Originally posted on Medium.
I used to stay up at all hours of the night imagining the different versions of myself that exist in other people’s minds.
I wondered how people from high school saw me as I grew awkwardly through the versions of myself that didn’t fit, like a newborn quickly outgrowing clothes from their baby shower.
I imagined how my first boyfriend pictured me, starry-eyed, naive, if not a little bit delusional. I imagined how my best friend saw me, talkative, provocative, and consistently energetic. I imagined how my favourite English Lit teacher saw me, curious, analytical, and self-motivated. I imagined how my mother saw me, outspoken, bold, and affectionate.
Lay down in your bed, stare at the ceiling, and run through every person you’ve ever encountered in the rich spectrum of emotions and moods you’ve experienced, with each hairstyle and identity you’ve dabbled in, and try to hold space for every version of you that exists in the realms of other people’s minds.
It’s exhausting. Trust me, I know how utterly exhausting it is because this used to be a regular practice for me. Not only would I try to piece together these fragments of my identity held by others, but I would also try to fashion them together into some kind of clarity about who I was to me.
This art project tended to produce disastrous results. I would stew over the people that had opinions about me that I considered to be “inaccurate”. People who labeled me as reserved and quiet were simply wrong, I would think in frustration. They didn’t know the real me.
My family didn’t understand the person I became when I was telling a good story to a group of close friends at a party. My close friends didn’t understand who I became when I laid down with a lover asking questions only we would know the answers to. My lover didn’t know who I became when I was alone, walking through a forest trail in unshakable silence, behind all those personalities, emotions, and characters.
Do you ever struggle to hold all the versions of yourself at once? It’s like you’re carrying all the empty water glasses from your bedside table to the kitchen and they’re teetering on your forearms before smashing to the floor in defeat. You don’t have enough hands.
One day I retreated to my room to indulge in my ritualistic reflection when I heard a voice from deep within me softly ask, “what if, at this moment in time, nobody is thinking about you?”
I played along. Imagine that the boy from camp I liked in 2006, the girl I spilled a pint on at my first bar job, the boss whose email I ignored, the neighbour who left a nasty note on my car, the highschool teacher, the ex-boyfriend, the ex-best friend, the aunt, the parent, the friend, were at this point in time thinking about anything except me.
An exhilarating feeling washed over me until the hairs on my arms stood up at attention, it felt something like relief.
The idea that no one I had ever met was thinking about me didn’t depress me, it freed me. It was even more intoxicating when I imagined the likelihood of this scenario.
How often did I think about all the people I encountered in my life? If I did, the subject was always the same boring rerun — me, me, me.
This entire parade of people was most likely — at any given time — thinking about themselves. They were concerned about their day and sure maybe at times they’d allow a few inches of space for me in their mind but soon enough I’d be dismissed to make room for more of their business.
In a first-year university Introduction to Psychology course, we learned all about something called The Spotlight Effect, “the phenomenon in which people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are. Being that one is constantly in the center of one’s own world, an accurate evaluation of how much one is noticed by others is uncommon. The reason for the spotlight effect is the innate tendency to forget that although one is the center of one’s own world, one is not the center of everyone else’s. This tendency is especially prominent when one does something atypical.”
Have you ever worn an adventurous hat? I don’t mean a baseball cap. I mean one of those sort of circular flat brim, all the way around, Indiana Jones hats that you see on Australians guys at music festivals or Instagram influencers (also probably at music festivals). If you want to feel The Spotlight Effect, where an adventurous hat and walk into a grocery store.
There’s nothing like a bold style choice being worn for the first time that makes you feel the hot glow of a stage light beating down on you. This Spotlight Effect isn’t just physical, it’s mental. Although you may feel like the eyes of shoppers in every aisle are silently evaluating your fashion sense, I’m sure they’re actually trying to look past your rather view-obscuring hat to find the peanut butter.
We position ourselves as the main character in our lives and we tend to forget that our siblings, parents, and even that stranger pressing peaches in the produce section, have their own self-centered storyline going on.
Unless you have a totally obsessed stalker that projects their attention and affection onto you at all hours of the day, there’s no one thinking about you more than you.
Chances are right now nobody is thinking about you. Isn’t that a relief?
So wear the hat. Post the picture. Write the book. Travel to the place. Give the talk. Sing the song. Pursue the unconventional career.
Do the thing you haven’t done simply because you fear what other people might think about it.
Sure you may get a few bad reviews. I wouldn’t recommend you care much about the rave reviews either.
If you spend your nights sewing together a version of yourself from the scraps of other people’s opinions, you’re sure to be left with a rather hideous quilt.
According to a hospice nurse, one of the 5 Biggest Regrets People Have Before They Die is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Instead of living out of fear because of other people’s rejection, criticism, and gossip, ask yourself what a life true to yourself even looks like. Do you even know what you think of you?
Fortunately, I’ve amended my rather depressing bedtime routine of chewing on other people’s stale opinions and instead I take time to daydream about all the things I would be if I stopped giving a shit about what other people think about me.
I sleep a lot better these days and although there are some killer cameos, I continue to be the star in all my dreams.