What I wish I knew before putting all my self-esteem in how popular I was

I’ve been thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m going. I reflect on why I chose the story/characters I decided to write. And as I work to build my author’s platform, connect with readers and other writers, I have a misguided desire to be “popular” on social media. I look for of likes, comments, and “engagement.”

When I was a kid and teenager, I wanted nothing more to be popular. It’s embarrassing to admit. As if there is some shame in wanting a lot of people to like me. I think everyone had to enter that phase, at least once in their life.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow would chalk it up to a natural stage in human development in the Hierarchy of Needs: the need for love and belonging.

For me personally, I’m not exactly sure what made me want to be popular.

I wonder how our society’s values encourage popularity seeking behaviors. Is it our celebrity worship? Our attitude that success is based on who you know instead of what you know? Is it the status? Individualism and competition encouraging the ego?

Some might say because I’m a “Leo” I am naturally inclined to want attention. And maybe there is some truth to that: Once upon a time I LIKED doing presentations in front of my whole class at school because then everyone HAD to listen to me. Later I’d learn how flawed that logic was, and it didn’t always work out the way I wanted.

Or maybe because I was born under the sign Leo, everyone treated me like I wanted a ton of attention, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Although technically, all of the astrological signs have been wrong—one needed to be added—and based on new data, I would be a Cancer. (A topic for another day)

All I know is I wanted to be liked, heard and understood. I wanted people to know who I was and think I was interesting. I wanted people to be friends with me, hang out with me, and come to my birthday party—and pay attention to me at my birthday party.

(And I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t true to a certain extent today.)

When I was in middle school (in the north and south), I noticed there were some kids everyone was attracted to hanging out with (mostly white). And there were others, who clung to each other because no one else would hang out with them (mostly non-white). At least that’s how I felt sometimes.

I never thought I had much choice in who my friends were: I was limited to who was willing to hang out with me, accept me, tolerate me, or not reject me—stuff in common or not.

My mom had this phrase I hated: “To have a friend, you have to be a friend.” I cringe writing it now. Sure, sure, I get it—now that I’m in my thirties. There are complexities to relationships, and you have to have give and take. You have to reach out to people if you want friends. But as a 7-year-old, 12-year-old and teenager, that meant being nice to others. I always thought I was nice to others, and I didn’t understand why many people didn’t want to be friends with me.

I was a painfully shy child (teenager and adult). I assumed I was rejected by others because I didn’t have the right personality, enough money, talent, or effervescent magic to be friends with whomever I wanted.

No one told me that other people have values and interests that may not correspond with my own. And that was the real reason certain people didn’t want to be friends with me.

One of those (subconscious) values might be having friends that look like you. And when you are the minority, well, you catch my drift…

No one told me how much race dynamics influence relationships between children (and everyone else). I wanted to live in a world blind to it, but such a world doesn’t exist. I watched a ton of Disney and Nickelodeon TV shows but failed to realize the Black girl is never the popular girl. (She can be a token side character.) People want to be around people who look like them. They have subconscious beliefs that put Black people into a lower caste, even though they aren’t consciously aware of those beliefs.

These truths, especially for young people can be rather subconscious: it’s easy to act in certain ways without realizing why you’re are doing it. Accepting some people and rejecting others on superficial reasons that have nothing to do with someone’s personality or stuff they’re interested in isn’t always at the forefront of your mind. They’re just an unexplainable “ew.”

In my early twenties, I learned what it “takes” to become “popular” and have plans every weekend: I had to take advantage of every opportunity to spend time with others, accept all invitations, and go with the crowd. I put this into practice to a certain extent and I made a lot of acquaintances. I couldn’t be completely open about my interests and I was tired from going out all the time. I didn’t gain any long-lasting, intimate friendships where I could share my true views of the world, and they would share theirs as well.

I tried this with a few different groups of people. I wanted to make more friends as an adult finally out in the world. Have a new friend “group,” so to speak, so I really went out of my comfort zone, and spent time with these people.

In the end, I never felt like I belonged in any of the groups. I was an outsider. No one treated me differently to my face. However, there were a few situations where people didn’t show up for me in the way I showed up for them. I don’t know why. I couldn’t call them up if I was having a problem. I couldn’t rely on them to do things I wanted to do sometimes.

There was an emotional distance between them and me I couldn’t explain. Like they weren’t really interested in developing a relationship with me. I wasn’t viewed as a possible friend before they got to know me. Either my insecurities or their subconscious bias left a gaping hole between us.

I think, if I had tried harder, I could have developed closer relationships with one or two of the girls I met.

In the end, I couldn’t keep up all the social activity without feeling inauthentic. Like a true introvert, I connect with people in spurts and then need to refresh for weeks. After being out for a little while, I’m ready to turn in. I need “deep” conversations or I feel like I’m not connecting with others.

A true scientist would say there are too many compounding variables to be sure whether or not my lack of “popularity” (and inability to make long-lasting friendships) was due race, subconscious or conscious bias, my personality, values, interests or introversion. All I know is, I had a hard time making many friends, and I ended up hating my personality through my teens and twenties because white people didn’t want to form real relationships with me.

I never went out of my way to make Black friends until I was almost thirty. Any friends or acquaintances I did have were selected out of my majority white environment.

But when I was nearly thirty, I learned that making Black friends is far easier than making white friends—no matter how socially awkward, shy or introverted I might be. And I can just be me…whatever that means.

Furthermore, I NEVER feel an emotional distance when I meet new Black people. (There are some other weird things that happen sometimes—cough, cough, colorism—but we can talk about that another time). Our shared experiences in this country automatically make us like family. Most of the Black people I’ve met are welcoming.

I’ve had/have good white friends without that unexplainable emotional distance I usually feel. People who were open and honest and real from the start. Although, reflecting on friendships from long ago in the past, I see that perhaps I was kept further away than I realized at the time.

I know “social distancing” when I see it. I know what it feels like to be kept at an arms-length when I haven’t done anything to deserve it.

I just haven’t had a way to articulate it until now. I haven’t been mature enough to reflect on the past in a meaningful way.

It’s difficult to form authentic relationships when you are the token. One of a kind. A minority.

I’m not saying inter-race friendships cant be formed. I’m specifically referring to the majority of my experiences as a pre-teen, teen and twenty-something.

(I wonder if someone ever said, “I can’t be racist; I have a Black friend” and were referring to me.)

Anyway, what I’ve learned is that popularity does not mean authentic relationships. Popularity doesn’t mean balanced relationships.

It’s easy to lose track of the people who love you and support you no matter what, when you’re looking for “metrics” and outside validation.

As much as I feel the “need” to be “popular,” what I really want are meaningful relationships. People I can have real conversations with that go beyond “how are you/how’s the weather.”

If you’re reading this, and you’re one my true friends (past and present), you know who you are. Thank you.

Ultimately, wanting popularity, at least for me anyway, was simply the feeling of wanting to be loved. Wanting to feel and experience love. And now I know where to find it…

Did you/do you want to be “popular?” How did/do you cope, if you weren’t/aren’t? Let me know in the comments down below.

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