Thursday, December 3, 2015

Making Myself Look Bad

by Annabeth Leong

I think I do lying wrong. I'm supposed to do it to make myself look better, I think, massage my history into something smoother and more attractive, like an age-defying wrinkle cream for my past.

Instead, I'm much more likely to make myself look worse. "I used to cut myself," I'll say. Which makes it sound like I did that all the time, like I carried a kit for it around with me like Maggie Gyllenhaal's character in The Secretary. In reality, I did it three times. I understand that's more than most people have tried a thing like that, but it's not the roundup I gave it, from experimental to habitual.

Another one I used to say all the time is, "When I was drinking." The mental image that gives me is of someone who carries a flask around, or maybe someone who makes herself cocktails with breakfast. At the least, it's someone who drinks every night, who gets drunk all the time, who has a serious history of alcohol abuse and its attendant troubles.

What I meant when I used to say that was "the period of time during which I sometimes drank," as opposed to the many years of complete religious abstinence that followed.

I'll keep going on the drinking thing because I used to lie a lot about that. I used to say things like, "When I was drinking, I would do really bad things." Here, "drinking" meant "consuming alcohol in any amount." (A drink or a sip might count). And "really bad things" meant "have sex with people," or "have sex with women," or "have sex in a non-mainstream way."

Obviously, I know sometimes people get drunk and have sex that they regret and might not otherwise have had, but I'm talking about going to a party, having a drink, and starting to make out with the ex-girlfriend I still wanted but was trying to stay away from for reasons neither of us really understood. I'm talking about going home with her because that's what I knew I wanted to do before I even went to that party, having one drink first as an excuse, making love to her, and then feeling bad about what a terrible thing that was to do only because it wasn't acceptable, not because we hadn't wanted to or something bad had happened.

A few years ago, I started to catch myself in this habit. "When I was drinking, I did really messed up things sexually," I said to someone. Then I stopped and remembered beyond the phrase I'd gotten used to saying. What was messed up about that thing I used to do? What do I really regret?

What I regret is that I wouldn't hold her hand in public. I wouldn't kiss her unless we were alone or had an excuse. I wouldn't go home with her without this ritual of being at a party, pretending it was a mistake. I regret that I didn't tell her in the morning how it felt to be with her, how beautiful it was to wake up in her bed, how I always thought about standing together in her shower.

The story is so different from the one I used to tell.

Maybe that's part of what's disturbing about deceit. I can only tell the truth if I know it. I never set out to lie. I used to let my guilt speak for me, make it sound like things I did out of love happened by accident, from corruption. I used to tell myself that so I didn't have to think about what it meant to have loved.

I also still have trouble seeing the truth about myself. I notice all too frequently how my perceptions are out of sync with my actions. Someone told me once that when she met me she thought I must be a terrible person because of the way I talked about myself. She said she kept waiting to find out the dark and ominous secret, the horrible things I had done to certain people, like maybe my ex-husband. And then after knowing me for several years, she said she realized I was just a normal person. Nothing especially horrible there. (In fact, I may be lying again. I think she said something nicer than that, thought I can't remember what).

It's funny. It's my deepest wish to be a good person, but I can't stop making myself sound like I'm bad. One thing I've gotten from my erotic writing, at least, is that I'm clearer now on what I actually think is bad. I'm sexual and kinky, but that's not the same as bad. It's helped a lot to know that, to look back at my life and see that many of my "crimes" were simply curiosity, things that I have no moral objection to at all. Things I'd like to do again.

9 comments:

  1. Shame how we can be our own worst critics, especially when we do something that seems to come naturally. Then we know it's the 'real' me. Then we feel like we have to make excuses for who we are. If only people realized that the purpose of life is to experience this world in this body we're privileged to command. It's the only thing we can be sure of this time around.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is one of the reasons I look forward to getting older. I feel like older people seem a bit more able to accept themselves as they are. You're a great example. :)

      Delete
  2. Isn't it interesting how, in the self-image arena, there are people whose impulse is to be "hard on themselves," and then there are people who are their own best PR agents. I'm not thinking of lies here, but of the grayer territory of how one interprets and judges one's own behavior, whether it be in talking to others or talking only to oneself. Your perspective on your own self-presentation, Annabeth, of course gives a very specific analysis. So I don't want to oversimplify or overgeneralize—and I'm always suspicious of dichotomies—but I wonder to what extent it could be said that most people fall into either the "hard on myself" or the "I'm my own best PR agent" category. Looking at myself: It's very important to me to try to be objective about my shortcomings, not to be in denial or fall back on rationalizing... and, as a result of holding myself to an unflinching rigor in this respect, I may sometimes end up being "hard on myself" in an overcompensatory kind of way. (Which, I realize, is a pretty different phenomenon from what you're describing above.) However, by nature I am definitely in the "I'm my own best PR agent" mold. At least I used to be; by now maybe I've internalized the self-criticism and observed enough of my own shortcomings and limitations over the years to have lost the PR impulse, at least in some spheres. (:v>

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha I enjoy the complexity of the way you look at it. I think it's nice to have the PR agent nature. I always admire the friends I have who are like that. I hope to become more like that someday. :D

      Delete
  3. The title of this post might have been "Lies we tell ourselves". You were telling other people that you were a bad person, but every time you say something like that, it reinforces the negative self-perceptions, too.

    And once again, I have a fresh appreciation for the pain and conflict you've been through because of your desire for women. I really feel this is tragic--that you couldn't own and celebrate the delight you took in this woman whom you could not allow yourself to get close to without all sorts of excuses.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, "Lies we tell ourselves" would certainly have worked.

      And I do feel this is tragic. I write about it a lot now because I'm still sorting through all my feelings about it. Thank you for giving me an outlet to do so!

      Delete
  4. I've found that one way to approach feelings of guilt about things you do or want is to ask yourself whether you think other people who do those things are bad. If you don't feel judgmental about them, feeling judgmental about yourself doesn't make much sense. If you DO feel judgmental about them, well, maybe that's something to work on. Noticing the good in those other people you get to know is a step in the right direction.

    But I know the fallacy here is that guilt and making sense have nothing to do with each other, and guilt installed at an early age can have later effects very much like PTSD.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've found that one way to approach feelings of guilt about things you do or want is to ask yourself whether you think other people who do those things are bad. If you don't feel judgmental about them, feeling judgmental about yourself doesn't make much sense.

      I think that's such an important "perspective tool," Sacchi. I've recommended that type of thinking to people even for little things, e.g., "You're tearing yourself up because of some trivial faux pas you think you may have made when talking to your friend the other day. If the shoe were on the other foot, would you be likely to have taken lasting offense at a good friend's trivial goof, or want your friend to be worrying about it for days afterward? Cut yourself the same slack you'd automatically cut someone else."

      Delete
    2. I definitely agree that this is a good tactic. As Sacchi points out, it does also have a bit of an easier said than done quality, but fingers crossed!

      Delete