I am not a people person.
I can be more honest than that: I don’t really care for most people.
I don’t hate people, of course. I don’t wish them harm, or take delight in their misfortunes. I’m just not a fan of very many people and am generally disinclined to deal with most individuals on anything more than a courteous or professional surface-level.
I am aware that dispassion is, ideally, a two-way street: I feel the same disinterest in being deeply understood by most people than in deeply understanding them.
I consider it growth.
Because odd as it may seem, I am a recovering people pleaser.
I can explain.
An Inconvenient Irony
Not being a people person while obsessively seeking their acceptance is an unfortunate, altogether uncomfortable twist of fate. It is, I believe, an unnatural contradiction – one taught rather than instinctive.
My father, a widower since I was age 3, possessed a winning mix of incompetence, intransigence, and insufferableness; he didn’t know what he was doing as a parent and instigated a mutual animosity with anyone in his proximity. In the resulting alienation, I was shown exactly how not to behave while being largely cut off from more appropriate examples of manhood.
As adolescence turned to young adulthood, I began realizing how unworkable my father’s approach to life really was, and that, while my contemporaries had seemingly been raised, I had merely gotten older.
Someone who is lost tends to latch on to the nearest recognizable landmark. I was emotionally directionless, and saw buoys of comparative maturity in friends, love interests, colleagues – anyone whose acceptance would allow me to claim, through attempted self-deception, I was something that I knew deep down I was not.
That something is normal. I strove, in vain, for sanity by association. To further complicate matters, all this unfolded amid my intolerance of nearly everyone in my life – a learned loathing handed down from my irascible father.
When you hate something you need, you’re due for a letdown. When that something is people, you’re due for a big fall.
I Need You to Like Me… and I Hate You for It
Tying self-esteem almost entirely to acceptance by others makes one pathetically pliable and dangerously hollow. My coreless state led to a sick cycle of seeking others’ affirmations while silently detesting their unknowing power over me. The approval of friends, colleagues and acquaintances was simultaneously required and resented.
I filled this hollowness – this gaping hole in my soul – with a fear-based anger that presented itself through a near-translucent passive aggression. Grandstanding (“Here I am! Like me!”); backstabbing gossip (“Like me better than this other person!”); puffed-up arrogance (“You’d be crazy not to like me, because I’m brilliant!”); and, sprinkled over everything, an off-putting, misery-loves-company pessimism (“My life is joyless. Care to join me?). I lived in hatred of trying to be loved.
And then I just melted down.
I was probably a gentle breeze’s nudge away from coming unhinged; what I got was a gale-force, blow-the-door-off wind, in the form of a rare condition that threatened to leave me mostly blind. Shortly thereafter, my eyesight thankfully stopped getting worse. I, however, did not: By the time the ensuing downward spiral leveled off, I was 32, unemployed, alcoholic and on divorce’s doorstep. And then…
I got up.
The most significant and hardest won accomplishment of my life is my initial recovery from alcoholism. It is the foundation upon which all subsequent blessings – restored marriage, pending fatherhood, promising career, peace of mind – have been built.
Like most alcoholics, I had cut a wide path of destruction through a booze-fueled tornado of rage-filled rants, at-fault fights, and incessant, increasingly incredulous lies.
Shame. Embarrassment. Humiliation. These are not good words for a people pleaser like me. I defined myself through the opinions of others… and the vast majority of others hated my guts. And now, I faced this painful reality without alcohol as an anesthetic.
I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t going to make it and, as I could reasonably see homelessness in the not-too-distant future, not making it really wasn’t an option.
My salvation came in setting aside, at least temporarily, the judgments of others while focusing, for the first time, on defining myself rather than relying on others to do so. That crucial commitment to forgo people pleasing, one day at a time, has become a daily decision for 4½ years and counting.
Selfish and self-searching are two very different things. Prior to this revelation I was, conflictingly, a greedy person who had no idea what he wanted out of life. The hard work of early sobriety – the 12 Steps in particular – set me on a road to self-awareness. Learning what makes you tick in your mid-30s is equal parts gratifying and humbling. Better late than never.
Still My Father’s Son
The truth is more enduring, if less charming, than redemption. My happiest of outcomes may have brought a newfound fondness for others – a sort of Kum-Ba-Yah catharsis.
It just didn’t work out that way. It’s just not who I am.
So I struggle with it, this general standoffishness. Sometimes I overcompensate, too quick to discount others’ input chiefly due to the old me’s overreliance upon it. Sometimes I dismiss whole people out of, I think, a diminishing yet lingering resentment against all of humankind for having enslaved me to its denizen’s judgments.
Sometimes I’m a contrarian jerk just because I can be – because I no longer feel the need to be emotionally embraced and, I think, like to remind myself of that freeing fact, albeit at another’s expense. That’s selfish and unfair, and I know it… and sometimes I do it anyway. And in all honesty, it’s usually worth the price of apology.
Because as someone once mired in an eternal popularity contest, unpopularity can be a wonderful thing.