“It’s Just Who I Am”

“It’s Just Who I Am.”  I don’t think any of us reaches adulthood without hearing these words from someone in our circle. Someone close, someone not so close. Sometimes the form is different: “It’s just the way I am,” or “I can’t help it,” or “That’s the way I roll,” or any number of permutations of the same concept. And if you’re like most people, you shrug, and accept it, and move on.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is bullshit.

Please don’t get me wrong. I work hard at being non-judgmental and accepting of people’s little idiosyncrasies. This one flips my switch, however. It flips my switch because people usually trot it out when you confront them on a behaviour that they could change without a whole lot of trouble. They just don’t want to. So they tell you “It’s just who I am” to deflect criticism and give themselves an excuse not to take responsibility. And because we have an ingrained unwillingness in our modern culture to confront and challenge, particularly when it’s a matter of internal reality and identity, we let them get away with it. Generally to our own detriment.

This pisses me off.

I had this friend. Not a super close friend, but someone I interacted with on a regular basis. Someone I’ve tried my best to support through various family difficulties. Someone with whom I’ve shared jokes and commiserated over the suckier aspects of life. She’s a person with a personality quite different from mine. I wouldn’t say “diametrically opposed,” but close. This person likes to tease and poke fun. Most often it’s a harmless quirk. Friends share inside jokes and stupid gags and mock each other, and it’s all good as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. But this friend sometimes loses track of what’s out of hand and what isn’t. She pushes things and takes them too far. There’s been more than one occasion when I’ve had to take her aside and say, “Okay, that’s enough.” And she’s responded pretty well, with a “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ll give it a rest.”

So I didn’t expect it to be any different the last time I asked her to back off. But it was.

It was a couple weeks ago. I’d been having a string of bad days. By bad days I don’t just mean those days when you’re kind of blue; I mean the days when getting out of bed is a struggle because you can’t see any reason to even try interacting with the world, because it seems like no matter how hard you work, you can’t change a damn thing. The days when everything you’ve ever done and ever will do seems doomed to failure. When you feel ugly and irredeemable in your very soul.

I’m going to pause for a minute here and emphasize the importance of “ugly.” There’s a lot of talk in  feminist communities these days–well, there always has been, but like any fashion it’s come around again–about the pressure women feel to be beautiful, and how we need to reclaim ugliness and have it be okay not to be pretty and what-not. I’m down with that, except when it extends to people complaining about campaigns that put forth the notion that “everyone is beautiful,” because “WHY DO WE HAVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL? YOUR TELLING ME I’M BEAUTIFUL IS OPPRESSING ME!” (Please hold comments on this particular tangent; it’s another blog post.) But my truth is that beauty is important to me. I grew up from about the age of five hearing on a daily basis how ugly I was. I got called “dog,” hag,” “fat cow,” and pretty much every appearance slur imaginable every day. People made barfing noises behind me when I walked down the hall at school; they barked; they mooed. They said, “TASTY!” with that particular Grosse Pointe inflection of sarcasm that told you they meant anything but. And whether it’s social or whether it’s personal, I understood I had no value because I was ugly. I didn’t qualify as a human being. I would never be worth of love. I might be abandoned and left to die alone somewhere, because people couldn’t stand to look at me. And this is a belief system I struggle with to this day, every day.

So this day a couple weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch, intermittently checking in on Twitter looking for something to distract me from feeling like utter shit. And I saw this friend had tweeted about buying chunky peanut butter instead of creamy, and how it was so awful because chunky peanut butter is gross. And I, having a preference for chunky peanut butter myself, responded to this lament with “Creamy peanut butter is the Devil.” Meaning it as a joke, as you do.

A few seconds later, my phone beeped; my friend had responded. This is what she said:

“Your FACE is the Devil!”

Since I am familiar with this friend’s habit of teasing, it didn’t really surprise me, although it seemed an extreme reaction. But it wasn’t something I could really cope with on a day when I was struggling, and it–of course–triggered all my stuff about appearance. So I told my friend,

“I’m having a bad time and I didn’t really need to hear that today.”

In a minute, she came back with, “Oh, hun, you know I think you’re beautiful and I don’t mean anything by it.”

And you know, that ticked me off. Because I would have liked to hear something more like, “Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t know you were having a rough time.” Instead of being told, in essence, “I don’t care about your rough time and you just have to cope.” So I tweeted her and said,

“For future reference, please, I really don’t like being teased about my appearance. It hurts.”

She responded one more time: “Understood.”

And I never heard from her again. I thought at the time that her final tweet had been somewhat brusque. But I wasn’t on-line much the rest of the day, and I don’t always interact with the same people even when I am. So I didn’t think anything about her distance until the next morning. I noticed it because it was a Friday, and this friend was pretty awesome about promoting writers in our circle. I saw that she had tweeted about a couple others of our friends, recommending their books and blogs and whatnot. But she hadn’t mentioned me. And it hurt; I felt neglected and envious. I didn’t like to think that she was trying to punish me for calling her out, but that’s what it felt like. I told myself not to be so sensitive and tried interacting with her, replying to a couple of questions she posted and all.

She ignored me. She ignored me all day, and that evening, thinking, “Oh, no, you didn’t,” I checked her profile to see that she had unfollowed me.

That made me really, really angry. I thought, “Fine, if you’re going to be like that,” and unfollowed her in return. I asked a couple people if they had any idea what was going on, and no one did. I thought I might try to address it later, when I calmed down. But every time I remembered it, I got angry again. Finally, about a week later, I messaged one of my other friends and asked her if she would be willing to see what was up? Because I really wanted to know if it was what I thought or if there was something else going on. My friend was willing. And this is the answer she got:

“I’m not someone who can hurt others in good conscience. It hurts ME incredibly. My only option then was to avoid hurting her further. And I can’t change who I am. This is me. I can’t act differently. So if by being me I hurt her and I can’t change who I am…the decision was one of avoiding causing another person pain.”

Wow. There are so many problems with this, I almost can’t even. In the first place, so your problem was being told you had done something hurtful in words. Did you not know? You’re not stupid, so I have to assume that you DO know, but as long as no one said, “This hurts,” you could ignore it. In the second place, how in the world do you imagine that disappearing without any explanation and refusing to discuss it WASN’T hurtful? You left me wondering what the fuck had happened, wondering if I had done something horrible I had no clue about. Yeah, I felt really good about that. Oh, right–you can’t address the issue because it might be hurtful. Fuck that. Getting stitches hurts, but sometimes it’s necessary.

And then there’s the last thing: “I can’t change who I am.” You know, I can almost accept that having a teasing mode of interaction is part of your integral makeup. But I cannot believe that the freedom to be able to make jabs at another person’s appearance is SO essential to you on a deep soul level that you would rather write off an entire friendship than take a look at that, yo. The reasonable reaction would have been to say, “Okay, Kele doesn’t like being teased about her appearance. Check. I’ll try to remember that.”

The only reason to play the “It’s just who I am” card is that you KNOW this behavior is questionable and you want a good excuse to refuse responsibility for it. You don’t want to do the work, because preserving your dysfunction is more important to you than your friends. Nice job not being hurtful.

I’ve done therapy on and off for thirty-five years, and you know what? You don’t get to play that card if you want to grow. There IS NO “Just who I am.” The collection of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, experiences and all that make up “who I am” is constantly shifting, fluid, and subject to change. You don’t want to make that change, fine. But own up to it, for gods’ sake. Otherwise you’re just wasting the time and energy of everyone who’s trying to be in a relationship with you.

This post is harsh, and I am afraid to publish it. I’m afraid because everyone else in our circle still associates with this person, and everyone will know who I mean. But I’ve never been any good at ignoring the elephant in the living room. I’ve never been good at making nice and keeping up appearances, especially where hypocrisy is involved. These days, when I see that people have retweeted stuff my former friend has said about “being a people pleaser” or posting memes about how “I’ll always have your back,” and it’s all I can do not to explode. Not to say, “Stop lying to yourself. You’re not a people pleaser. You please yourself, and your sense of guilt comes from being dishonest about it.” Not to say, “Sure, you’ll always have a friend’s back until they ask you to face something you don’t want to and you run away like a coward.”

I’m hoping publishing this blog will help me let go and move on. It may take a while, but I expect it will. I’m hoping it won’t let me in for censure from those who think I should have kept it to myself. If I do get flak for it, I expect I will learn to be okay with that, too.

But one thing I’m going to make perfectly clear: I’m not a challenging person because it’s “just the way I am.” If I wanted to, I could have chosen not to speak these thoughts. It would have been difficult, and it would have taken a longer time for me to get past them. But I could have done it. I choose to speak up because it’s healthier for me, because I understand that no one grows by being comfortable, and because I get to have a point of view that people might not like.

And how did I respond to finding out this friend valued her insensitive remarks more than she did our friendship? Two words:

“Her loss.”

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