In 2014, Ingrid Michaelson released the album Lights Out and I listened to it nonstop for several months, as I am wont to do. Sometimes I hear a song or an album and it’s like my brain develops an itch that will only be soothed by those specific sounds. Sometimes the song I get stuck on is one I’ve heard many times before, even years old, and suddenly it will be the only thing I can think about. One time, I heard a song in a dream, and I couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. I had recently ended a relationship when the Ingrid Michaelson album took over my listening and there’s a particular song I come back to at the end of any relationship and when I feel distance or rejection from someone with whom I used to feel close. The song, Stick, is about how we rub off on each other in relationships: “There’s a part of you that stayed with me someone else gets to know. Did any of me stick at all?”
Trying to decide how I want to articulate this, I’m overwhelmed by the complexity of emotions conjured by this simple chorus. Did any of me stick at all? I’ve always struggled to find intrinsic value in myself, outside of the space I’m afforded by others. I often struggle even to perceive myself separate from my relationships. (Cue another song lyric that’s indelibly etched in my brain courtesy of one Demi Lovato: “I can’t see what I am. I just see what I’m not.”) So, the idea of relationships being mutable, people moving in and out of my life, and me moving in and out of theirs, feels more like a constant sting of rejection. Do they ever think of me? Do they regret the separation? Are there things that remind them of me? Are they different at all for having known me? The problem with assigning my own value based on other people is that how I feel about myself is constantly in flux. I can see where I’ve lacked stability and consistent care in my life, particularly in those formative years, and it makes me err toward codependent. I get overenthusiastic in new relationships and scare people off. I need too much from other people and I fucking know that most of what I’m trying to get from them should actually be coming from me but I don’t even know where to begin even identifying my own needs, let alone meet them.
I am someone who gets flustered easily. My adult life has been spent working in corporate jobs where it’s often problematic (or at least counterproductive) to be flustered all the time, so I learned to adapt. I know now not to pay attention to the emotional reactions of my coworkers, and especially my superiors. I learned how valuable it can be to break a problem down into smaller pieces to look past the distractions to find the real problems and also how valuable it is to be the one in the room responding to chaos by identifying actionable solutions. I learned how to talk around my emotions so that they’re more palatable, and I also learned to mask my minor meltdowns with humor so that when I am freaking out, at least it’s entertaining and, if I’m making jokes or saying silly things, the people around me don’t know just how triggered I actually am. It’s occurring to me as I type this that perhaps these behaviors are what let to my current situation, (depressed, single, unemployed, financially struggling,) which I am starting to understand is a result of burnout. And yet, as I was maneuvering myself into six figures by exhausting myself and wearing away my defenses until there was nothing left but a raw nerve, my coworkers were commenting on how we always have so much fun at work.
I had a colleague tell me once, “My favorite thing is when you say ‘Oh, for the love!'” This is something that I tend to say in moments of frustration, like when the technology doesn’t work or I can’t find that thing that was just in my hand. It struck me that this would be someone’s favorite saying of mine because I often don’t realize I’m saying it and so I’m surprised that other people register it. I also say this when I’m getting triggered as a kind of pressure release valve. It’s a silly thing to blow off steam so I don’t get to the point where I just start screaming and bashing my face into things, like when someone cuts me off in traffic and I shake my fist at them instead of giving them the finger. Because how ridiculous would it be to look back and see someone shaking their fist at you like an old-timey shop owner cursing some mischievous kids? In any case, that someone would derive any kind of pleasure from witnessing this emotional state is either really hurtful or really validating that I have masked my sensitivities so well.
But, the real thing that bother me about this favorite saying of mine, is it’s not even mine. I used to work with this woman that I really liked and she had no patience. She was always frustrated with something and was not shy about verbalizing it. Working beside her was a constant stream of “Oh, for the love of Pete! Not that button, dummy!” and “Oh, for the love of Sam! That’s the wrong case!” and “Oh, for the love! Just let me do it.” Eventually I picked up on some of these phrases and how she was using them and adopted this little personality trait for myself.
There’s a meme I’ve seen going around that captions “Oh you like my personality? Thanks, it’s yours.” I have never related to anything more. In my struggle to figure out how to love myself—how to be emotionally self-sufficient, how to make room in my life for people I’m attracted to, not just anyone who’s attracted to me—I keep coming up against this concept of self, identity, me… and I kind of come up blank. My personality is an amalgamation of stolen traits and if I look closely enough, I can trace each one back to its owner. Am I crazy? Are all of our personalities just copies of each other? There has to be something in here that’s uniquely me. I feel like if I can just figure out what that is, I wouldn’t need to be so focused on trying to ascertain it from other people.