At the tender age of seven, I broke down crying because I had forgotten my picture day money and was afraid to tell my teacher. I wasn’t comforted by the fact that I was not the only one who forgot, or that we weren’t taking pictures until later that day. I was fearful of the reaction from my mother and teacher. I wondered why the other kids weren’t freaking out or getting upset.
It was the beginning of a decade of suppressing my anxiety and sensitivity.
That small incident divulged into a heightened need to be perfect and never disappoint anyone for fear of rejection. All it took was a few isolated incidents for me to see that in order to survive I had to put up a hard, protective armor. I think that after lying to myself for so long, I became the person who was hard on the outside and soft and weak feeling on the inside.
Music became my medicine, a long shower became bandages for all that hurt, and my bed became my refuge. By the age of 15, my biggest fear was annoying someone or coming off as overly sensitive and dramatic. I’d spent so long trying to ignore the feelings inside me when I was hurt by someone that I was convinced there was something wrong with me. But I couldn’t communicate what I was feeling to anyone, let alone myself.
I was stuck in a world that revolved around school and the people in it. My good friend from third grade stopped talking to me and began making fun of me in a way that was very personal and not humorous at all. I reacted by shutting out the world and keeping people at a distance while I silently and obsessively searched for what I had done wrong.
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A few brave souls called me out for keeping them outside the walls I had subconsciously built. It took my dad undergoing a stressful career change, battling bronchitis for a month, and a not-quite-relationship to drive me to surrender the careful life I had locked myself inside. I decided I would do something everyday that scared me, which varied from not wearing makeup to confronting someone who let his insecurities make me believe I was not wanted.
I knew the only way to stop having superficial friendships was to open up to people and not expect anything in return. This period of trial and error was the most eye-opening self-growth I’d experienced, and I learned priceless wisdom. I began to back away from toxic people and relationships built on shallow foundations. I welcomed in genuine, kind people who wanted to talk about more than just other people. People who didn’t ignore me when I spoke, who didn’t disregard my feelings and thoughts. While other kids were out partying on Friday nights, trying to numb their pain with people they wouldn’t like the next day, I was having midnight conversations with friends whose thoughts kept them up as well.
I took up journaling as a way to have my thoughts and feelings untangled from the mess of my mind. My journals became a mix of very confused emotions and observations of human behavior. I found a way to marry the logical, rational, fact-based part of my brain with the emotional part. I accepted both of them as essential for understanding people, situations, and myself.
I had wondered why people confided in me and asked for advice, and I realized I had been solving life problems and relationship problems for everyone except myself. The sensitivity I had worked so hard to disarm was empathy in disguise, and it gave me perspective on how others felt. I belittled my feelings so I wouldn’t burden other people. I would distract myself by focusing on helping others. Solving my friends dilemmas’ at 1 a.m. was easier than acknowledging mine. My new dilemma became how to fix this imbalance in my life.
I was hospitalized at the beginning of January of my junior year in high school after becoming ill. I was released three days later and dealt with a very delicate digestive tract and a highly revised food regiment. The medicine I was prescribed gave me migraines and I was behind in school, but I somehow stuck by the thought that it would work out and stressing wouldn’t help. Several friends reached out to me while I was in the hospital and these relationships strengthened as I let them into my life with minimal reservations.
I had to reach a point where I knew I had nothing to lose in order to approach my relationships with what I felt was reckless abandon. I later realized that this was a healthy mindset that allowed me to be honest about who I was and what I needed—even though at times I was overcome with the fear of being too sensitive, too dramatic, and too needy.
Ten years after I banished my sensitivity in order to fit into a society where only being tough is glorified, I realized that it was exactly what made me the friend who was called when someone was in distress. Because I understood what was going on, because my quiet nature gave me a great listening ear, because I very much felt their pain and still processed it with logic and reason. Friends who sought counsel in me became the ones I opened up to when I needed advice. They saw me in my unfiltered state. The ones I made playlists to get through breakups for became the ones I sent cat videos to and shared the thoughts, fears, and feelings from the most guarded part of my brain with.
Learning to trust people became easier and I became more comfortable with being the non-serious person I was deep down. I began to take life less seriously and surrender the fear of rejection of my whimsical, sometimes cynical sense of humor. I began to value honesty above everything despite the pain it could cost, so I made an effort to be honest how I felt even when lying and saying I was fine would be easier.
For example, I remember being asked to reschedule plans and getting upset because I was looking forward to them. I recognized that he had a perfectly reasonable reason to postpone, but I couldn’t find the words to respond. He asked if it was okay, and after I failed to respond, he asked if he could call me. I made the decision to be honest and upfront about being upset while respecting his reason—though I was terrified at the thought of being taken as dramatic or needy.
I was done with constantly lying to myself and others just to avoid conflict and maintain my reputation of being the passive, easy-going friend. By establishing open communication and honesty early on in a relationship, I felt comfortable and didn’t feel the need to apologize for everything. I gained friends I could talk to about anything and everything, even if I felt like it was just word vomit.
Instead of being told I was closed off, I was told I was genuine and caring. Instead of taking years to get to know someone, with the right people, I could trust myself and others. I let what I thought was a weakness become a strength that I didn’t need to suppress anymore.