My mum’s a giver. Instinctively, wilfully, even destructively. That is, she puts herself last. It’s a running joke in our family how often we hear the same phrase when speaking to mum on the phone: “I’ve not had time to brush my teeth yet.” My parents have an open door policy. The phone rings off the hook. They are carers and providers first and foremost, both eldest children in large families, both great believers in voluntary work.
When I was younger, my heart would call out against this life. The dramas, the taking, the lack of quiet. This is not my life, I’d think, and bury myself in a book or walk the dog, and wrap the silken silence around me. Their life was not for me, but I was both proud of them and frustrated at the toll their generous natures took on them, the burdens of friends and relations that they added to their own tally.
We often grow in the mould of our parents and as I grew, I noticed the points at which our characters converge. At school I was part of a group of three. An insensitive classmate once decided we were made up of the pretty one, the clever one and the nice one. Even then I attracted the label ‘nice’. I wanted more than that. It seemed so vanilla. I smiled. Outwardly grateful, inwardly wounded.
Twenty years later I am still averse to that word. Too often it verges into the territory of pushover, of those taken for granted, who have been schooled to put themselves last. That is not me, my younger self calls out. Except it is. Fitting in is wonderful, isn’t it? I want to be liked, don’t you? It’s seductive, the feeling of being accepted and belonging. The flip side is when it comes at the expense of finding your real tribe, the one you seek out, where your passions align and you grow.
Still, hidden away in me is a flaw I struggle with: the need to be liked. This flaw is clever. It uses weapons like kindness, politeness and generosity as its defence. But the truth is we do not need to invest equally in all those we come across or who demand it. There are fabulous reasons not to fit in. Let’s celebrate uniqueness, honesty, awkwardness even, because I don’t want to be having surface level conversations with you every day. I want you to see me. To see my kinks and my fallacies and the ghosts from my past. I want to connect strongly and generously.
Photo by Jonathan Emmanuel Flores Tarello
It is impossible to be all things to all people. That feeling of the world pressing down on you is about other people’s expectations. It detracts from your goals. Peel back the layers of subterfuge. Scale back the sacrifices, because your passions and beliefs are what makes you. You are enough as you. Besides, you can do your best by someone else and still be deemed lacking for reasons that are not fair or within your control.
I’m not sure I want my children to be nice. Respectful to others, yes. Kind, yes. Warm, yes. But I’d like them to be fierce and true to themselves first and foremost, regardless of whether their behaviour is acceptable to those who are judging. Because there are always judgements. We worry about fitting in; we want to stand out. The thing is, we can’t fly if we are always focussing on those at the sidelines.
Certainly for me, as the needs of my family and writing grow, and I become more confident about who I want to spend my time with, I am less willing to squander my energy for free. Whereas once I would have been disappointed not to receive a measure of reciprocity, I am now choosier about when I give and happier for it. That’s not to say I won’t boomerang back into my default nature but I’m conscious that it’s healthier to find a balance between love and self-love. What is more, not everyone has the same capacity for love. Some people are not meant to be in our lives and that’s ok.
So take flight. Choose your inner circle. Invest in those who are worth it, who bring you light and calm. The others have their own dance to rock.