ugly pretty

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A couple of my recent posts have been difficult for me to write. This will be the hardest yet.

I’ll warn you up front that it will be a bit longer of a read. But don’t skim or skip it altogether. Bookmark and come back to it if you’re short on time at the moment. It may well be worth it.

I also want you to know that you, the readers, have been part of the decision making where this is concerned. I’ve noticed that many of you, after having read some of those “ugly posts” lately, took chances and revealed some less-than-perfect parts of yourselves, as well (Cindy, Lena, Donna, Sam and many others). Far from being a pity party, this seemed a good and necessary step in getting to a better place.

I want you to know – I hear you , and I’m right there with you.


I was talking with my friend Jonathan the other night. He lives in Houston and we haven’t gotten a chance to catch up in a while. During the course of the conversation, I said something. I don’t even remember what it was, but it was apparently something that my friend didn’t think sounded like it should come from a guy who wrote a book called The Best Advice So Far.  He laughed and then was speechless for a beat. I asked him why he’d had that reaction. Once he’d composed himself, he replied, “I guess I just always pictured you with a halo over your head, that’s all.”

And this got me thinking. It is, in fact, at the center of what I’m about to write.

I recently attended a coming-of-age sort of birthday party for a 16-year-old boy. A few of the guys who’ve invested in this young man’s life gathered over dinner at a local restaurant to affirm him and to pass on a few things we’ve learned along the way.  In and around this, other topics cropped up. One of the guys suggested we each tell something about ourselves that maybe others around the table didn’t already know about us. When it got to my turn, I asked if I might pass and take a minute to think about that; but the friend beside me sort of jumped the gun and tried to fill in for me: “Well, does everyone know what your lifetime GPA was?”

I politely tried to deflect this. “I don’t know,” I said smiling, “but that’s not anything I care about or think is all that interesting to other people.” Still, there it was, and now everyone wanted to know.

However, I’d rather tell you why I didn’t want them to know.

Growing up, I felt like a product of what I did rather than who I was. I never felt normal or accepted. I felt like a sort of attraction at a freak show. You might think I’m being hyperbolic for the sake of a good read. I’m not.

I remember one summer when I visited Maine with a friend of mine in high school. I always thought Tim was the coolest kid, and I couldn’t understand why he was my friend. But here I was, on my way up to Maine with him. On the ride, Tim talked excitedly about all of his old friends I’d meet during the visit. And I remember thinking to myself that maybe, for once, with these new people not knowing anything about me, I could be treated like just a normal person, even if only for a few days.

Soon after we arrived, we ventured out into Tim’s old stomping grounds. We met up with the first of his friends, whose name, if memory serves me correctly, was Mike Vine. Tim introduced us.

“Hey, this is Mike,” Tim beamed.  “He was my best friend growing up. We used to spend practically every day together. And he’s the best soccer player I know, too!”

In the space before Tim introduced me to Mike, I recall the mix of hope, anticipation and dread that filled me, wondering what Tim would say in his brief description of me. Would he say that I was one of his closest friends now? Would he say I was fun to hang out with?

“And, Mike, this is Erik. He’s a straight-A student. Wicked smart!”

Now, I know Tim meant well. But I was crushed.  Here I was, states away, with tentative hopes of a new identity. And he’d gone and labeled me with the old dirty sticker. The weird kid.  The dork. The bookworm. The kid regular guys can’t relate to. The one they don’t want to relate to.

Let me paint a picture of me – twice. First I’ll paint it as most people see me:

I am smart. I had a lifetime GPA of 4.0. I know a lot about a lot of things.

I am a friendly, positive and outgoing person. Conversation is easy for me, and I’m comfortable meeting new people.

I look 15 to 20 years younger than I am, a fact that both amazes and amuses people who know me.

Anything I take on, I do with excellence and complete on time.

I am independent and can do most things without help from others.

I mentor kids and young adults, and am a go-to person when friends need help or someone to listen.

I am a singer/songwriter. I am an author and writer. I speak several languages. I am an artist and graphic designer. There are many other things I do well.

I wrote a book called The Best Advice So Far, along with a companion blog, and the things I share seem to help a lot of people.

Sounds awesome, right? And the thing is, on the surface, each of those things is true. But let me paint that picture of myself again. Only this time, I want to let you in on the ugly side of that pretty picture:

I am smart. I had a lifetime GPA of 4.0. I know a lot about a lot of things.

I felt like a freak show, and still do whenever someone brings up the GPA (even here 25 years later). I only ever wanted kids to like me and see me as a normal kid, not reject me as someone they couldn’t relate to. And, if I’m being honest, which I am, I still feel like pretty much everyone is cooler than me. The stress of having a 4.0 was excruciating. I lived in constant dread of ever getting LESS than a 4.0. To me, a 99 felt like an F, because my entire value had been placed in my being perfect. Perfection didn’t mean accolades. Perfection meant no attention. Less than perfection garnered ridicule. At one point in college, it got so bad that I wound up in the hospital after having nearly died from starvation and dehydration. But perfectionism is a palatable addiction, so no one tends to worry too much about you until you crash and burn. Even then, it’s amazing how soon afterward they expect you to be back up on the horse (or how soon you expect yourself to be). 

I am a friendly, positive and outgoing person. Conversation is easy for me, and I’m comfortable meeting new people.

Sometimes, being friendly is exhausting. There is an expectation to be “on your game,” or funny or the plan-maker all the time. So there are days when I wind up stuffing what I’m really feeling rather than just being honest in a moment. I usually wind up carrying conversations, asking thoughtful or probing questions and actively listening. Because of this, many people throughout my life thus far would report that I was their “best friend.”  If you were to ask these people to tell you about me, they would tell you how I am a good friend and how much I’ve helped them or done for them. But the number of people who know about the real me on the inside – what I think, my dreams and goals and what keeps me up at night – are very few. On occasion, in the middle of the night, the feeling of loneliness and being unknown can feel like cinderblocks piled on my chest, making it hard to breathe. 

I look 15 to 20 years younger than I am, a fact that both amazes and amuses people who know me.

This is an expectation that can wear on me. At some point, I will not look “freakishly young.” I spend more on skin products than I probably should. But the worst part is that it factors heavily into the difficulties in having a relationship. The people I look like and am attracted to are turned off by the number attached to me by virtue of my revolutions around the sun; while the people who are my age generally see me as much younger and therefore “out of their league.”

Anything I take on, I do with excellence and complete on time.

It is very easy for people to forget I am a human being and not a robot or a resource or a magician whose primary purpose is to make their life easier. If I’m not careful, the feeling of being unappreciated can eat away at me quickly. Frankly, there are days every so often when I cringe every time the phone rings and I just want people to leave me alone.

I am independent and can do most things without help from others.

I have never broken up with someone. I have always been broken up with. The reasons slightly vary but essentially boil down to this: “You don’t need me. You can do everything well. I can’t take part in or even really talk intelligently about most of what you do on a daily basis. You make good decisions without needing input. There is nothing I can add to your life that you don’t already have within yourself and without me.” Each time, I’ve explained that what I want is someone to accept me for who I am – all of it – and to just treat me like a regular guy, not putting me on a pedestal. In short, independence, confidence and having a broad scope of abilities – leaves me alone much of the time.

I mentor kids and young adults, and am a go-to person when friends need help or someone to listen.

Output most often exceeds input by a wide margin. Because of this, if I’m not intentional about seeking that input, I can crash and be completely incapacitated every six or eight weeks.

I am a singer/songwriter. I am an author and writer. I speak several languages. I am an artist and graphic designer. There are many other things I do well.

It is very easy to be seen as or valued for solely what I can do and not for who I am as a person. Often, in addition, being multi-talented scares or intimidates people and makes them feel “less than” rather than equal. It’s hard then to find real peers, with whom there is equal give and take. My options are to hide parts of myself from people – or to risk being rejected for being un-relatable, “too much,” or an older version of the same childhood freak show kid.

I wrote a book called The Best Advice So Far, along with a companion blog, and the things I share seem to help a lot of people.

I read my own book and posts often after they have been written, because I need to. Writing and blogging helps me to stay focused as much as it helps anyone else. Maybe more. I am encouraged when others share their own stories that I can identify with, learn from and be challenged by.

***

Please understand – this is not intended to be some cathartic ME-moment.  I actually hate to talk about myself where these things are concerned. Not only is it not fun, it digs at that perfectionistic expectation I’ve had over a lifetime, something I continually have to ward against. It happens to be the case that I’m currently feeling particularly focused, positive, purposeful, and supported, as well as having a good balance between doing things for others and working on my own goals. As for tomorrow? That will depend on the choices I make tomorrow. But I can assure you, they will be real ones with their own hurdles.

The reason I’m telling you all this is simple. I want you to know, when you read my writing, that I am not some sort of toga-wearing guru who lives on the top of a blissful mountain doling out platitudes about choice and change, all of which I myself figured out long ago in some nebulous and distant past.

It’s real. It’s current. And it’s often hard work.

Remembering that you always have a choice – is hard.

Choosing to be positive when circumstances aren’t – is hard.

Changing longstanding patterns of thought and action – is hard.

Treating others as real people and not props or background noise – is hard.

Letting go of hurt and grudges – is hard.

For you. For me. For everyone who is serious about such things.

It takes intention.

It takes commitment.

It takes reminders.

It takes time.

But hard does not mean impossible.

And I wanted you to know today that I get it. I believe in what I have to say because I’ve lived it. I have to remind myself to live it daily. And, yes, because of that, I’ve seen change over the years.  I’m happier, more at peace and getting better at how I deal with things. But I’m still a real guy with real battles of my own to fight. Right now. Today.

Real change is never easy, no matter who we are. Don’t feel alone in it. You aren’t.

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Take those risks.

Share your stories with others.

Ask for help when you need it.

Take action where you want to see change.

And when you fail, try again.

It’s a process, so give yourself time. Give yourself a break. And give others a break. Even those who seem the prettiest from a distance have got their own private “ugly” to deal with.

And as you continue reading along the way (and I hope you will), please remember that the words and thoughts are coming through the hands and heart of the real person writing them, not the imaginary one with the halo.

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