It stops at my skin

31 Jan

I hate compliments. I crave compliments. I fidget when you tell me I look nice, but I do like it: that’s not an affectation so much as an unconscious reaction. When you compliment me, I feel like I need to correct you. When you don’t compliment me, I wonder what I’m doing wrong. I swear I’m not trying to be difficult—this is just how my brain works. And there are some, uh, kinks in the system? Eh, I’m not mechanical-minded enough to continue this analogy.

I’m writing this for a couple reasons: first, I like to navel gaze; and second, I find myself apologizing to people more and more often after they offer a compliment. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I wasn’t fishing for compliments.” And that’s true. If I disparage myself, it’s because that’s how I feel and sometimes I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. But as soon as I hear the standard response, the obligatory (but often sincere!) “Hey, stop it, you’re great,” I know I’ve done it again. “You don’t have to say that. Ugh, I didn’t mean to make you feel like you had to.”

You’ll know when I’m fishing for compliments, because I’ll ask. I don’t play mind games, and I’m a terrible liar. So it goes something like this: “You’d make out with me, right?” And yeah, what a dick to put you on the spot, but I only really ask when I already know the answer. You’ve said as much before, but I need you to remind me. I haven’t suddenly turned repulsive, have I? Did my face fall off while I was talking? Are my insecurities seeping through my pores? That happens sometimes, like when you eat too much garlic.

I hate that I need validation almost as much as I hate the fact that it’s never enough. And I don’t say this to be an asshole. It’s not that compliments mean nothing to me—it’s that they mean less than insults. Even perceived slights, however minor, will worm their way into my thoughts. The compliments are nice to hear, but they feel perfunctory—and when I do ask for them, surely that’s my own fault. I know I’m not the only insecure, neurotic person who feels this way. I also know it’s frustrating as shit, for me and for the people who care about me.

This phenomenon applies to writing, too, of course. I’m more secure about my work than I am about my physical appearance: if you tell me you liked an article or a blog post, I’ll likely thank you without feeling like a fraud. But all it takes is one negative comment to dissolve all the compliments away. And that’s silly. It’s completely illogical. “I hate this” should not be worth 100 iterations of “I love this.” But it is! And very few people get 100 iterations of “I love this,” and very few people only get one “I hate this,” because the internet is a dark, judgmental place.

The title for this post comes from the movie Shortbus, which provided what for me is the most articulate explanation of how it feels to not be able to process the good, and to let the bad overwhelm everything else. “Jamie loves you,” Caleb tells James. “You have so much.” To which James replies, “I see it… all around me… but it stops at my skin. I can’t let it inside.”

The only other way I know how to explain it is as a subversion of the playground chant, “I am rubber, you are glue, everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” Like that, but with compliments. And the insults, those stick. When I say it like that, it sounds so absurd—mostly because, you know, playground chant—but also because I can see how little sense it makes. My skin should be consistent when it comes to the rubber-glue dichotomy. If the good bounces back, why does the bad stick?

Because I hope for the best and expect the worst, and it’s a lot more of the latter than the former. I’m not as cynical as I sound—except when it comes to myself. And then, yeah, I’m a total defeatist, or at least a self-deprecating pain in the ass. I find humor in it, because it would be completely insufferable otherwise. When you expect the worst, you ignore the good things: it’s not intentional, but they don’t fit into your vision of how things work. The bad, though, that’s exactly what you knew was going to happen.

Let me put it in terms of compliments. If I feel ugly, and you tell me I look nice, that is good to hear. I thank you, sincerely. But the swell of pride is fleeting. If I look nice, why don’t I feel like I look nice? And then—oh, look! Someone on the internet is calling me ugly! I look like pathetic and greasy and fat. These are the things I think about myself, so those are the words that matter. It’s not about the insult: it’s about the confirmation.

And oh, this all sounds so much sadder than I wish it did. I think a lot of us are like this. I know I’m not the only who ignores compliments and dwells on insults. But how awful to crave compliments when you can never get enough. And what a terrible flaw to take each insult to heart when these things are an unavoidable part of life. I’m self-obsessed enough: why can’t I be a true narcissist? “You’re just jealous,” I’d tell the haters. And whenever someone praised me or “like”-d something on Facebook or tweeted a link to my article, I’d say, “Yes, yes, thank you, I’m wonderful, I know…”

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5 Responses to “It stops at my skin”

  1. tim January 31, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    I identify. You put your finger on one important point, i.e., it is never enough. At least you know that. I think it is a combo of voices from old war wounds of childhood and our ego that is sure we could be loved by everyone for everything, if only we tried a little harder. As long as you know seeking it out doesn’t make it better, you can avoid wasting a lot of time.

  2. Sushispook January 31, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    I really don’t have a considered and nuanced reply, other than HOLY SHIT YES. Thank you for collecting together in words something I’ve had a dreadfully difficult time articulating.

  3. lyriquediscorde February 2, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    I always think of the quote from the movie Pretty Woman (yeah, I am quoting Pretty Woman) when Vivian says “The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?” It always has resonated with me, unfortunately, and I think that the more we let the bad stick the more we expect it, and the more we more readily accept it as truth.

    I don’t know what the solution is, though – I feel so much the same in all you wrote in this entry.

  4. Megan April 22, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    You describe me. But not in a way in which I want acknowledgement or validity of my insecurities, just accepting that they are there. And acceptance is almost confidence.

  5. Haley April 22, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    I’ve really never seen this articulated better.

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