable, good leader, etc. are words that have been used against me.
Even here in the blogging world, now and again, I've gotten comments such as that I am a scary/intimidating/smart/person/writer, that sometimes I don't leave any space for anyone to say anything because I say it all and so well. Well, color me absolutely and totally bummed from one of the nicest compliments.
I don't want to do anything so well that I don't leave any space for anyone.
And maybe that's the trouble---maybe all too often I do provide just a little too much. And people feel extraneous, thus resentful, or they feel stepped on, thus resentful. That's likely when I get the "positive" turned into a "negative."
The "motivated" and "high-maintenance" traits allow me to be an excellent worker and friend, but also mean that I ask much of those around me.
So why did I have a nightmare about Harry?
I suspect it is because I am once again struggling with the balance between who I am and who others seem to need me to be. I am also trying to receive comments such as "you're too much" as "not my problem."
Sure, sometimes it is, but the bottom line is that my character can't be on a volume control that I dial up or down based on other people's preferences and insecurities. Of course there is a time and place for that---to some degree we all alter ourselves depending on company and situation. And to a degree that's okay.
The part that was not okay in my past was how I changed who I was, tried to act less intelligent, less capable, less something in order to put another person at ease, in order to not intimidate them.
It just so happens that I have recently entered a new arena, a new stage.
Each time I enter a new arena, there is the initial honeymoon period, and then I reach what I call the First Fight stage. (Don't take the fight part literally; I'm merely sticking with the marriage metaphor.)
Suddenly, I have been "too much" for someone and I am back in my epic struggle. Each time, I have to stop and evaluate, "Was I really too much in an out of line way? Is this case of too much about me? or the other person? Is there something different I need to do? Or is this one not on me...not within my control because it asks me to be someone other than who I am?"
I have to tamp down my ingrained response of apologize, placate, and hide my light under a bushel. Or tamp down my hot surge of angry resentment that this might be expected of me, by myself or others.
The nice thing about being older is that I am aware of this continuous journey of self-improvement, and am fortunate enough to know many folks on the same or similar journeys who are pretty understanding. The other nice thing about being older is finding more acceptance, a greater degree of appreciation of different personalities, and a more mature approach to grasping where one person ends and another begins.
All of which leads me to my starting joke about being in a mid-life crisis.
I have always wondered why suddenly becoming introspective about who you are and thoughtful about whether you want to continue on your current path is described as a crisis.
To tell the truth, I think it is called this not as a descriptor for the person undergoing the introspection, but rather as a descriptor of the feelings of those around this person. It's not easy to transition, but I think often it can be harder for those "left behind." I have a new appreciation for this feeling as my own kids often leave me in the dust, gasping for air, "Buuuuttt wait! What about the stroller? Don't you want to ride in the stroller any more? What is with all this walking everywhere all the time?" and "Buuuuttt wait, what is with all this 'you'll read the book' stuff...don't you want me to read the book to you any more?"
We expect children to change, but we expect adults to be grown-up, as in done, finished, formed. So when an adult starts acting off-script, well, it can indeed be someone's crisis, especially because we don't immediately seize on the best new lines. Sometimes we have to write and re-write to get it right.
And that's me right now, flush in the middle of an edit and rewrite of my character and story.
Well you know what I always said to my students and writers: never fall in love with anything you write because it might need to be edited at any time.
I can usually spot a spurt in my kids. It's usually a trying time for everyone, not leastly for that child. I always joke during it that afterwards the kid better be able to spout off string theory and jot out (in crayon, on the walls, of course) how to travel in space at the speed of light. This is my way of setting myself up to expect a change, and my way of making light to deal with some of the challenges of the difficult journey.
I won't have any ideas about how to build a better mousetrap, but maybe I will have an idea about how to be a better me.
Thanks for listening, and even more, thanks to those of you who make the effort to leave comments---and such interesting ones at that---even though sometimes (like maybe now? LOL) I am "too much."
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert