I had an extra-specially difficult time in grad school.
I was trapped in department politics that went way beyond me, but that had the power to interfere with my life. I made the wrong friends. I did not understand the expectations laid before me, nor did I understand that I could never hope to meet them because several of the faculty didn't think I should have been there in the first place.
They weren't wrong, but you work with the cards you get dealt, amirite? I was ill-equipped to function within the program, but as an applicant, I had no way of knowing that. All I knew was that the letter read: accepted. So I went. I went and I failed. I failed repeatedly and I failed hard. Not at class - never in academics - only in navigating. I was a terrible navigator and it got very ugly, very fast.
Things around me got ugly and I got ugly back. I became impatient when the standards were unclear, or impossibly high. I began to gossip, and not discreetly. I formed opinions. I shared opinions. I continued to trust the wrong people. In short, I did what a very flawed human being would do in an equally flawed situation.
I helped it go nuclear.
My parents are first-generation white-collar workers; their manners are not suited for academia. Instinctively, I knew this, and I tried to do things differently than they advised. I looked elsewhere for advice, but it was not forthcoming. My questions, though genuine, were not appropriate. They were pushed aside.
According to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, it takes three generations for families to acclimate to a new socioeconomic status. If they exist, my children will be better able to navigate the political situations which eluded me. If they stumble, their father will be able to give them advice. Politics are second-nature to him. To me? A riddle. A waste of time.
I was only second generation white-collar, so I craved directness. I yearned for clarity and honesty. I wanted people to say what they meant and to back those things up with actions. If someone asked for an opinion? I was foolish enough to believe that they wanted it.
Now that I am older, I understand that these instincts, in my field, are wrong. It was a series of lessons learned at great cost.
I read Malcolm Gladwell's books looking for answers. Blink. Outliers. What the Dog Saw. I read countless books about talent. Learned Optimism. I devoured First Impressions: What You Don't Know about How Others See You. The self-help section at the school library is covered in my fingerprints. The local bookstore should have given me a private couch.
As things at school became worse, the faculty started to say things. The implication that I would be asked to leave school became something I was aware of. I knew, from experience, that if I was aware of an implication, it was probably not implied. The only thing more palpable than the frustration was the sheer panic.
I did not do all of these horrible things for nothing. I did not make these sacrifices only to be thrown out.
I did not know what the problem was, specifically. Generally? I knew that it was me. I knew that people didn't like me. I was doing the best that I could. I could not understand why. As my life frayed around the edges, I took dozens of personality tests, hoping to find the flaw, the thing that made everyone around me hate me so.
I was an ENTJ on the Meyers-Briggs scale. Did you know that it is the least likable personality? At one point, it said so on Wikipedia. The sentences are etched forever into my brain: "In their dealings with others, they are generally outgoing, charismatic, fair-minded, and unaffected by conflict or criticism. However, these qualities can make ENTJs appear arrogant, insensitive, and confrontational. They can overwhelm others with their energy and desire to order the world according to their own vision. As a result, they may seem intimidating, hasty, and controlling."
I was intimidating, hasty, and controlling. It wasn't wrong.
For an ENTJ, everything exists logically, internally, based on facts and not on feelings. I identified faculty and fellow students who did not enjoy my presence; I searched them for evidence of F or a dreaded P. F's and P's never bode well for interpersonal relationships.
F's and P's are everywhere.
I couldn't change the way my brain worked, so I decided to lie. I decided to lie until my personality was new. To start, I started to keep ridiculous tallies. How many times did I ask other people questions today? People like questions. Did I say "feelings" in conversation with everyone I spoke to? What are your feelings on that project? How do you feel about that rehearsal? May I ask how you are feeling today?
My resting face is a scowl. I began to cultivate a friendlier looking "neutral." I learned that, if I was frustrated, clenching my jaws in the back still allowed for me to turn the corners of my mouth upward into what felt like a grimace but looked like a smile. At night, while I slept, I began grinding my teeth. At rest, my jaw would clench. But it looked like I was smiling. Friendly people smile, FluterDale. I learned to smile when I was angry.
To this day, when my temper starts to flare, I feel my mouth curling toward a smile. After countless episodes of Lie to Me, I learned that I could make the sides of my eyes crinkle, too. The lie-smile can touch my eyes. I am a professional smiler.
For particularly difficult interactions, I practiced an impression of my dog. She was always blank, happy, wagging. If she could speak, she would have used words like, "Okay! Neat! Cool! Definitely! Of course!" When she is particularly excited, "That's my favorite!" Everything is her favorite.
They were platitudes. I had a list of twelve dog-sayings that I rotated on a regular basis. I was only allowed to share one opinion per day and I hoarded them like treasure.
People commented on my new, improved mood. I told one or two what I was doing; they laughed. People preferred my dog's personality to my own. I stopped speaking (unless spoken to), because my dog's personality did not have access to full sentences. Even in my close circle of friends, no one noticed. I stopped sharing opinions at all; it was safer.
When it all became too much, I would excuse myself from the building and go home to walk the dog. Some days, the door to my home would close. I would shut my eyes, clench my fists, and slide down to the floor, screaming internally. Even alone, the feelings could not come out. They were too much. If they surfaced, they would control me. I knew that if the rage surfaced, it would burn me, the house, and possibly the entire city. I knew I would never get it back down, be able to clamp another dog-face over it. Be able to make noncommittal responses that people interpreted as answers.
On the worst days, I would drive miles and miles. Finding myself between two cornfields, only then was I allowed to turn up the stereo, lay on the car's horn, and swear until my voice was hoarse. I was being rehabilitated, you see, and one public slip-up would set me back months.
To this day, there is nothing so cathartic as laying on the horn and shouting FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK as loudly as I can.
I had an extra-specially difficult time in grad school, until I reprogrammed myself to be the person they wished they had admitted. I still do not fully understand what happened, or why, but I know that who I am was deemed unacceptable. It comes up periodically, in counseling. It was a serious situation that affected me deeply; I may never understand it.
Being around those people last weekend ... dredged a lot of it up again. Again, I am pacing the space of my brain, searching for clues. Hunting for answers. Looking for acceptance in the memory of people who weren't going to offer it - then or now.
In casual conversation, one of them said, "I'm sorry we weren't friends sooner," and my heart flew. These reassurances, to me, are priceless. He followed it with, "But I always thought you were kind of scary."
I repeated this to my husband and he smiled, knowingly. "You aren't unicorns and puppies," he told me, "You don't have time for unicorns and puppies. You like business, not feelings." I asked him if that was awful. If that was wrong. He chuckled and he hugged me. "No, it's not. It's you."
Then he said what I have suspected, deep-down, all along.
"If you were a man, no one would even care."