I wonder what my cat dreams about.
When I was a kid, I actually had an ugly duckling dream.
I must have been four when I had this dream. I was in some sort of alternate fantasy universe, chilling with a bunch of other girls, while we were being assigned our princess symbols. I guess we were kind of like Care Bears, because those symbols would go on the belly of some fancy dress we had to wear and had some meaning as to what we represented. The symbols were your typical girly girl fare: hearts, stars, glitter, rainbows, and the like.
Everyone was called and assigned a symbol except me. I knew it was because I was less worthy.
I felt that way for most of my life — that I was somehow less worthy than the people around me. Maybe some deficiency of character. I also spent most of my childhood thinking I was ugly. Looking back, I wasn’t an ugly kid. (There are no ugly kids.) I felt goofy-looking because puberty hit me early, because I had a broad shoulders but wasn’t athletic, because I had thick glasses and acne and frizzy hair. It didn’t help that I was socially awkward, hopelessly unable to read the social cues of kids my age. Every time I thought I had them figured out, it seemed like they were ten steps ahead of me with whatever was in style next. My ability to draw Pokemon and help them with their homework was my only social currency.
Even as an adult, I’ve always had to fight my own inferiority complex and impostor’s syndrome. When I scored a full ride scholarship to my alma mater, a classmate told me that it was only because “everyone did,” and I took it to heart. When I won two departmental awards in a row for my college papers, I thought it could only be because of a modest turnout for paper submissions.
In college, when people would flirt, go on dates, or make out with me, I thought they couldn’t possibly be into me — they were just looking to have some fun. In some cases I was right, but in other cases I hurt people’s feelings because they were interested in me, but I couldn’t comprehend their being interested in me, so I acted cold as a defense mechanism — so, you know, I couldn’t be rejected and hurt.
I ended a couple of relationships because I had it in my mind that my partners had lost genuine interest in me and were interpreting shallow interest and familiarity as love. And in a couple cases, they made impassioned arguments against my interpretation, and I still didn’t believe them.
Dear people I used to date: I AM SO SORRY. (True facts: apparently, my fiance was attracted to me long before we started dating. Even though we met on a dating site, this fact STILL boggles my mind.)
Anyway, back to my ugly duckling dream. By the end of the dream, it turned out that my omission wasn’t an indication of unworthiness at all — they just didn’t know how to sort me. I had too many things going on. So they made me a little composite symbol — check out my young literary brain here — “SparklyHeartStarRainbow.” And I had the coolest princess belly of them all.
I guess that even as a kid, I knew that there was something inside me, deep down, that defied all the negative messages I was receiving about my worth. That I had a place in the world, even if it was a little harder to see.
Even now, it’s hard to shake the idea that I’m different. In the midst of my friends, I look for any sign that I’m somehow not supposed to be there, that they only keep me around because they got used to me, or because nobody wants to break it to me that I’m unwanted. Note that I have the greatest friends in the world, because they’ll frequently do things so loving that it fucking breaks my heart. My brain can barely hold their love because it clashes with my own inner monologues. In high school, I wrote in my journal that I felt like a “glitch on the blueprint; an eraser mark, maybe,” that I didn’t fit. That I was a mistake.
Right now, I’m trying to get it into my thick skull that the most incredible man I ever met wants to spend the rest of his life with me. As clingy and loving as my fiance is, that fact is still hovering just over the surface of my consciousness. We just moved in together. He has to deal with me every day. This terrifies me. I feel like there’s something wrong with me that he just hasn’t discovered yet, through some miracle of obliviousness.
I keep telling myself, “This is really happening. And I’m in this,” meaning I’m in my own life. Not just a character in my own life — the honest-to-god protagonist. Worthy of being in the center of my own stage. Worthy.
Claiming that word still takes work, but I have it in me to believe all this — I’ve had it in me my whole life. But all habits take practice.