Marcus Williams knows what it’s like to hide from fear. Now he’s trying something different.
I don’t fear a lot of the standard stuff. Heights? I’ve done a tandem sky dive and jumped off the side of a sky tower. Depths? I love scuba diving. Spiders? Crush ‘em. Bears? Well, sure, but that’s just plain common sense if they’re wild, uncaged, and within sniffing range of my pic-i-nic basket. None of those fears would make me feel unmanly even if I had them, but one of my most persistent and inhibiting fears is one that does make me feel somehow less of a man: I fear not being liked.
In face-to-face life, I feel socially awkward because I worry that if people get to know me too well, they’re bound to find out something about me that will alienate them. The first impression doesn’t worry me much, but the tenth impression does. How will they react if they find out I don’t share their politics or faith? Will they be put off because I use big words and “think too much”? Will a sense of humor that was endearing at first eventually grate on them?
I worry about such things more than I should, I know, but I came by these fears honestly. As a kid, I was a geek before geeks were cool, so other kids asked me for help on assignments but I rarely got invitations to hang out or socialize. I would see how other people could approach a circle of people talking, and that circle would open up to let them in, but when I tried, it felt like it stayed closed. It takes confidence to invite yourself along if no one else does, or to be that person that circles open up for, but it’s a Catch-22: I lacked the confidence because I didn’t expect to be liked, but I didn’t feel liked enough to gain that confidence.
In college, I tried very hard to turn over a new leaf and be more socially confident, which was my primary motivation in joining a fraternity. One of my standout memories of my fraternity experience was one night when my pledge class of about fifteen guys had what was called a “blue room”. It was supposed to be an exercise in clearing the air where everyone could safely vent or get shit off their chest and then supposedly put it all behind them. As everyone went around the room taking turns, almost every person in that room made a point of singling me out as someone who didn’t seem to fit in and wondered at length why I was there. I should have quit right there, but didn’t, probably out of some mix of wounded pride and determination. (They were right, though—I never did fit in much.) The first time I attended rush as an initiated member (“rush” is where you meet and recruit new members) a brother took me aside and advised me, “Try to inject less of yourself into the conversation.” Chances are, it was good advice given the context and purpose of those conversations, but it hurt my feelings badly and sent the message that too much me was not likable, and more likely to drive people away than to draw them in. That was the first and last time I’d participate in rush as a brother, despite it being a “mandatory” duty of brotherhood.
I’ve hopefully developed a little more social grace in my twenty or so years since college, but I still have this little voice that warns me not to inject too much me into a conversation, or that makes me feel like an outcast in any group that’s more than three or four people big. I always expect to be the first one voted off the island.
As if this fear isn’t enough of a social handicap, it has also inhibited my writing, with some added twists. I’ve written a lot, and if I could make a living at it, it would be my dream career. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve started to publish anything, and the fear of not being liked is partly to blame for not making more of an effort to get published.
When it comes to writing, I’m not particularly worried about scaring off potential friends, because if I ever get a large enough audience to make a living as a writer, I don’t expect or need every reader to be a buddy. A larger concern is that someone who already knows me and likes me, whether a casual friend or someone closer like my wife or family, will be alienated by something I write. For example, a casual friend may not know I’m an atheist because I’m fairly closeted about that, so if they see me writing about it, that could pose a problem to someone who has a low tolerance for atheists. (Shocker, I know, but such people exist.)
Even bigger than the concern of someone being alienated by finding out more about me, is the concern that I will hurt them with something I write. Some differences of opinion or taste are easier to tolerate when they’re not “out there”; writing tends to expose them. Taking this fear to the extreme, I worry that I could bother or offend someone so much that they would threaten me or my family—especially my family. I don’t consider it very likely, but only because I’m still a relative nobody. (A friend of mine once started a reality tv discussion board that exploded in popularity, and instead of it being fun and cool, he ended up selling it and getting out because some people who were unhappy with his moderation style used their Internet savvy to find out his real name and address and make threats to him and his family.) If I ever get that career I dream of, that kind of reaction would seem to be an occupational hazard, not just paranoia.
The fear is still there and still inhibits me socially and as a writer, but I have gradually gotten better at coping with it. My old, ineffective coping mechanism was to be socially withdrawn almost to the point of isolation, and keep my really personal writing (i.e., the most interesting stuff) to myself. That was pretty effective at not getting myself disliked because people who didn’t know me or find out more about me couldn’t find much to dislike. Being that guarded, though, also kept most connections shallow and prevented a lot of other connections from ever even getting started.
The important realization I finally had—and it’s not all that mysterious—is that I can’t make the kind of connections I crave without risking the kind of rejection or hurt that I fear. In relationships, the only way to find and enjoy people with compatible values and tastes and senses of humor is to reveal my own. In writing, unless I want to be a bland, forgettable writer, the only way to connect with some readers is to risk rubbing others the wrong way, and when the topics are sensitive, even risk being hated. I still don’t want to be disliked, hated, or rejected, and I for sure don’t want to hurt people, but isolating myself to avoid my fear hasn’t been very satisfying, so now I’m going the other way.
photo: marcokenmoeller / flickr