friends, lessons, reflections

first impressions, self-reflection, and the worst things we think about ourselves

If, perchance, you’re feeling an odd combination of curiosity and fearlessness, ask a close friend two things: what their first impression of you was, and what they now think of as the core aspects of your personality. Before you do this, though, ask yourself a different (but related) question: what do you think are your biggest flaws? Trust me. There will be interesting results.

As I’m sure all but the most self-possessed and narcissistic among us can do, I can come up with a list of at least a dozen flaws I think I have (and may actually possess). No one is perfect, and many people — myself included — are works in progress. One of the things I’m hardest on myself about is the way I get work done. Partially because I always excelled in school with little to no effort, I never really developed the discipline many people learn through having to work hard to grasp something, whether it’s mathematics or a trade. Things tend to come easily for me. Some of the best writing I’ve ever done has been a first draft (some has been the 72nd). But over time I’ve adapted a working style that generally involves a good deal of what can generously be called “down time.”

Having a chronic illness that makes my energy levels unpredictable has encouraged me to continue with the “bad” habits of working in extremely productive and intense spurts followed by semi-long periods of rest. I can write 20,000 words in a day, then be in need of rest for two or three days before I even think about writing again. I always meet deadlines, though, because working at my own pace within set parameters seems to work well when freelancing. And my health issues are much less of an issue when I’m the one deciding what hours I’ll be working.

That being said, given the way I was raised, if I’m not actively working or looking for work or talking about work or something-something work, that means I’m lazy. My father has had an inoperable brain tumor for almost 20 years and has been in and out of the hospital for months with maybe-colitis and maybe-cancer but definitely chronic diarrhea (for months!) and still manages to work 60 hours a week. Resting was never an option when I was a kid, and my brother and I have all sorts of now-funny stories we can tell about what it was like to grow up that way. But as an adult, I feel my biggest flaw is laziness.

Back to asking friends what they think of you. Most people when they first meet me look at my tattoos and think I’m a mean badass. Which, I guess, I can become if enough buttons are pushed. But my demeanor in general is more “aging Gen Xer” than “crazy nights at the Chelsea.” This is, I think, quickly apparent after first impressions. But what’s interesting is how so many of my friends view my core characteristics as involving hard work, being persistent, and being a “go-getter.” Actually, when my friend Claire mentioned that last one to me I laughed, as it’s the exact opposite of what I’d describe someone who has my current life. But then she brought up a point: I’m acutely aware of what’s available in the world, from things to do to places to go to random facts about bizarre places in the far corners of NYC. And when I see opportunities, I pursue them — sometimes a few hours later than other people, but I make a concerted effort.

So I’ve been thinking about things in a new way. Years ago a man told me that men tend to be less critical of a woman’s body than she is (unless he’s an asshole, in which case who cares what he thinks). As the people who see our own bodies, day in and day out, in all states of undress and in frequently unflattering poses in front of unfortunately placed mirrors, we all are intimately familiar with our physical flaws. And while some of them — oh, a missing limb or an odd growth off the side of your neck — are obvious, the vast majority of them are things that only we know about and pay too-much attention to. Unless you’re dealing with a jerk (with whom you shouldn’t be getting naked, for starters), your body is probably being accepted with at least 75% more kindness than you offer yourself when doing a naked once-over in the mirror. And though I actually ended up locking myself in the bathroom and crying for an hour after the person who told me this and I had sex for the first time, it’s still sound advice. And I think it translates into all the other criticisms we have of ourselves, too.

So what if I have a squishy belly and sometimes sleep all day and start working on projects at 10pm. Last I checked, squishy bellies were not contraindicated for sex, and I meet, like, 100% of my deadlines. What matters most is seeing what other people see in us. Your friends might see you as brave where you feel scared or think of you as beautiful when you’re worried that you should’ve gotten that nose job at 16 like everyone else did. Or, like me, you might have friends who view you as strong and motivated and a go-getter despite the fact that some days the only go-getting you do is walking to the kitchen to toast a bagel. The point being: being the people we are, we know everything bad about ourselves that lives within us. But what matters is the way our close friends see us: not as proof of our deepest fears but as evidence that we’ve got damn good qualities that we tend not to realize because we’re focusing on what we perceive to be the “bad.”

What would happen if you believed you were exactly as amazing as your best friends think you are? Try it for a few days and see if it changes things. I know it has for me, or at least I think so. I’ve been slacking off, in my perception, for a few days, during which I also landed two new freelance gigs. Funny how that goes. And now it goes off to bed.

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