Some students who regularly frequent local bars recently told me that the reason why college students drink so much is because it’s the only time they don’t feel self-conscious. Alcohol makes them feel free to be themselves. Without it, they worry so much about making a fool of themselves.
Today I reasoned that making a fool of yourself might not be such a bad thing. In fact, it might just be flair.
I remember being terribly self-conscious in high school and college (who isn’t?). I remember agonizing over whether people liked me and whether I was impressive. Years of trying to manage other people’s perceptions of me exhausted me.
But in one terrible semester of graduate school, I stopped trying to impress people.
That year, I nearly failed out of school. A certain professor mocked me publicly, claimed I wasn’t fit for graduate school, and implied that there had been a mistake in the application process that allowed me into a Ph.D. program. The tormenting shame I felt for that (and for nearly every mistake I was making personally that year), drove me into hiding and despair.
And it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
Before that year, I was self-conscious to the point of never being my true self. But when my worst fears were imagined and everybody saw me as a failure, a beautiful thing happened.
It wasn’t that bad. It actually felt like freedom.
I was free to be exactly who I wanted to be. I stopped expending energy on wondering what people thought (I already knew—it wasn’t good), and instead I asked myself what I could do to serve the academic community there. I figured out how much I loved teaching, I wrote an entire dissertation on the emotion of shame (how convenient!), and I didn’t have to try to earn anyone’s approval (I already lost it). And of course, as these things always go, I had more friends, more accolades, and more respect from professors than ever. That one grumpy professor even apologized to me. People like people who aren’t self-conscious. They like people who can make a fool of themselves.
I haven’t struggled with self-esteem since then. What drives self-esteem issues is a profound fear of being exposed as a loser, a fraud, a fool. Well, maybe we need to be exposed.
I wonder if college students wouldn’t drink so much if they gathered their friends together, admitted their weaknesses, regularly did ridiculous things that made them supremely self-conscious, and tested the theory that we’d all love them more because of it.
Why not practice letting people see you at your worst? When it happens to you (like it happened to me), you recover, you find that people love you even more, and you stop trying to impress everybody.
Living with flair means testing the theory that we’ll love you when (not if) you make a complete fool of yourself.