When I was in sixth grade, a couple of fifth and sixth-grade teachers (the school was small and those two grades were combined) started holding this thing called “girl’s lunch” on Wednesdays. It was exactly what it sounds like; all the girls in those two grades would go up to our school library, which doubled as an entryway and common space, and eat lunch together. I really liked it at first. I had fun talking to my friends in a more reserved setting, and the group got to plan events to celebrate the ending school year (none of which ever happened). Besides, feeling like a part of something exclusive is always nice, even when the only qualifier is your gender identity.
But one day the teachers had us do something different. Instead of letting us laugh over inside jokes about our peers and schoolwork or dream of activities that would never happen, they had us go around in a circle and say what we liked about each other.
“There’s been some drama going around,” a teacher called Ms. A explained. “So we want to make a more positive environment by having y’all remember what you appreciate about each other.” She then explained that she would have each girl stand up one at a time while the rest of the group complimented that person.
I didn’t know about any of the drama going on (I wasn’t involved in much), and I didn’t think that forcing people to compliment each other in such a structured manner was the best solution to anything. But I loved external validation as much as anybody, so I kept my mouth shut and went along with the positivity circle.
The whole thing turned out to actually be really fun. I loved praising people, especially the girls that I was already super close with, and I was even enjoying hearing the interactions among other people. The whole thing was just so wholesome and kind, and, as egotistical as it may sound, I was super excited to know what nice things people thought about me.
Unfortunately, that excitement didn’t last long. As soon as I stood up for my turn, my heart started racing, and I became acutely aware of how cold my hands were. I shyly caressed the soft wood of my table and my face turned bright red, as anyone’s probably would if they were just standing up and awkwardly saying thank you as their peers complimented them.
Still, even without my nerves and the apparent weirdness of the situation, my experience felt different than what I had expected based on what happened to the others. There was something off about what people said. Some of it was standard. My closest friends said the usual close friend things: “You always make me laugh;” “I love being your friend, and you’re so nice.” Ms. A (for some reason the teachers joined in) said that she liked my style — even though I was wearing a too-small pink t-shirt with the Vans logo and stretched-out skinny jeans — so I’m not sure what style she was referencing.
But these comments were exceptions. Everyone else said either “you’re smart,” or got specific and said, “you’re good at math.” A couple people thanked me for helping them with their work. These weren’t comments that I’d heard anyone else get, and you’d think that would make me feel special but nope. I just felt different, ostracized, and almost as if these people didn’t care about what they said to me.
Okay, at the moment I didn’t feel anything. I wasn’t attentive or thoughtful enough to analyze what people said about me and how that affected my self-perception while they said it. But these comments, despite literally having the requirement of kindness, just built onto the insecurity and fear of isolation that I had been developing since I started at that school.
The thing is, that school never had that many girls to begin with. It also wasn’t very academically motivated, so much so that we didn’t have regular letter grades (and rarely received any grades at all), and math was an especially low point. It was the one subject that was almost universally hated by students and minimally emphasized by teachers. I didn’t like math either, but I was good at it. Good enough to become known as the math girl. So this incident of repetitive compliments didn’t spawn anything new; it just added to worries I’d been creating for years. But seeing all those girls lined up and saying the same thing about me, something so different from what they told everyone else, hit the nail on the head of reasons I didn’t fit in.
Eventually, I would realize that complaining about a compliment is incredibly privileged and kind of absurd. But, at the time, I wanted to fit in with these other girls so badly that I hated the idea of anything setting me apart from them, even a skill. I had convinced myself that these girls weren’t complimenting me; they were stating a fact that made me different from them and good at something that I “shouldn’t” have been good at. They were good at things I struggled with, like art and dance, so why would they really care about what I did well? I had become so desperate for my peers’ approval that I blinded myself from seeing that they actually might have approved.
But I’ve had to learn that their approval isn’t the thing that really matters, whether it’s genuine or not. This isn’t a lesson I’ve taken easily at all, but it’s the truth. It’s human nature to want to be liked, but the thing is, no one will be perfectly liked by everybody. Even if it was possible to be good at everything, not all people are going to appreciate every single skill that a person has. But as long as that skill doesn’t completely stop you from realizing your flaws and it’s not a skill in like, smacking people, then you should value it, regardless of if other people do.
Looking back, I wish I had been able to just accept compliments for what they were and not worry so much about what people intended behind them. It wouldn’t have been easy for me to not overthink every little thing people said about me, but I already had negative things to cope with, and I know I would have been much happier if I just took the positive stuff at face value. I wish that I understood that I felt different because I was, and that was fine. I wish I figured out that gender shouldn’t have mattered so much to anyone’s interests or relationships in the first place. At least I know these things now so I can finally understand that appreciating myself for myself is much more fulfilling than relying solely on the approval of others.