After talking to Deryl Northcote for our feature this week, I got to thinking a lot about outside perceptions and the burden it can lay on a person to either live up to or disprove them.

The best example I can give you is how weird it is being divorced. It divides your life into these extremely definite chapters. The contrast is even more dramatic than a graduation or moving to a new city, because the way that person (with whom you were so intimately entangled) viewed you penetrated the way you viewed yourself during an entire era of your life— almost like during that chapter you were an entirely different person in an entirely different world. For added weirdness, you can be sucked back into that world within 3 seconds of talking to them again.

Every now and then, something comes up and my ex and I have to awkwardly interact. I always leave the conversations feeling momentarily trapped in his (perceived) perception of me. It’s that whole “I am who I think you think I am” thing. Whether these things are really what’s in his mind or not, I always imagined that what he sees is a weak person who makes nothing but mistakes that inconvenience him; a shell of a person whose value is in what I can do to make his life easier. Even when he’s being friendly, I feel this underlying level of guilt about being powerless to make him happy. That feeling makes me behave in strange ways; I want to watch a lot of TV and bake things. A few minutes later I remember my real life, like waking up from a dream, and shake it off.

It’s not like living in that bubble of reflected self image was unique to being with him (or his fault). I had developed a life strategy early on that was like being in an improv troupe with the world. I used to navigate uncomfortable social situations by reacting in whatever way I thought would get me through conversations in the smoothest manner possible. I avoided revealing anything meaningful about myself, reflected back speech patterns and body language, and told people whatever I thought they wanted to hear. My true self was like a fragile secret I had to protect.

Now, of course, I take the opposite approach. Part of the shift happened because I just couldn’t stand living in a shell any more, and part of it was because
I chose to form my next relationship with a person who showed me (through his positive reactions to my honesty, and his example) that it was way better to be totally transparent. I’ll tell anything to anybody (like right now, to you), to the point of over-sharing on a regular basis. It’s been incredibly liberating, and I highly recommend it. The biggest surprise was discovering that being bold isn’t nearly as difficult as I always thought it was, and that being open makes you feel so incredibly alive and loved.

Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.