Everyone has those memories of childhood or adolescence which, no matter how far we’ve come, can still bring us waves of insecurity and embarrassment, as if we’re still being laughed at by the cool girls or rejected by our first crush. We can be successful, put-together, and deeply happy with the person we are today, but somehow that moment we forgot our lines in the big school play or had a stain on our shirt throughout the whole class picture day stings at 26 like it stung at 16. There is still that gawky teen inside of all of us, and the formative sting of our embarrassing moments never quite goes away. We just think of them less and less, until something happens in our adult life that makes us feel equally uncool, and we are 13 again, giving a presentation with spinach in our braces.
For me, one of my most cringeworthy teen eras was the summer before college, when everyone was off doing fun and interesting things, and I was left to work a full-time job at a store in a strip mall because I wasn’t even mature enough yet for community college. Life that summer became a series of awkward conversations and embarrassing admissions. I did everything in my power to not admit the truth of what had happened, that my four years of terrible grades, blowing off the SATs, and generally not caring about school had left me with no choices. I tried to let people believe, by admission and some manipulative exaggeration, that I was actually doing this-or-that cool program, or that I was just waiting until the spring semester to go to “real” college so that I could save up some extra money.
I remember being in a hot tub with two female friends of mine who, without realizing they were doing it, laughed at me trying to find a less-lame sounding version of “staying at my parents’ house and working at the shoe store.” Their laughter cut me like almost nothing ever had, and it’s a sound I can hear to this day, a sound that still sends a pang of retroactive embarrassment directly to my stomach. It wasn’t the laughter of an enemy, it was the bemused pity of a friend (who also happened to be, as all 18-year-olds are, a little cruel). There was, and is, no feeling worse than being pitied. It’s the kind of feeling that sticks to us for years, and make us feel like we’re always on the verge of being that very same teenaged loser, if we make one wrong move.
Not long ago, I felt that same pang again. As someone who has worked online for the past five years, writing articles and making websites and creating copy for brands, my career has been a pretty obscure one for most of my friends and family. I don’t take it personally, but even among my immediate family members and closest friends, there are only a tiny handful who actually understand that what I do is a real job that makes real money, and usually those people have also worked in some element of publishing, media, or advertising. I have endless love for the ones who ask questions and do their best to understand, even though it must objectively be boring to listen to details of things like ad revenue and web development. And for the most part, having people not think that I have a “real” job doesn’t really bother me, mostly because I know that there is little I can do to change it. If they think that my boyfriend just pays for my life and I write online for fun, what am I supposed to do, short of publishing my tax returns?
But an offhand comment from someone who was praising another friend for being a small business owner, in contrast to my “unserious” job of writing online — when I am also a small business owner — felt weirdly devastating. It was a reminder of how I am viewed, how the work I do is viewed, how (to some degree) women business owners are viewed. It wasn’t a big deal, in the scheme of things, but it brought me back to that summer after high school, of that desperate and needling feeling of being left out, of wanting people to understand and accept what you’re doing. I felt that self-consciousness of being behind somehow, even though I feel, in my own life, content and successful in my own way. It’s the anxiety we feel when it feels like every friend is announcing their amazing new job right out of school, or talking about the incredible programs they got into, or Instagramming perfectly-arranged photos of their fancy desk space.
We are taught, directly or not, to feel constantly insecure about our place in the professional and academic world. We are taught to envy, and struggle, and feel an unstoppable need to prove to people that we are doing “well.” There is nothing worse than that sense of pity, that idea that you are being looked at as the last kid to finish running the mile in fifth grade, red-faced and sweaty, working just as hard only to come in behind absolutely everyone else. It’s that feeling that can lead us to post about every work update, to take jobs we may not be sure about because they feel “serious,” to base our important life decisions on how it will look on Instagram, or how many likes it might get on Facebook.
But the truth that I know, and you do, too, on some level, is that no one really cares. Those girls that laughed in the hot tub forgot about it the next day, and certainly when they were off that fall having parties in their dorm rooms. The guy who made that “small business” comment probably has never thought about my job — and its entrepreneurial implications — before or since. The people who are all posting their job updates, while yours remains firmly your post-grad “placeholder” gig, probably haven’t even noticed that you’re working at that same cheese shop. They are busy working, living, and quite possibly not even loving that prestigious career that seems so perfect from your vantage point.
When you feel behind, all of these things seem so real, and consume you entirely. Every new person to hit a milestone that you aren’t hitting feels like a personal attack, and you imagine that everyone is laughing or, worse, pitying you. We take notice of these things because we are insecure about them, because they make us feel like the last kid to get picked for a group project. It’s so easy to forget that, for people who have already hit these milestones or who have the air of success, other people’s “struggles” don’t even register. The chances are very high that no one is thinking of you at all, which sounds bleak until you realize just how freeing it is. You don’t have to take their opinions into account, because they probably don’t have one. You don’t have to rush to cross a finish line, because no one is waiting with a cup of water. You can take your time and make your decisions for yourself, because you are the only person to whom they really matter.
We aren’t in high school anymore, and there is no cool kid’s table. There are only people who are happy and fulfilled in their own choices — whatever they may be — and there is always going to be room for us to join them.
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