People Being People: Dispatches from a High School Senior on Learning to Know Herself
Updated: Mar 24, 2023
One fateful day last December, I was dubbed a patterned-sock/New-Year’s person by my AP Lit class. On the graph of fuzzy socks to patterned socks and Christmas to New Year’s, I was certain that I would fall squarely in the fuzzy socks area, and so I was surprised when everyone agreed that I was a patterned-sock person. When I asked why, one of my friends told me, “Well, you don’t come across as particularly warm.” That remark, meant with only the best intentions, burned itself into my chest. You see, I worked particularly hard this year, more so than any of the past years, to really open up to the people around me. I talked with new people, I sat with new groups at lunch, I did my best to seem friendly and welcoming and open. To be told then by my friend that I wasn’t seen as any of those things was disheartening, to say the least.
I’ve learned a lot about how I’m viewed by my peers this year in that class. In our opening “exploratory essay,” we wrote a six-page paper on something that interested us. I chose the concept of self and identity, exploring not only the differences between the two but also how they interact with each other in a social setting. I argued that your “self” is defined by how you view yourself and what your instinct is regarding what makes up the most important part of you – in fewer words, your soul. “Identity” is the armor that surrounds you – built of your appearance, your mannerisms, and suppositions that others make from the first moment they lay eyes on you to when they become your closest friends. The self can never truly see the identity, and others cannot ever truly see the self because of the armor of identity that surrounds each person, obscuring themselves and each other. My question read, “Can we ever truly know how others think of us?” And my conclusion was thus: there is no conclusion. There is no way to reconcile the inner sense of self and your identity, the way people view you in day-to-day life.
Given that I wrote this paper in September and that I had come to this conclusion somewhere in junior year, I don’t know why it still shocks me when people cannot see me the way I do. Still, though, I feel an almost physical pain in my chest when I get glimpses of how the people around me see me. When, earlier this week, a girl (again, from AP Lit – I genuinely do love this class, I promise) asked me who I was friends with and, indirectly, how many I had, I realized that she didn’t see me as someone popular. Which is true, I’m not, but I have more friends than can be counted on my fingers or named in a heartbeat. (Most people do.) I was hurt over this. I was hurt and confused in the same way when someone told me I seemed too feminine to be a Hozier fan (no such thing) and when someone else said I intimidated them (mostly because of my height) and when a teacher (multiple of them, actually) said that they thought I hated them when I had cried only the previous night thinking that they hated me.
My point in listing all of these misunderstandings is to show that there is a tangible difference in how I view myself and how others, especially those who don’t know me well, view me and to indirectly show how much these comments have stuck with me. I consider myself to be a self-possessed person; I know who I am, I always have, for the most part, and I am comfortable with that. I don’t know why, then, I am so quick to flinch when someone tells me something that they don’t realize doesn’t ring true.
I think, in part, this hurt comes from the fact that I know how I would want to be perceived if I had the option to control it. I’ve told people time and again that I’ll know I’m finished growing when my Pinterest boards match the aesthetic of my life. I want to be pink and pretty and happy, overflowing with flowers and love notes and Taylor Swift’s Lover lyrics. However, I know that most of the time, when I’m being my normal self, I don’t come across as any, much less all, of those things. That is how I see myself, not how I present to others. So what happens next? Do I strive harder to be a Pinterest pin? Or do I give up the idea of a perfectly curated Instagram feed, knowing that it doesn’t match real life?
In my generation, curated aesthetics are more popular than ever before. And in the age of online shopping (and being online in general), people can change their entire room, wardrobe, and online presence in the blink of an eye. That’s what hundreds do, in fact – whenever an aesthetic goes out of style, they restart and move on with the newest trend. But following aesthetic trends does not add to a sense of self, but rather smashes any hope of individuality in the quest to find exactly that. Everyone knows that Instagram isn’t real; everyone knows that Tiktok and BeReal and even Snapchat can be curated if someone takes the time. I know this, and that is why I have never compared myself to other people. What I do instead, and maybe this is worse, is I compare my “imperfect” social media to the idealized, unrealistic version I have in my head, created from a mashup of every pretty pink curated thing I have ever seen. I feel lesser than and I worry about the judgment from others in things that don’t truly matter, that are as inconsequential as an Instagram post.
I know the tune I’m singing isn’t new; people have complained about the pressures of social media for as long as it has existed. But with the advent of quicker fashion cycles and aesthetic trends that dictate every part of life, from posts to clothes to hobbies, I worry that people my age and younger will be stifled, not only by the presumed judgment of their peers, both in person and online, but also by the “rules” of the aesthetic that they have chosen for themselves. What was once a tool to link your self and your identity has now become a way to separate and stifle them.
We, then, must learn to be wary of trends that make us change ourselves, that make us shed some part of ourselves that we like in favor of something that will make us more “indie” or “coquette” or “y2k.” Then, once that is done, we have moved past all the barriers that keep us from being free to be who we truly are – except, of course, that we haven’t.
I don’t know if anyone else has worried about this, but I, in worrying about how I am perceived, walk a thin line between, “I don’t care what people think of me, I know who I am,” and “I am overly obnoxious and what I think is confidence and self-possession is truly stubbornness and an unwillingness to learn from others, making me egotistical, narcissistic, and an all-around pain in the rear to be around. No wonder the people I considered my best friends got tired of me! I would have done the same.” These two are more closely related than you would think. What if I am confident about my new hairstyle, but in reality the style I’m doing is truly terrible for my face shape and I should have listened when people warned me against it? What if I think I am correct in a certain subject, and because of that I refuse to take criticism, even though my metaphors really don’t make sense and I am somehow too detailed and too vague all at once? What if I think my way of greeting customers is better than the generic way, but in reality it totally weirds them out and they never come back to the store, so I am responsible for losing hundreds of dollars in revenue? These are the worries I get when I think about leaving others’ opinions behind, because, in the end, others’ opinions do hold weight. (Maybe this is a symptom of a serious case of perfectionism and a need to never make a mistake, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
So, how do we learn to exist between self-confidence and arrogance? There is a balance, I’m sure, between your own opinions and the opinions of others – maybe letting those two groups hold exactly the same amount of weight in your mind is the way to go. That’s what I’ve been doing, plus trying to care more about the positive than the negative, and so far I believe it has worked out alright about 90% of the time. As long as I keep trying to become a better version of myself (essentially, if I am working toward a kinder, more patient, more personable and more stable future), I think that will keep the worries about others’ opinions at bay.
In the end, I’ve found that the best cure for worrying about how you are perceived by others is to consciously perceive others. The other day, after a tech rehearsal for our school musical Newsies, I sat back and watched the other cast members in a moment between running the bows and fixing the mics.
Fifty people dressed in costume, wearing fake bruises on their faces and arms and newsie caps on their hats, gathered in small groups to talk. One group was bouncing around and hugging, still full of energy despite the draining two hour run we had just finished. A showgirl sat in the corner, staring out into space, accompanied silently by a newsie who sat two steps behind her. One of the freshmen was icing his newly sprained ankle, and three more were hanging out, quietly gathered on one set of stairs. A low murmur hummed while director met with dance teacher met with conductor and as the orchestra set down their instruments. People being people. A feeling of peace stole over me that I had never found while searching for an answer to my questions about self and identity, how to reconcile the two, how to control how I am viewed.
Because I realized, in that moment, that not only could I never control it fully, but that there was no need to. People were people-ing, just as they always have. Laughing, talking, crying. In that moment, none of them were worried about how they were being perceived by me, and none of them were watching and judging me. None of them were engaged in anything but the task at hand. And my ability to sit back and watch, to be able to take a step back from my worries and view this scene for a few precious moments, to smile when they smiled and laugh when they laughed, was better than any compliment or any pretty pink picture or any aesthetic I could find. People being people is my favorite aesthetic.
Now, when I am feeling the burden of being perfectly posed and feeling suffocated by what I feel I have to be or what my chosen aesthetic is or anything of that sort, I look up and take in the people around me. I feel my chest rise and fall and watch theirs do the same. I notice them talking to their friends, how they gather so naturally together. See how people react in the sunshine or the rain and smile and laugh and cry with them. Be human with them. The best cure for perfection is seeing how beautiful imperfection can be.
Grace Keller is a high school senior currently pursuing a career in crocheting, writing, and listening to Hozier. If you were planning on asking her where she's going to college, please don't.