When I was in college I had an arch nemesis.
I think I’m pretty nice. I generally like most people I meet. But I did not like her. For the purposes of this space, I’m going to refer to her as Nina, which is pretty disappointing because her real name totally screams villain.
I think the first time I encountered Nina was in a lit class. She was dating a boy I had a giant crush on, and, even though Taylor Swift was years from releasing her first album, I totally Taylor Swifted their situation. You know, when you like a boy, but he’s with someone terrible, and you write a song about his faded jeans and how he belongs with you? That’s how it started.
Every boy I was ever interested in (including 2 of the 3 boyfriends I’ve ever had in my entire life) had, at some point in time, been involved with her. (SO MUCH TAYLOR SWIFTING.) She was smart and petite and aloof, and I had no idea who I was. She was friends with some of my friends. She was in my classes. Our university was tiny. I couldn’t escape her.
I could fill this entire post with the things I didn’t like about Nina, but I graduated from college over 11 years ago, so that’s probably not productive for anyone. The worst part was that even though I told myself consistently that I didn’t want to be anything like her, it was impossible to avoid comparing myself to her, often coming out on the other side with another dent in my self-worth.
Actually, that’s not the worst part. The worst part was when I realized that the thing I despised about Nina the most wasn’t her fault at all — it was mine. I gave her the power to make me feel horrible about myself, and I couldn’t make it stop. The twist in the plot was — gasp! — I was actually my own worst enemy.
Nina’s statute of limitations is up. If I were to see her today, I’d probably smile politely, then awkwardly pretend like her existence wasn’t the anxiety-ridden scourge of my college experience, and leave as soon as possible. It would be uncomfortable for everyone, but then it would be over.
It would almost be comforting if I could replace her — if I could have someone new to project my insecurities on and blame for any of life’s shittiness. But that whole “when you point the finger at someone else, three fingers point back at you” thing is annoyingly true, especially for me. The problem isn’t what anyone tries to take from me; it’s what I give away — the same thing I gave to Nina: the power to make me feel inferior. Here are some scenarios in which this plays out on the regular:
- When I’m casually scrolling through Instagram and end up down a rabbit hole of cool, beautiful, effortless bloggers and their perfect houses and adorable boyfriends
- When I’m at home alone and think about calling friends to make plans but talk myself out of it because they’re probably busy with their kids or husbands or something more important than me
- When I’m interested in someone who doesn’t reciprocate, causing me to obsessively make lists of the things that must be wrong with me
- When someone, anyone, asks the question I dread the most: What’s new? And I have NOTHING to say.
Does What’s new? incite a panic in anyone else? Or am I the only one whose brain erupts into chaos, frantically poring over the past days and weeks for something interesting to share — something to give the people what they want — an indication of forward motion in my story? The moment the words “Oh…um…nothing really,” painfully escape from my mouth, I am at the height of my awkwardness, wishing I could moonwalk out of the conversation, literally disappear, and everyone would forget I ever existed.
I know it’s just a friendly conversation starter, but somehow it always morphs into this evil force that makes me believe my life is a stagnant, boring disappointment. Here, nice person who is simply asking about my life: take all of my power. TAKE IT.
For the past few months, I’ve answered What’s new? with something about my nephews. Because I didn’t really have any new developments in my own life, I would talk about my siblings being pregnant. I was pretty excited about it (understatement of the century), and I figured it would satisfy the question. People love babies! Don’t get me wrong; I freaking love my siblings (and nephews!) like infinity x infinity, but every time I mentioned something about their pregnancies, it felt more and more like I was hiding behind their great news — a reminder that I had nothing of my own of value to bring to the table — that my story seems to be on pause more often than it’s on play.
I recently finished watching all 5 current seasons of Orange is the New Black. If you’re behind the times like me: it’s a hilarious, heartbreaking, smart, heavy dramedy about a women’s prison and the inmates’ backstories. (I might be kind of obsessed.) In an early season, Piper, an inmate, has a conversation with her then-boyfriend, Larry, during a bi-weekly visitation. He’s been using Piper’s story to propel his journalism career, and now he wants her to help him get access to information so he can write an exposé on the prison.
“You’re the moon, Larry. You have got to stop being the moon,” Piper tells him. Confused, he asks what’s wrong with being the moon, and she replies: “It doesn’t have its own light.”
The moon doesn’t produce its own light. That’s science, people. The only reason we can see the moon at all is because it reflects the light of the sun.
When I struggle to find a sufficient answer for What’s new? I feel like the moon. When I talked about my siblings’ pregnancies, and sometimes even now, when I talk about the babies, I feel like the moon. I’m not making my own light; I’m just reflecting someone else’s and trying to pass it off as my own to people who didn’t listen during their second grade astronomy lessons.
My dear, smart, spunky, sister-in-feminism friend Danielle shared an article with me a few years ago about Shine Theory. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s the feminist ideology that when one woman succeeds, every woman succeeds — that, instead of harboring jealousy and resentment toward a woman who is more confident/powerful/successful/fulfilled/beautiful/smart than you are, it’s in your best interest to befriend that woman because she can only make you stronger.
It boils down to this: I don’t shine if you don’t shine. (Bonus: that’s also a line in Read My Mind by The Killers. Everybody wins!)
While I think the article’s context is correct and appropriate, the more I read about Shine Theory, the more I think it applies to my interactions with all kinds of people: family, friends, strangers, fringe Facebook friends, even an arch nemesis.
The people in my life shape me into who I am. Who am I to feel belittled by anyone’s good news? When they shine, I should get as close as possible to soak up a little bit of their light, not hide in shame in the darkness, right? My selfishness so often keeps me from experiencing true and full joy for others when I immediately engage Comparison Mode, crumple up any shred of power I can muster, hang my head, and hand it over.
I’m not super pumped to broadcast my insecurities to the world. It’s pretty embarrassing, actually. But there’s an unsuspecting freedom in claiming the messy, messed up shadow of ME ME ME that keeps me in the dark sometimes. It’s freeing to name it and know it and realize that, even if it hangs around for a while, the sun HAS to shine on me again soon. (More science!)
Things were easier when I could blame stuff like this on Nina — when I was 20 and didn’t know how self-sabotaging I really was. Comparison has eroded parts of my confidence that I fear may never be repaired. But my hope is that, bit by bit, those parts can be rebuilt from the ground up. No patchwork. No temporary facade. New and strong and true, echoing on repeat: You are enough. You are enough. You are enough.
As my own enemy, the only choice I have is to let my guard down, bask in the beautiful beams of sunshine that radiate from those around me, and learn to be ok being the moon.
The next time someone asks me What’s new? I’m going do my best not to panic. Maybe I’ll say something about my nephews (110% chance). Maybe it will be something slightly embarrassing, like how many episodes of Will & Grace I watched last night (probably between 4 and 6). Whatever happens, it can’t be as bad as dealing with Nina. She was the literal worst.