What Other People Think

Or: I want you to love me.

There’s a concept in psychiatry called the central relational paradox.

The basic idea: we want to have deep, meaningful connections with people, but we’re also terrified of being rejected. And so — in order to minimise the risk of that happening — we hide the parts of ourselves that we’re embarrassed or ashamed of, in order to fit in. It me.

Of course, the tragic irony is that doing so actually stops us from forging those relationships. How can you connect with the people who might like you, if you don’t show them who you really are?

• • •

I first came across this idea while reading Creative Calling by Chase Jarvis, who pointed out that this paradox applies to our creative endeavours too:

It’s obvious when artists make art to please others. You can tell they’re projecting a certain image of themselves, instead of revealing what makes them ‘bad’ or just different… When we hide what makes us unique in order to get people to like our work, we neuter our work.

I was guilty of this when I wrote my first one-hour Fringe show, back in 2017. I’m proud of it, and I’m glad to say that it got solid reviews. But I definitely got caught up in the intense, maybe-this-will-be-my-big break pressure of the whole thing: I was so determined for as many people to like the show as possible, that I tucked away a lot of who I was. And at least one reviewer noticed:

“For he does have something of the unmemorable and bland about him… But it’s a rare bit of grit in some otherwise milquetoasty reflections… But I’m labouring to identify what he has that can set him apart. And I wonder if he is too.”

Harsh, but totally fair. (Admittedly, my first reaction might have been to angrily listen to Anton Ego’s monologue from Ratatouille on repeat, but I eventually conceded that he had a point.)

After all, the shows that stick with us are the ones where you feel connected to the performer on the other side, because they’ve left a part of themselves in it. As Neil Gaiman once said:

“The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself…That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”

Thankfully, I’d figured some of this out by the time I did my second Fringe show, in 2019, about not wanting to have children. And if you ever want to feel less alone about your life choices, I heartily recommend people coming up to you afterwards and saying: I feel that way too.

• • •

I’ve moved away from stand-up now, but I’ve tried to keep this up in my other work.

But oh man, it’s so hard. I can’t count the number of tweets and blog posts I’ve deleted over the years because I’m scared someone will silently judge me for them. Even this blog post has sat unpublished for weeks — for reasons ranging from too self-centred to too condescending1 — and I’m only shipping it now because I didn’t have the time to write one from scratch.

I guess all we can do is remind ourselves that it’s foolish to worry about the things we can’t control — like what other people think — and instead just focus on the things we can. Like pressing send.2

  1. If you want to know how deep this goes: I almost deleted those reasons, because I thought what if people think I’m fishing for compliments? (Please do not reply with compliments.)
  2. If you’re reading this directly on my website rather than through my newsletter, I should clarify that the publishing process is slightly more elaborate than pressing a ‘send’ button — but going into detail would have considerably reduced the dramatic impact of that last line.

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