I know you are, but what am I?

When did “I’m good at Math.” turn into “I’m a genius. You’re stupid.” 

When did “I think he likes me!” turn into “I’m hot. Everybody wants me.

When did “Oh, my butt looks so cute in these pants.” turn into “You wish you had my body, bitch.

 

Society has done an amazing job of conditioning us to hear confidence as cockiness. Positive “I” statements as narcissistic. It’s frightful that a healthy self concept can be skewed so negatively. But it happens and the lower the self esteem of the other person, the worse it is. 

In the behavioral neuroscience courses I’ve taken, many of us struggled with understanding sensation vs. perception. The take away from all those lectures was that perception isn’t necessarily reality. It may not have anything to do with what actually happened. The example in class was of an experiment where people listened to a piece of classical music and then reported their mood afterward. Same stimulus, but many different perceptions. People reacted to the same piece of music differently – some fell asleep, some were crying tears of joy, some became angry, others sad and so on.

Much like the classical music, the positive “I” statement also goes through that auditory pathway into the sections of our higher brain that gives the statement meaning. The meaning comes from our own experiences and core beliefs. How we perceive the words may have nothing to do with the words themselves or the person they came out of.

There’s a Greek expression my father used to say – He who has fleas feels itchy. Essentially, if someone has something in their mind (fleas), their reaction is going to reflect that (itchy). Itchy is their state of being. So, if you make a statement of self esteem and the person you say it to has a low self concept or suffers from cognitive distortions, their filter is going to assign a negative meaning to it. It will become evidence that they aren’t good enough. They will mind read you and assume you think you’re superior to them. They might even call you names and tell you they want nothing to do with you. Being around you doesn’t make them feel good because they don’t like the mirror you have become for them.  Nothing you do or say is going to change that. In the end, they need to take a hard look at their own reflection instead of flipping it back onto you.

You are absolutely allowed to acknowledge your accomplishments and take pride in your traits. We are all little works in progress. The more support we give each other, the more likely it will inspire growth and self love. I look to people who make positive “I” statements and feel inspired. In my head I hear “I should try that” or “Oh, that makes me want to write again” or “I wonder how I would look with that hair cut.” But I wasn’t always like that…

Between the ages of 19 and 22, I suffered from dysthymia or what is now called Persistent Depressive Disorder. It’s a chronic low grade depression that casts what feels like a shadow over every area in your life. My self esteem was almost non-existent and my thoughts were extremely negative. I walked around with a pervasive sense of hopelessness. I definitely perceived everything and everyone through that filter. I had a close friend who was gorgeous. She had body confidence for days, could talk to just about anyone and got the attention of boys/men wherever we went. Being in her company made me acutely aware of all the things I felt I wasn’t. I would get upset or border on crying many times we would go out. I would tell her things like, “You just want everyone. Let me have someone too.” She would look shocked, tell me I was also beautiful and could have whomever I wanted, but I felt like she was just telling me these things out of pity. I perceived the tone of her voice as patronizing. I would ask her why she was talking to me like I was some kind of loser. She would give me this look of confusion mixed with annoyance, which made me scared she would stop being my friend. I would apologize profusely and then compliment her repeatedly. I perceived her as being annoyed with me all the time. It got to the point that I felt so self-conscious being around her that I decided to stop talking to her. I didn’t return her calls. I didn’t make any effort to reach out to her. I needed to relieve myself from the anxiety and lowness I felt when I was around her. None of this was her fault. She did nothing but be herself; a self that I couldn’t be. My depression and distorted negative thoughts convinced me I had no business being around her. In one of the last voicemails she left me, she was semi crying and asking what happened; how it hurt her to not know what she did to make me disappear. It’s really sad and messed up. As I look back on that period in my life, it makes me see recent experiences with former friends in a different light. It’s easier to forgive when you’ve been in their place. It’s easier to have compassion when you know what level of lowness their words and actions toward you came from.

These experiences helped me see how far I have come from that dark time in my life and taught me to be more compassionate for that suffering when I see it and experience it in others. If I could say anything to that friend now it would be, I’m sorry. I had a lot of issues and you were a good friend to me despite it all. You didn’t deserve to be treated like that. I hope you can forgive me.

And to those former friends who treated me in kind, I forgive you too.

 

 

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The Grey Experiment

“You look tired!”

“You don’t want people to think you’re letting yourself go.”

“What a shame! You have such a youthful face.”

“No, really…how old ARE you?”

All of the above statements have been made to me by friends, relatives and surprisingly, complete strangers. What they are all commenting on is the color of my hair; not a complete head of grey, but a village of silver and white that sprang up at my sideburns and crown beginning at the age of 19.  Yes, 19. This early onset of grey is genetic; both my sister and I inherited the premature greys from our mother. Three traceable generations before her went grey in their early 20s. I remember a story about my great grandmother almost becoming an “old maid”.  As her male relatives haggled with potential husbands over her dowry, her dark hair became fully grey. By the time she was married at age of 30, which was considered over the hill in those days, she was perceived to be much older due to her hair color.  It probably didn’t help that her husband was also almost 60.

Speaking of perception, societal pressure for women to maintain a “youthful” appearance is evident in the way we react to graying hair.  A recent UK news story spoke of scientists isolating the gene that causes hair to lose its pigment. The end goal would be to eventually create a pill that would target that gene and “stop the clock” on the greying process.

Guess I’ll be needing that pill, huh?

When I saw my first white hair at 19, I promptly plucked it out.  At the time, I was also dyeing my hair to match my moods (thank you, Manic Panic).  As a result, I never allowed enough of the grey to come in to be noticeable to myself or anyone else.  Paradoxically,  a baby face with a head of silver had become a beauty trend.  Girls and young women purposely dye their hair different shades of gray before their biological clocks have them looking so au naturale. So, where is the disconnect? Going gray is only acceptable if you choose to do it and are visibly in your 20’s as opposed to it happening naturally. J-Lo is 46 years old with amazing skin and body fitness. If she stopped dyeing her hair, she most certainly would have some greys. Would that make her any less of a sex symbol? Would her younger boyfriend leave her? Would the world tell her that she was letting herself go?

gray_20something yr old
The grey 20 something year old…

I wanted to see how long I could go without reaching for the L’Oreal bottle. I decided to stop dyeing my roots in June of 2015. I was already sporting a tan and the village of grey coming in on my head was being oxidized by the sun giving it a reddish and blondish hue depending on the light. My clients complimented my “highlights” and my deepening bronze skin tone. It was still all positives once September rolled in and I started my semester.  Within the first three weeks of school, I got my first comment. It came from a girl who had a penchant for blurting out whatever was on her mind  in the middle of class no matter how inappropriate (social pragmatics = 0). Sitting outside our classroom, she looked at me and said, “What’s up with your hair?” I asked what she meant. “You don’t dye it,” she replied in a flat tone. While I was mildly annoyed in the moment, it didn’t deter me from maintaining my decision to keep it REAL. I told her I liked how it looked and kept reading my textbook.

By the end of October, there was a solid inch of grey hair from my crown downward. The tan was also fading and as the semester became more rigorous, my hair was going up in a bun most days to be out of the way. I arrived to school sometime around Halloween and the security guard in front of the gate stopped me from entering. He asked for my ID and when I showed it to him, he did not believe it was me. He kept saying that it did not look like me. I took my hair down and shook it out to match the style in the grainy image on my card. Still, he was adamant that it wasn’t me in the ID. He then called over the other female guard to show her my ID. All this time, there were young people filtering past us and none of them were being stopped for IDs. So, I made mention of that. The answer: They’re students. Before I had a chance to answer that I, TOO, was a student, the female guard playfully hits her colleague and tells him it is my ID, it’s just my hair that was throwing him off. They both laughed and instead of apologizing to me for all the trouble, he thought it would be a good idea to compare me to the bride of Frankenstein with her grey streaks and wild up-do. Your Halloween joke was not funny.

As final exam time approached in early December, I had experienced a few more incidents. The post office worker who told me I was “brave” for leaving so much grey. The 20-something year old boy who made a crass comment about the color of “other hair” on my body. And the handful of much older gentlemen who complimented my hair and asked how I take such good care of myself. More than anything else, the little comments were wearing me down; things like you look so tired, school is aging you, stop putting your hair up if you don’t want people to say anything. I found myself near tears as I wrestled with the urge to dye my hair again. In the end, I made an appointment just after Christmas and dyed my locks back to black. What broke me was the idea that major judgements that could affect my future, both personally and professionally, would be made based on the “age” of my hair. I left the beauty salon feeling like I had my armor back, not my youth.

 

Additional Reading:

http://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/369413

http://recil.grupolusofona.pt/handle/10437/6666

https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QD_eCQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA133&dq=hair+color+and+self+esteem&ots=ExFkYHlghp&sig=AG9Y01Aw1VmXoihOo7WiY9a2_iw#v=onepage&q&f=false