I’m constantly terrified that you might be judging me.
I hate admitting that. In truth, you probably don’t care enough to judge me. I’m on the periphery of your world — at best — so you barely notice I exist, much less do you judge me. But here I am worried about your judgment.
I fear that random strangers in public think I’m fat and unattractive. I fear that people I work with are going to be offended at something I say and maybe ridicule me behind my back. I fear that clients won’t like me. I fear that I can’t be good enough — smart enough, talented enough, successful enough — for you.
I desperately crave a place where I’m safe. Where I won’t be judged. Where I’ll be accepted — by people who I love and respect — as being good enough just by being the person I am.
If you were around me in public, you would never guess that I have these fears. I run the proper social scripts in my head. I know what to say and how to act.
But I’m always wary, because I always fear what you might think — that you might not like me, that you might judge me, that I might somehow not be good enough for you.
We all need a tribe where we belong. You know that feeling you get when you know that you’re among your own kind? It’s a relaxed feeling of fitting in. Some people feel that in their social group. Some people feel it at their church or another religious group. Some people feel it with their extended family. It’s a feeling of being at home — of being loved and understood and accepted.
That’s a feeling I have rarely felt in my life — and it periodically leads to serious feelings of alienation.
I suspect I would have felt a degree of this even if I had grown up in an emotionally healthy family. Just having a higher IQ — 155 to 165, depending on the test — makes me see the world in a very different way than others do. Something about my emotional makeup and my personality make me have trouble fitting in. (In Myers-Briggs terms, for instance, I’m an INFP, which is supposed to make up about 1.5 percent of males.) These are the sorts of things I was just born with — and they tend to make me different from most.
But my alienation was taken to another level entirely by growing up with a narcissistic father.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t be good enough for him. If I did something for which I received praise at school — something far beyond what others had done — he would tell me that it was good but that I could have done better if I had done something different. (That “something” always amounted to doing things more as he would have done them — even if he was incapable of doing what I had done.)
If people praised me as I was growing up, the thing he would commonly do is respond with something such as, “I taught him everything he knows,” or, “He’s just like me.”
He tried to pass these comments off as jokes, but it was very clear that he was eager to take credit for anything good I did. Then in private, he would lecture me on how to do something better. When I was young, I assumed that he had been a fantastic student and he was just trying to get me to rise to his level. I eventually found some of his old report cards that showed me that he was a solid but unspectacular student. More than anything else, his report cards showed how compliant he was. I eventually realized that my mother was smarter than he was.
Without being conscious of what was happening, I developed a deep fear that I couldn’t be good enough. I was praised elsewhere, but I never got the praise or acceptance that I so badly wanted from him. Even when I made a short film 13 years ago, I was eager for him to watch it, so I gave him a DVD. After two weeks, he hadn’t gotten around to watching it. Finally, I made him sit down and watch it with me. He seemed bored and didn’t show any interest afterward beyond a perfunctory lukewarm remark. Even though the film made it into 20 film festivals and I received a lot of praise online, I didn’t get the approval I desperately wanted from him.
When I was young, the world outside my house seemed much simpler.
When I was at school, I knew where I belonged. There was a small group of smart kids who accepted me. We were the nerds who did algebra and tough logic problems for fun. I was accepted. I belonged with them.
When I was at church, I knew where I belonged. They were my social group. I was president of the Youth Council at the biggest church in the area. I was seen as a leader. I was accepted. I belonged with them.
In the world today, it’s unclear who my tribe is. It might be with other creative types, but I fear I’m not worthy of calling myself an artist. It might be with people who build companies or organizations which influence others, but I seem to have gotten so far off track that I don’t know how to get back there. I fear I’m an imposter to even expect to be among those people.
This is one reason that I’m so drawn to artistic creation. When I make something that I’m proud of, I want to show it to you and I want you to love it. I want your approval. I want your praise. I want you to think I’m good enough.
But it’s not really ego satisfaction I’m after. It’s validation that I want. I want some sort of evidence that someone understands what I love and what I find beautiful. I want to believe that someone believes I’m talented and that I’m worthy of spending time to make more art.
Even something as simple as the sunset picture above — the Saturday evening sunset from near my house in Birmingham — is something for me to put out into the world and say, “I made this picture. Do you like it? Did I do a good job? Am I good enough?”
It was during college when I first started understanding the alienation I felt from most of the world. It would be years before I understood the reasons — or would understand the malignant narcissism in my father which had caused it — but I was becoming aware of the pain of feeling different. I was becoming very aware of how different I felt.
Sometime during this period, I found an album in a Christian record store. It was already an old album by the time I found it, but I was electrified by the emotion in the lyrics. The opening song was called “The Misfit,” and it started like this:
I’ve been looking at myself
Asleep upon the floor
I wish that I could run away
And never hurt no more
For I have learned too much to bear
And yet I’m hardly grown
Though free to walk just where I please
I’m walking all alone
It was an emotional experience for me to discover this, because it was a great revelation to find that other Christians struggled with feeling alone and alienated. The song expressed a lot of the deep feelings I had, even though I was still having trouble understanding them. (I’ve embedded the song below.)
I want you to understand me. I need you to understand me. I need for you to accept me and to love me. Not everybody, though. I don’t need the entire public to love me or understand me.
But I need a tribe. Maybe it’s just a family. Maybe it’s a bigger group. Maybe it’s just one person.
I was created to be something different from the norm. I embrace that and I think it can drive me to do great things. But without a place to belong, I’m filled with fear. I find it impossible to reach the potential I’ve always dreamed of. I suffer a weird sort of alienation from being trained to believe I wasn’t good enough.
In the therapy I went through a little more than a decade ago, I eventually developed a metaphor for the damage inside me. I was like a finely made machine which was capable of great things, but that machine had deep damage at its core. In its damaged state, it couldn’t do much. But as I learned how to repair the damage by routing around the damaged parts, I could make the machine perform as it had been designed.
Part of the “routing around the damage” for me involves finding a place — or a person — where I belong. I need a crutch to lean on. Needing that crutch — someone to love and understand me — doesn’t mean I’m weak or useless. It just means I have a pretty good idea how to fix the damage.
I need a place to belong.
I need a person with whom I belong.
If I can find such a place — and such a person — maybe I’ll finally be able to get past this alienation and do the work I’ve always expected from myself, safe from the fear that I can’t be good enough.