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Stories I ponder: The high cost of pretending to be someone we’re not

Friday October 20 2017

Stories I ponder: The high cost of pretending to be someone we’re not

Like most kids, I grew a lot in awareness of social patterns in junior high school. I entered junior high, seventh grade, at age 12, still really a child. We were living in Hampton, Virginia, and junior high school there lasted three years. I left ninth grade one month before I turned 15.

In eighth and ninth grades, I became increasingly aware of the popular kids, the football and basketball players who moved like gods through the school hallways, and the cheerleaders who accompanied them or who walked in clusters together looking popular and so cute. Even though I had some pretty good friends and wasn’t lonely, I longed to be popular.

Right after I finished ninth grade, we moved across the country to Washington State. I saw that move as an opportunity to remake myself.

When I started high school in Tacoma, I decided to pretend I had been popular in Virginia. I spoke with a slight Virginia accent after three years there, which people commented on with favor. I decided to cultivate an enigmatic and secretive air. A couple of months after I started high school, a cute boy called me “mysterious,” and I knew I had succeeded in my experiment.

In my first year of high school, I had my first boyfriend and my first kiss. Then a second boyfriend, who I liked very much and had a lot of fun with. I made friends with a couple of girls. All of these relationships, however, were based on my attempts to act as if I’d always been a popular person. I didn’t let any of these boys or girls see my true self.

In my second year of high school, I became involved with my third boyfriend, the first person I fell in love with. When he broke up with me after a few months, I was devastated. Because all my friendships were been based on my presentation of a false self, I had no good friends I could turn to in my pain.

In my third and last year of high school, I was the loneliest I’ve ever been before or after. I was extremely active in lots of activities at school, and I did a lot of babysitting to earn money, so I didn’t sit at home moping. I just didn’t have anyone close by to talk to, and the pain of feeling lonely and isolated was huge.

My best friend from childhood lived in Anchorage, and I got to visit her at Christmas of that last year of high school, and then again in the summer after I graduated from high school. I don’t know how I would have made it through that last year of high school without that Christmas visit and her deep love for me.

That lonely year taught me so much. Since then, I have always tried to be authentic in friendships. I have always shared honestly about whatever I’m going through with the people around me. In some instances I am quite sure the quantity of honest sharing has been too much, but vulnerability has nurtured deep relationships, which are a great joy.

I am so grateful for that painful year that taught me how important friends are and that honesty works better than pretense in nurturing friendships that mean something to me.

Because of that high school experience, I have done a lot of thinking about friendships and how they work. A few years ago I wrote a book on friendship, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. I excerpted a chapter from that book here on this blog, about initiative in friendships, and that series begins here.

May you enter into relationships with honesty and vulnerability. May you rest in the truth that God knows you and loves you, and may this truth give you the freedom to reveal a part of your inner self to others.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it.
—Psalm 139:1-6    

(Next week: how I learned I was an introvert and why it matters so much. Photo: me in tenth grade, at the height of my popularity pretense. I was pretty cute, but of course I didn’t feel cute at the time. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)



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