“People won’t like or admire you for your insecurities,” my seventh-grade teacher explained. “They'll like or admire you despite them.”
She was trying to teach me that “oversensitive” and “just adorable” were not the same thing.
I’m reminded of her words when I realize how eagerly we now tell everybody what’s wrong with us as an opening conversational gambit. It’s as if we’ve replaced a wish for admiration with a bid for empathy.
I’m not suggesting we revert to a world where people you have never met whack you on the back by way of introduction and boom, “Hi ya, pal! I have two cars, three perfect kids and a great job. How about you?”
But should we be drawn into conversations with strangers who, on contact, disclose, “Hi, I’m sorry, I’m not good at meeting people because I grew up as a middle child, have a son who is lactose intolerant plus my spouse and I have had trouble since I’ve been dieting, but you can’t tell I’m dieting from my arms, but ‘hi!’ anyhow!”?
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For years our culture has taught us that there’s a big difference between boasting about your accomplishments vs. wheedling for sympathy.
But the real question is whether boasting and bemoaning are different when it comes to general conversation?
Both are bids for attention. Both are ways to make an impression. Both are requests to be treated as an exception.
And both cries can drive the more sensible members of the flock right out of the room.
This is a tough lesson, especially for girls and women. Conventional femininity and some scary country music tell us that “God made girls” because, “Somebody’s gotta be the one to cry.”
But even if we’re no longer encouraged to imagine ourselves as simpering waifs waiting for princes on white horses or cowboys in pickup trucks, we’re still encouraged to believe that femininity and insecurity are braided together.
We get into problems when that braid becomes a rope and we use it to tie ourselves down.
If boys are taught to mask their emotions, girls are taught to use emotions to manipulate.
A little girl with a tear in her eye will be coddled and told she’s a poor, sweet darling who needs to rest after her boo-boo.
Her little male counterpart, in contrast, will be told, in the words of Monty Python, that it’s only a flesh wound.
A professor from Berkeley used to tell a story about a small girl facing a radically different response.
Many years ago, he said, an English family was putting in pegs for their tents in a camping site next to his. The daughter, a chipper camper around age six, whacked her hand with the mallet she was using and began to cry.
After checking to see that no real damage was done, her father looked down at his daughter and said, “Act the man, Emma.”
After a startled moment, Emma indeed halted her crying and, according to the professor, cheerfully resumed her duties.
I bet she’s a member of Parliament now.
This is not to say that we should thrust our natural responses so deeply underground that they are irretrievable; that’s a recipe for disaster.
But we shouldn’t expect to be cherished, soothed or embraced solely for our vulnerabilities, either.
We should not regard our imperfections as our primary self-definition. Protect your frailties; lead with your strengths.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.