Am I the worst person in the world?
Am I a viable human? Or am I actually the worst?
Ever feel like you’re just waiting to be found out, and you don’t even know what for?
That your friends / colleagues / dog are this close to seeing you for what you really are: a desperate imitation of a real person?
I get this feeling in all sorts of situations. Like whenever I refresh my email inbox. The loading wheel spins, and my stomach does a microsecond lurch as I wait for… what? Bad news? Vague, random accusations about the nature of my existence?
These moments of dread do not seem to be based on anything that’s actually happening in my life. My email inbox is mostly full of pretty nice messages.
So what’s this all about then?
It takes a village (to feel like a worthy human)
The thing about self-worth is, it’s a team effort. You need positive connections with other people in order to feel like a worthy human. So while you might refer to it as your self-worth, it doesn’t really belong to you at all.
This has some implications for us sensitive cats. If you’re struggling to like yourself, it’s easy to start seeing the other people in your life in a particular way. Rather than see them as fellow messy humans, you see them as gatekeepers – keepers of the keys of your self-esteem.
For me, at an everyday level, this means my social interactions become less about connecting with people, and more about protecting my already-battered sense of self.
Did they laugh at that joke? Does my current facial expression convey the right air of present, non-self-conscious listening?
Feeling cut off from the tribe puts you on edge
In his intriguing new book about depression and anxiety, Lost Connections, Johann Hari describes how feeling lonely makes you more sensitive to potential threats.
We evolved as tribal creatures, he says, but we live in an increasingly fragmented way. Those of us who feel cut off from the tribe become more anxious, more easily startled, because we feel like there’s no one watching our backs.
The kicker is, the more cut off you feel, the more vigilantly you look for threats in the behavior of those around you. This means you’re more likely to take offense where none was intended, to perceive judgement even when it’s not there. All of which makes it harder to connect and feel part of the tribe once more.
When we’re focused on protecting our place in the tribe, it’s hard to connect with others
Vigilance against the threat of being ousted from the tribe, that’s the dread-y feeling I described up top, as I wait for some imaginary awful email. This is the feeling that leaves me ritualistically cycling through all the communication apps on my phone. It’s like I’m on lookout duty, scanning every possible entry point.
Sometimes I do the exact same thing hoping for good news too. Some impossibly validating email from a highly influential stranger. The concept here is the same. I'm looking for reassurance that I'm wanted, that I still belong.
The thing is, either way I am definitely not looking for connection in these moments. How do I know that? Because I keep scrolling right past the actual unread messages from people I love.
What’s this? A casual hello from one of my best friends? Oh god I can’t deal with that right now.
And it’s on Facebook messenger, the app that tells people when you’ve read their message but haven’t replied? Oh that's fine I'll just never read that ever.
I don't read that message because I’m too worried about not having a worthwhile or timely response. I pick protection over connection. If I do that enough times over a long enough period, my connections will inevitably suffer.
Connection is risky
Every attempt at connection involves taking a risk. We risk fucking it up. We risk getting rejected. But the alternative is more risky. The alternative is we give up on connection altogether.
Your life may need a new soundtrack
The thing is, I’m actually pretty good at replying to messages – even if I tie myself in knots before doing it.
I’m pretty good at a lot of that general life stuff, even if I’m desperately in my head about it. It’s just that a lot of the time, even when I do it well, that stuff doesn’t *feel* connecting at all, because I’m so focused on protecting my sense of self. I’ll be charming at a party, but I won’t enjoy myself, because the whole thing is an exercise in PR, not friendship.
My therapist put it this way. If my life was a movie, it's not that the action on screen needs to change. Day to day, I do what I’m supposed to be doing. I look after myself, I’m a good friend, partner, family member.
But the soundtrack to this movie could do with a rewrite. Right now, a lot of the time it's basically just that deeply unsettling Shephard Tone from the movie Dunkirk. And if this soundtrack had words, it'd be just one line repeating over and over:
🎶 This is all pretend. They’ll see through you in the end 🎶
The soundtrack is the problem, not the hero, not the story.
So, I need a new soundtrack.
How do we move from protecting to connecting?
I've tried using more positive self-talk to change the soundtrack in my head (you are doing a great job in this conversation, you are such a good listener!) but that feels like just another way to be self-conscious.
What shifts things for me is action, and it has to involve other people. So I conduct little social experiments, to try to replace my old soundtrack with something new.
Six things I've been trying when I’m stuck in protecting mode (all of which involve a certain degree of risk):
#1. Look people in the eye when I’m talking
Do I have to? It’s so awkward!
It's supremely awkward! At first. But I start small. What happens when I hold someone’s gaze just a second longer than I normally would? How does it change the conversation for me?
#2. Write down five nice things that happened in my day
I always feel like a bit of a loser doing this. But I also feel very tender and warm toward myself at the same time, which balances it out.
Some days, to make it to five things, I really have to reach. I think that's pretty normal.
#3. Send people random niceness
Random niceness is great! Like this message I got from my sister literally as I was writing this newsletter:
(Bonus: the previous message in that thread was something she’d sent through that I never replied to, which I’d been feeling guilty about in that low, rumbling way for about a month.)
#4. Instead of apologising for my existence, I congratulate someone else for theirs
I played basketball the other day and thought I did a terrible job. I walked off the court thinking oh god everyone hates me, they’re all thinking of ways to ask me to leave the team without it being too awkward.
My impulse was to apologise to the team about how I played. Instead I picked three things I thought other teammates did really well in the game, and told them that. This felt a lot better.
#5. I reply to one of those unread messages, as if no time has passed
Instead of starting off with a laboured apology (I’m soooo sorry this took me so long to reply) I just jump right in to the conversation as if no time has passed.
Think of it as a writing technique if that helps. ‘In media res’: that thing where screenwriters start the story in the middle of the action, then slowly fill in the backstory. It’s more engaging for your audience, and isn’t that the best way to make up for a late reply?
And if that doesn't work for ya, you can always wait till Email Debt Forgiveness Day!
#6. Give up on perfection
Here's the thing. You won’t have the perfect conversation, you won’t write the perfect message, you won’t reply in the perfect timeframe.
Perfection is just another form of protection.
Connection is messy, unwieldy, and always imperfect. It means being bored by people sometimes. It means boring them sometimes too. Above all it means seeing through one another - not in the ‘oh you’re actually a garbage person’way. Instead, it means seeing through the pretense we’re all engaged in, day to day. This collective pretense that we are not all a raging mess of contradictions.
And that might just be my new soundtrack.
🎶 This is all pretend. But we can still be friends. (Woop!) 🎶
That's all for now.