This is the (rather overdue) follow-up to The Painful Paradox of Being a 250-Pound Fangirl in a $250 Photo Op. I meant to write this a couple weeks ago, but then the cast of Supernatural had to go and announce the show’s imminent ending, so obviously I had to react to and write about that first. I had just searched and saved the screencap at the top of this post a mere two hours before J2M’s infamous announcement video was posted to Instagram and Twitter. And I’m sure I haven’t said everything I want to say about Supernatural ending, but that’s another post for another day.
Today, I’m talking about praise—specifically, my complete inability to accept praise and internalize it as a reason to feel pride, joy, and satisfaction. Instead, I simply say a flat, insincere “thank you” and then tune it right out as if it never happened.
See, when I published “Painful Paradox” and it went viral on Twitter, garnering almost 60K impressions on the original photo-and-link tweet and over 5K pageviews here on the blog, I received over 200 direct responses telling me that I’m “pretty”, “beautiful”, or “gorgeous.” 1 Or at least, that I am in the cover photo and/or the photos in the post.
And I can’t make myself believe a single one of them.
Praise has become meaningless to me. Because I grew up being praised only for obvious facts, like being smart (I was the class valedictorian) and being a good writer and speller (I won several awards for both), I quickly learned that real praise had to feel true to be true. Therefore, praise that doesn’t feel true, like being called “pretty” or “beautiful” or “interesting” (because I was told over and over again as a kid that the opposite was true), doesn’t feel like praise at all. It feels like bullshit, given out of politeness and social necessity. So I tune out praise that feels stupidly obvious so I can stay “humble” and “not get a big head,” and I tune out praise that feels contrary to my self-image so I don’t get my hopes up that I might actually be worthy of it only to get shot down once again.
But high school was 18 years ago, and my mom has apologized for her constant denigration of my pop culture interests, so there are no longer any boogeymen waiting to jump out of the closet to tell me I’m ugly, boring, and weird. 2 You’ll notice that the latter two adjectives contradict each other. My mother was the source of “boring” and my classmates were the source of “weird.” As smart as I was, I never realized that they contradict one another until…uh, right now.
And yet, I just can’t manage to feel any pride, satisfaction, or gratitude for all the “Painful Paradox” comments and tweets saying that I’m “pretty” or “beautiful” or “gorgeous.” 3 Although I did accept and enjoy the ones about my hair. I do genuinely value my hair, since it’s one of the few parts of me that doesn’t have fat cells. I mean, intellectually I know that 200 people saying the same thing 4 since it’s not related to climate change denial, LGBTQ bigotry, racism, sexism, right-wing conspiracy theories, or the like can’t all be wrong. And I know it’s very hurtful and insulting to the people who praised my appearance that I’m implying that they’re liars. I know, at an intellectual level, that they’re not lying. I’m the one who’s full of shit for believing otherwise.
But down at that gut level, it just feels so wrong. When I look in the mirror at my acne-scarred chin, jet-black mustache and chin hair that I have to shave with a razor like a fucking man, and my fat-ass neck that chokers barely fit around, I don’t feel beautiful. I feel like a bridge troll. And I feel like only an internet troll would say otherwise.
But that’s not what the people who praise my looks are seeing. They’re seeing an ever-so-slightly-airbrushed and color-corrected photo of pure, unbridled joy. They’re seeing a young woman in her early twenties (i.e., at peak physical attractiveness) who’s clearly having the best experience of her relatively short life. And I’m really trying to only see that when I look at those photos. It’s like a Magic Eye picture—I have to relax my eyes and let the hidden image come together. Only it’s not a hidden image for anyone else. It’s only hidden from me. And I’m the one who hid it. I’m the one who heaped it with so much shame, criticism, and societal expectations of thinness and flawlessness that it disappeared under a pile of garbage. And then I told myself that the pile of garbage was the real image all along.
God, what the fuck was I thinking?
My other thing with praise is that I tend to give much more weight to praise from people I really look up to and respect than people who are closer to me in both relationship and social status. The praise I value the most is praise from professors, especially my grad school professors. When my second thesis advisor, who specialized in literature, told me that I wrote the best thesis introduction in the whole class and I was one of the top three writers he’d ever taught, I believed every fucking word of that with absolutely no hesitation. Because that was both completely novel—which made it thrilling for my ADHD brain—and compatible with my own self-image as a very talented writer, it bypassed the “bullshit filter” and shot straight to my ego. It just felt true.
But when people who aren’t literature professors praise my writing, it doesn’t always get past the “bullshit filter” intact. This Cracked article explains it perfectly:
Attractive people live in a world where most feedback they get is bullshit. The compliments mean nothing–they’ve learned that’s just the sound people make when they walk by (emphasis added). That’s why studies show they tend to dismiss the genuine compliments they get in other areas (their work, personality, sense of humor, creativity) because it gets lumped in with the same counterfeit flattery they’ve been getting their whole lives.
Replace “attractive” with “smart/talented” and that’s pretty much how I feel about non-writers praising my writing, including the fanfiction. Fanfic comments always meant more to me when they came from writers I really admired—or when they pointed out things I hadn’t noticed and/or done intentionally, like symbolism. And praise for my academic and blog writing means more coming from experts than from my family and friends, because family and friends are basically expected to give praise. That’s the social contract in action. Even praise from complete strangers on the internet (love you guys!) and one of my “mean girl” high school classmates means more to me than praise from my mom 5 Although my mom hates everything I like, and has flat-out said that if I ever published a fiction book, she wouldn’t read it. or my coworker saying that “Painful Paradox” is incredibly well-written.
And yet, it still doesn’t mean nearly as much as it should. I guess that deep down, I just don’t feel like I deserve it, even when I know it’s true! I can’t just remove the “bullshit filter” and let it all in and feel the joy and satisfaction and pride in my achievements. Because I was told over and over again by people I either trusted (parents) or wanted approval from (classmates) that I was abnormal and unworthy and unfit for human companionship and I fucking believed it. I believed it so much, for so long, that I can’t stop believing it now despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Seriously, multiple coworkers have told me (more than once) that I’m funny and interesting and talented, and yet the voice in my head, the one I believe, is my mother’s voice—the one that tells me over and over, “That’s not funny. You’re never funny. You’ve told that boring story a million times. Nobody wants to hear about stupid comic cons or that awful show you like.” But the worst part is that she hasn’t talked to me like this in over a decade!
I honestly try to stop the litany of abuse that plays in my head on a loop, but the volume is turned down so low that I don’t actually hear it anymore. I just feel like shit most of the time and I don’t know why. I’m trying so hard to break this habit of ignoring or negating all praise in favor of beating myself up for my shortcomings, but sometimes it feels like I’m going the wrong way on a moving sidewalk—I’m running as fast as I can just to stay where I am now. If I stop running for a second, I’ll be swept away.
I’m so tired of running.