There are certain names we were called in middle school that make an impact on us. Yes, I was fortunate enough to not have been severely or consistently bullied during that time, but I think we all face our share of peer degradation. It’s funny now to think of all the seemingly worse put-downs I undoubtedly heard, the word poser really got under my skin. I only had it directed at me a few times, so why did it feel so scary to be ascribed this identity? Because in a society that emphasizes individuality, the concept of authenticity carries a lot of weight. Anyone who is from a small town (like myself) knows that a reputation feels like a living, breathing entity. It’s like a pet we are doomed to take care of, following us at your heels. And other people see it as an extension of us, or sometimes as a replacement for who we really are.
As I got older, throughout high school and college, I realized that I was terrified of the appearance of change. No, change itself didn’t necessarily scare me. Yes, I wanted to grow and explore and try on different skins and contemplate the possibility of becoming a surgeon after binge-watching a season straight of Grey’s Anatomy and all that kooky stuff young adults do, but what I was scared of was what that change looked like from the outside.
What if this doesn’t fit with who they say I am?
What if they think I’m a fake?
What if (God forbid) I’m a big ole Poser McPoserson?!
This fear is loud and it has followed me for many years. It has managed to squirm its way into not only my older relationships but my new ones as well. It has even managed to become a part of my projections, leading me to judge other people for changing.
Then, something happened about 4 years ago. I was at a wedding of a high school friend. I was mingling with an old friend who seemed to be glowing, and she seemed different in a good way. My face (which was an overly drunk face) turned pale and a thought hit me like a ton of bricks: What if everyone is growing, and I’m exactly the same?! After this incident, I often felt like I was unwillingly playing a game of keep-away in which I was in the middle, running back and forth between this idea of a fixed-authentic personality and growth. Who was I supposed to be and how was I supposed to be it?
Over time, I began realizing that these questions were all fueled by one thing: other people’s perceptions of me (or at least what I imagined them to be). What I hadn’t been able to see is that, even though my reputation is a beast of its own following my every move, whimpering for my attention, I’m not its owner or its parent. It’s a creation of mine and others’ perceptions but it is not me and it doesn’t belong to me. Yes, we all are associated with a reputation and it is important to some degree. We need it to survive and be a part of the pack. We need to feed it so it can guide us through the professional world. But we can’t let it drag us around by its leash like someone else’s untrained pet.
I need to keep reminding myself that identity is far more complex than a game of keep-away. I am not either a cookie-cutter predictable personality or some ever-evolving transformational agent of change. Maybe I’m neither, maybe I’m both. Maybe it’s not that simple (or that boring). And most importantly, my sense of identity shouldn’t be tethered to a reputation made up of others’ perceptions, especially one that’s not leash-trained.