innocence most often is a good fortune and not a virtue

I have a friend at work, one of those people with whom one does not initially set out to become friends (divergent social lives, disparate ages, interests, education, career paths, etc.) but, for whatever reasons (and plenty of 'no reason at all') we've discovered a kindred soul. Last week, during a typical conversation veering from cartoon dogs, to runny eggs with burnt toast, to mix CDs, to bitch-weasels and Sponge Bob, she said something that stuck in my head and will not shake loose. She said (in far better words) that one of the best things about me is that I've stopped caring what other people think about me.

That's both a curse and a compliment. Insufficient awareness, or concern, for others' feelings about oneself can be perceived as arrogance or willful blindness or just foolishness. The trick is to somehow know how much is enough, and who those 'others' ought to be.

For a long time, I was the person who always worried about what others thought about me. Every decision I made was overlaid with consideration of what others would think and how they would react. I think it stems from my childhood: one of my parents can be exceedingly critical, the other highly sensitive. Communication is not always accomplished in the household; despite lots of talking, much goes without saying. Early in life, I learned that wishing and imagining were easier and more personally productive than asking for what I wanted. Also, a big reader, I developed the sort of rich fantasy life that opened me up to magical realism and superstition.

It colored my work life, and school, and definitely my friendships and romantic relationships. It all reached its zenith while I was dating Nick, the three years after my divorce. In a sense, that's entirely what that relationship was about: he fought to get away, and I manipulated everything to make it perfect so that he would stay. And, when he inevitably flew because he couldn't deal with it or me, I would only try harder to make it perfect so that he would come back. Illogical, but inordinately tempting.

We broke up for a reason that, on the surface, had very little to do with being done with each other. But it didn't take much digging to realize that I was finally at the end of my resources for glossing things over. I couldn't make it seem like things were perfect anymore. I couldn't give him all the care and affection that he needed, keep things quiet (which he required), and eliminate all sources of conflict (which he couldn't handle)--not and still have room for myself, too. The great irony, though? Once I was truly through with him, and he realized it: that was when he wanted me more than ever. I was everything he'd ever desired for me to be, right there. It's just sick and sad that I couldn't be that way when he was anywhere near me.

Somewhere around that time, I was trying to get healthy. For the first time in my life, I was taking seriously my doctor's suggestion (urging? order?) that I should lose some weight, eat right, and exercise. I had been doing whatever I felt like for too long, and was paying the price. As part of that process, I was reading fitness magazines, hoping for inspiration. I found it.

An intern at the magazine was given a column in which to document her weight-loss journey. It was interesting to see someone else going through the same thing, so I found her posts (about food and portions, fitting in time to exercise, the psychological effects of the process, etc.) to be helpful. But one, in particular, made a huge impact.

Having taken up running as part of her program, she eventually signed up for a race. She began to worry a great deal, though, about how she would look while she was running. Expressing her fears to her exercise coach (the magazine provided her with a team of professionals - a great perk, really), she admitted that the worry of what others would be thinking about her was impeding her training goals.

The coach told her, "It's not about you." Her first reaction was, what do you mean? They will see the fat girl and think, who does she think she is, thinking she can run with all these thin people, these real 'runners'? They will think that I look ridiculous and fat and terrible.

The coach was very gentle, but insistent. "They are not there to look at you, to stare at you and wonder why you're doing what you're doing. Honestly, they probably won't even notice you at all. And if they do--they're noticing you from the sidelines, and you're participating. So if they do think of you? They'll be thinking, 'She's doing it! And I'm not!' The people who come out to see the race...they're there to see the race. Not to judge you. The people who you think are looking at you - they probably never even notice you."

The people
who you 
at you
never even notice you.

That was extraordinary. It helped the intern get over her self-consciousness, and she just went out and ran her own race without letting the spectators into her head.  And it helped me, really all at once, stop obsessing about that sort of meaningless level of attention-getting.

I'm not completely over it. There are a couple of areas where it still hounds me. Well, three. Public speaking will never be something I do easily, and formal occasions sort of stem from that same feeling of conspicuousness, but I think that pretty much everyone (or at least most women) feel that same sort of combined thrill and dread when they put on some special clothes and hope to both blend in and stand out (but only in a good way). And in the romantic realm ... I think too much. And worry that I'm not making the right choices, or that they're being misconstrued by others.

Is it better to care too much, or not enough? To always keep others' preferences in mind when making choices, or never? To be too concerned about others' feelings, or one's own?

[the title quotation is by Anatole France]

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