I’ve written at least two drafts of this post, then scrapped them.
Like everything else in this 30 Days (hah!) of Songs prompt, this just wants an example of a song that reflects some facet of your life. But ye gods and little fishes, “A Song That Describes You / Your Personality?!”
First, I tried to describe myself and define my personality, which involved trying to break myself down into each of the so-called five factors: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. Of course, having broken things down so particularly, it only made it more difficult to find songs that described each element.
Then I tried to think of songs I’ve ever considered anthemic. Which seemed promising, right up until I realized that many of the songs that were anthems at some point just aren’t so relevant anymore. They describe me-as-I-was-at-a-time, but that isn’t the me that I am now. It’s not as if those elements aren’t part of my life at all anymore. They’re just… not at the forefront. I hate to call them smaller or quieter, in case they’re truly just as large, possibly even bigger, only appearing so small because of foreshortening. Perspective is a killer. Still, the fact that they aren’t first and foremost in my self-identification… that’s something.
In short, my personality just isn’t quite what it used to be.
Not that I’m complaining at all. It’s just… strange, I suppose, to realize how inverted everything has become.
I’d been so introverted before, with no sense of will, no sense of agency, and not even much sense of identity. It’s inaccurate to say that there was a certain sort of person that I aspired to be – aspiration was selfish and the idea of being anything was hubris. But there was a certain sort of person that I felt intense guilt about not being able to be. There were things that I couldn’t really *want* at the time, but could regret not having. Feelings that I couldn’t precisely wish I could feel, but could acknowledge the feeling-shaped holes where they… not “should have been,” not even “could have been,” but a neutral, non-presumptuous “might have possibly fit, in a way that provided utility.”
On a really good day, I could write something creative, make a clever photoshop of some kind, have the wherewithal to do practical things, feel okay about going out in public, and even feel various emotions. Excitement, goofiness, affection, awe, and possibly something that couldn’t really be considered “optimism,” but an absence of foreboding. Something that couldn’t be called “pride,” but a temporary failure to acknowledge shame. It’s not like I suddenly thought I was an okay person who had any sort of potential. I just managed to not notice or care about how awful everything was for a while. I’d even have conversations with a friend or two online, and we’d make each other laugh. On a really good day, I might actually spend time with someone in person, going to get coffee or lunch.
Of course, the next day – or later that same day – perspective would come crashing back with a vengeance, and I’d think of all the time and energy I’d wasted, and what an absolute moron I looked like, and how much more likely it was that people were going to use my every action as fodder for mockery and mistreatment. For many, many years, whenever I’d displayed any sort of satisfaction, enjoyment, or even minor interest, it was used against me, after all. Switching off seemed like the best method of self-defense.
So, on an average day, I just tried to do as little as possible, to feel as little as possible, to exist as little as possible, generally trying to keep under life’s radar. I did the things that were expected, or that I was told to do, or that would make my life blatantly and abundantly worse if I didn’t do them – if just because I was trying to have as completely non-remarkable an existence as possible. It wasn’t laziness that made me such a doormat, it was my absolute conviction that, if I had the audacity to think or feel or do or want anything for myself, something absolutely horrible would be done to me or the people I cared about. Because, as I absolutely knew at my core, I didn’t deserve to be happy, I didn’t deserve to be comfortable, I didn’t deserve to feel safe or wanted or welcome or acceptable, and even existing was only acceptable to the degree that it was more convenient for everyone than the alternative.
I had a vague concept that I could somehow earn the right to happiness if I did… something. If I graduated, if I got a job, if I kept a certain amount of money in my account, if I had a relationship, if my body looked acceptable, if my grades were within certain parameters. If I failed at those obvious, attainable tasks, how could I expect to earn something so nebulous as “happiness” or “value” or “worth?” It couldn’t just come out of nowhere; I couldn’t just decide that I was enough. But no matter how close I got to any of those things, no matter if I actually surpassed them, it wasn’t enough. It proved nothing. Nothing I could ever do would overcome the fact that it was me doing it. Every single accomplishment I achieved inherently meant less – for me and for everyone around me – because I accomplished it. Nothing I could do could bring me up; I could only drag things down to my level. And so there was no way to get from where I was to where I thought I might sort of like to be, because no matter what I did, how hard I tried, or even if I succeeded, I’d still be me.
In the past week alone, I’ve had a meeting for the upcoming RPG for which I’m the editor, I’ve completed my first commissioned writing work, I’ve done my day job, I’ve cooked some dinners, coordinated an event, made its poster, filed my taxes, filled out loan repayment paperwork, spent time in person with my best friend, played a tabletop RPG, made plans to go visit another friend, DJ’d, gone shopping, and spent time with my significant otter.
Very few of these things were even conceivable fifteen years ago. Or even ten. Or five.
I interact with more people. I’m more open to people. I take more initiative. I doubt less. I worry less. I panic less about making mistakes: I’ve made enough that haven’t ended the world, and I’ve even made some that led to positive things. I’ve realized that no matter how much I plan or predict, I won’t get everything right: I’ll still mess things up, nothing will ever be absolutely perfect, and everything could always have been better. But I’ve come to realize that, sometimes, something is better than nothing. That it’s better to put something into the world, even if it’s not perfect, even if it could never be perfect, than to just sit on your hands and wish it were possible.
How did I get to the point where I was doing all these things? Really, it’s because I started small. Taking those tiny steps that seemed so completely insurmountable. Knowing I wasn’t ready, and would NEVER feel ready, and just doing it anyway. Deciding to be bold and dumb and stupid, to make ridiculous mistakes. If I started panicking and regretting everything and telling myself I Should Not Have Done This, This Was A Terrible Mistake, I made myself punch through it. No ragequitting, no ha-ha-only-kidding, no sour grapes. Just doing the thing, and if I didn’t like how well I did that thing, if I didn’t think I did a good enough job at that thing, if I was embarrassed to exist because of the thing, then I made myself do the thing again next time. Either I’d improve, or the novelty would wear off, or it would become normalized, but either way, the panic would subside and I would be doing a thing I hadn’t done before.
As a dear friend once put to me, in his blunt but effective way, nobody really cares about these things but me. That didn’t mean I shouldn’t care, or that my worry was invalid, or that my anxiety – by existing alone – had already made me fail. And that didn’t mean that anything could take away the past: everything that happened, happened, and he held no expectation that I should change what I felt about it. The only thing that could influence anything, from that point forward, was what I did next. I could bail, hide my head, and resolve to never make the mistake of trying something new ever again. And that would be fine. Nobody would judge that. In all likelihood, nobody would even notice, and in time, nobody would even remember my attempt. That’s the option that played to all my instincts. But, as he said, in a way that somehow made it sound logical for the first time in my life, I could try again. It wouldn’t take away what happened the first time. But, assuming anyone noticed at all, they’d have noticed that I kept trying.
And I did. And because I did, an unfathomable chain of events unfolded, over the course of years. Uncountable small steps, some broader strides than others, some veering or stumbling. But, in time… I’ve become who I am in the place that I am and in the condition that I’m in.
In short, I’ve slowly stepped out of the Spotlight Effect. I’m not actually so magically horrible that average people notice or care. It doesn’t radiate off of me. I don’t have a universal reputation as something worthless. Nor am I somehow dutybound to express all misgivings about my worth, lest someone make the mistake of thinking I’m an okay thing. At some point in the not-so-very-distant past, I came to realize that more people were neutral toward me than antagonistic, and that a surprising number of people were actually benevolent. I still don’t really know that I deserve that degree of kindness, but it appears to be there whether I deserve it or not, because the kinds of people I’ve surrounded myself with are truly just that incredible.
I still worry that I’ve become selfish, of course. Doing things, calling attention to myself, taking the initiative to make things happen just because I think that other people might like them. Upsetting applecarts left, right, and centre. But I’ve received so much positive feedback that it’s reinforced me to continue doing these things that I happen to like and want, and that other people happen to like and want even more.
And yet there’s an inherent hypocrisy to it. I can’t believe that everyone who ever said anything awful to me was wrong, but everyone who ever says anything kind to me is correct. Granted, there’s quite a gulf of years between the times of greatest awful and the times of greatest kind. The criticisms of the past may feel like they hold true, but perhaps they don’t anymore. The commendations of the present may ring hollow in the empty halls of that past, but perhaps they are relevant now. This is the downside of isolation: you lack an outsider’s perspective on who you are and what you’re like. Have I changed to become worthy of pleasant things somehow? Was I always so? Am I actually mistaken and selfish, somehow blind to how terrible I am (despite how, by almost all objective metrics, I’ve undeniably worsened in every regard?) Have I let myself be fooled by everyone else’s kindness, fooled into believing I’m a more worthwhile person than I actually am? Am I just always going to feel worthless when I’m actually all right, and feel worthwhile when I’m actually a walking ruin? Which is more ignoble?
I don’t think I have any answers. But I think that’s okay.
All of that having been said, I’m still not sure there’s any one song that best describes me or my personality. But this song resonates with me quite a lot lately, and once I actually took the time to look into the lyrics, I think it can be representative of this entire transition.
It sings of the constant clawing of regrets and the clangor of judgment. It sings of recognizing the depth of the dark and having no firm faith that anything will lead to light. Of questioning oneself constantly, forever beating a dead horse, never able to resolve anything. Of a life confined and constrained, surrounded by dangers personal and impersonal and random, past and present and future. But, above all else, it sings of an acceptance of that past, and even an acceptance of hope, and, with that acceptance, a shedding of old skins. It sings of a life confined that moves forward not with great bravery, not with confidence, and not in pursuit of something sure and good and light – but, rather, by accepting that something awful could very well happen, that it could all be a terrible mistake, and Doing It Anyway.
The song that best describes the arc of my personality over the past few years is “Shake It Out” by Florence + The Machine.