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I’m mean. I’m petty. I fly off the handle at the smallest provocation. I antagonize people who have done nothing to earn my antagonism. I nurse grudges and remember every specious imagined slight. I am passive-aggressive and casually cruel to the people around me. I try my best to not do these things but I feel that I am never in control of my emotions.
That’s what I used to believe about myself. This was the person I thought I was and the face I presented to the rest of the world. I believed with all my heart that I was a terrible person. I didn’t want to be but I felt helpless to change. I accepted it as a given that there was something wrong with me.
It made sense that this was happening. I saw nothing wrong because while I hated my situation I hated myself more. I saw no value in myself. I was a drag on the people around me, someone whose presence was never accepted but tolerated.
That’s not how I see myself anymore, entirely. I can’t answer the question of whether or not I am a good person. Given my circumstances and limitations, I try my very best. I fall short. I feel like I fall short more often than not, especially now given the stress of transition. There are more opportunities to get it wrong. Hopefully going forward I’ll understand where I got it wrong and avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Negative moments have a way of sticking around where positive events dissipate. I remember bad things I’ve done, people I’ve wronged (intentionally or far more likely unintentionally), people I’ve insulted (usually but not always unintentionally), people I’ve inconvenienced, people who dislike me for reasons I don’t know but I can hazard a guess, people who dislike me for unknown reasons. For every casual acquaintance in my life I have a mental folder two inches thick filled with incriminating evidence of my social awkwardness. I don’t go out much anymore because every social interaction is an opportunity to embarrass myself.
Talking about the past is difficult. Disentangling what I remember from what happened is unsettling. I remember myself being awful. Other people remember differently. Casual acquaintances remind me of nice things I’ve done or said over the years, small gestures of kindness or generosity that revealed my character. It’s not that I don’t believe what people tell me. I don’t remember.
Disassociation is a coping mechanism. I refined it into art for decades, years spent putting on a mask and trudging forward blindly through each emotionally fraught and perilous situation. Eventually every situation was categorized as “emotionally fraught and perilous.” I was always disassociating. It became habit, and after that it became reflex. Especially in a crisis, people often tell me I can be distracted to the point of obliviousness, despite doing the minimum of what is required. I’m not even on the same planet.
When I say I don’t remember doing nice things for people, I mean it quite literally: I cannot remember most of the nice things people tell me I have done. I remember things I did out of obligation, out of resentment or duty, out of boredom or anger, but I have trouble remembering even the simplest gestures of kindness. Imagine looking behind you and seeing only negative emotions. What positive emotions you keep are a source of embarrassment. You feel guilty when people do nice things for you and are unhappy when people give you compliments. Doesn’t everyone feel that way?
(If you do I’m profoundly sorry. You do not suffer alone.)
I have a RateMyProf page. It’s hurts to look. Not because my students are mean – quite the opposite. My comments are laudatory. People go out of their way to say wonderful things about me. Rather than enjoying the praise it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me extraordinarily unhappy. Teaching is one of the few things I consider myself to be actually good at. I enjoy doing it and usually get a good response, even if my pedagogy can be unusual. Nevertheless whenever I see the ratings and students’ very sweet comments I want to turn away.
For some unspecified reason it hurts that people think I’m good at my job – because all I see when I look back is the ways I’ve failed and fallen short. My frequent lateness, my procrastination with grading, my inability to complete even the simplest tasks on time. I adapt the persona of the absent-minded professor to cover my lapses, but it’s not really a persona. My memory doesn’t work right and I often need two or three reminders from students before putting up the homework. How is this the behavior of a good teacher?
(Every teacher does these things sometimes. We’re only human.)
It’s important to remember: I wasn’t just in the closet hiding from the rest of the world, I was in the closet even from myself. It’s a very small closet where even the slightest movement can topple the heap of accumulated mental clutter – what happened to me. In order to maneuver in such a tricky space, you learn to move with economy. You bend yourself backwards. Good things – even extraordinarily good things, such as luck or achievement or even romance – can’t be interpreted correctly. The wires don’t work right, and every opportunity to feel a positive, honest emotion is diverted. Good luck makes me anxious instead of grateful. Achievement of any kind makes me question my worth, and I live with a case of imposter syndrome so severe I am in essence running out the clock on graduate school before they realize I’ve been deceiving them for six years. Love makes me doubt either the sincerity of the affection, or worse, fills me with doubt as to the reliability of my friends and family. If they like me, what’s wrong with them?
To return to the first question: I don’t know whether or not I’m a good person. I feel very deeply that I am not. That I am all those things I listed at the beginning of the essay, and more – hateful, petty, manipulative, forgetful, self-serving, incompetent, untrustworthy. Yet the evidence does not completely support this narrative.
How do you know if you’re a good person? It is in this instance a practical question. If you already have grounds to suspect that your memories are being edited by disassociation, the question becomes terrifying because suddenly you don’t know what matters more: acts of cruelty to yourself or acts of kindness to others. The reason you don’t know is that you don’t trust your memory.
Being chronically unhappy distorts your perceptions. Anyone who has experienced serious depression knows the sensation of fighting a treasonous brain hell-bent on clinging only to the most upsetting recollections. Unhappy memories linger in anyone’s brain, but never have leave to rest in that of a depressive.
(I suspect most people live with more depression than they realize, or admit, but that’s pure bias.)
There is also the complication that transition, as much as we may want or be able to control the outcome, entails inconvenience for many and serious trauma for a few. The people in our lives are hurt. It’s unavoidable, whether or not it’s a “fair” reaction for them to have. People respond to change poorly. We feel genuine anguish when our actions hurt other people. The problem, and most people who remain in your life eventually realize this, is that the ultimatum driving the change is life or death.
Having a poor self-image is a part of depression. It distorts your thoughts. You can’t trust your own reactions because your memory has selected only the worst instances for comparison. The worst social mistakes or intimate faux pas you have ever committed are never far from your thoughts. You are intensely self-conscious. Your actions seem labored, strangled – people are uncomfortable around you sometimes even if they may not know why. You wear on people. You come to regard it as a kind of sour-milk smell baked into your soul.
Under these circumstances, it is extraordinarily important not just to be able to ask yourself whether or not you are good, but to be able to understand and accept the answer. It’s also extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps the best way to ensure that you are a good person is to surround yourself with good people. You see the person you wish to be reflected in the faces of the people you love.
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