Remember all the high school groups? The ways we divided and defined ourselves?
You might say I didn't really fit into any one group. Relocating every two years or so gave me a tendency to become a chameleon. The defense mechanism of blending in was very useful. I would adjust my conversations, my clothing, my hair....all to feel comfortable wherever I went.
But at home, I knew exactly who I was. I wore exactly what I wanted, did exactly what I wanted, and laughed as loudly as I liked, even if it did sometimes produce a not-so-cute snort at the end of the aforementioned laugh. (And, heaven help me, it still happens now and then.)
I had one friend in high school with whom I was comfortable enough to be my absolute most-authentic self. I may be outgoing, but it is only born of necessity. I'm actually shy and private by nature; I still get shaky in the sight of any confrontation--be it friendly or unfortunate. So you might say that I found myself helplessly re-shaped by my surroundings, in a very much unconscious way.
What I wanted most, and what I think most everyone (especially in high school) wants, is to be able to safely be my authentic self, and be appreciated for it. But I don't think I even knew who that "self" was until I decided to jump out into the wild unknown and see what I was made of.
Let me tell you a little about my high school. Although I was homeschooled for the last two years of high school, my 9th and 10th grade years were spent at an American (but internationally diverse) high school in Belgium. (Some time I will create a little time-line of all the places we've lived, complete with dates and details.) In this high school, I think there existed more of an equal-opportunity standard than you would expect for any typical high school.
With all of that being said, I noticed after a while that the most talked-about, most-noticed, best-liked people were those who did something. Artistic people. Smart people. Athletic people. Funny people. If you were in drama, sports, extracurricular groups--then you had a good chance of being respected.
The lazy ones, or the shy ones, simply faded into the background. I had always been comfortable in the invisible position, but I secretly admired those who were involved. I decided to be brave. At first, I chose something I knew I'd enjoy--drama. I participated in a hilarious play, as a character whose four lines bemoaned the state of the casserole on the table, and fainted at the sight of a ridiculously good-looking celebrity. (How dynamic.) I know I grew a bit braver from that experience.
But then I decided to do something that really scared me: cross-country. I had visions of beating school records and astounding the masses with my speed and endurance.
Except for a couple problems--I was not speedy or enduring. The girls on our team were divided into two groups, titled neutrally: Team A and Team B. I was on Team B. Guess who was slower? Just guess. It's a huge surprise. No really! You'll be shocked.
(Pardon my seemingly-bitter sarcasm. It gets happier soon, I promise.)
If you want to be politically correct about it, we were simply differently-paced. Speed-challenged. Endurance-limited.
In running with Team B during practice, at least for longer runs, I developed a massive chip on my shoulder. In my typical I'm-so-persecuted 15-year-old way, I just knew we weren't as important. In my self-pity, I missed absolutely kind remarks such as, "Hey! You guys finished your long run at the same time as us!" and "You have the best quads!" and "You look so cute in your running shorts." What I heard was: "Hey! We must have gone really slow to finish at the same time as Team B!" and "Oh my gosh your legs are big and it's weird" and "I don't know if you should wear those shorts."
How? How did I take totally well-meaning compliments and turn them into inner poison? The answer is simple and it only took me a few years to get it: Comparisons. The constant refrain in my head was "I'm not as cute as...." or "I'm not as fast as....." and "I'm good at this, but she's better...."
Over time, that kind of thing really skews the way you see the world around you. I look back and feel as if I wasted so much time in high school feeling sorry for myself, certain that nobody-likes-me-everybody-hates-me-and-I-deserve-to-eat-worms.
The first time we had to do six miles, I had a bit of a panic attack. (Note: Self-pity and abject fear drive coaches crazy.) I was "assigned" a senior girl to accompany me, lest I should die on my run. Translate: Coach has no idea how to handle my panic and is annoyed by it. Go run six miles now. With sympathetic senior. Stop crying.
As this girl eased us into the run, I relaxed and listened to her comforting advice. She said many, many things that comforted me, and actually didn't stay on the team because of conflicting senior activities. But I remember one thing most particularly. As we hit mile four and I realized how long it was taking me to finish, I began to panic, then cry, as I said that I felt ridiculous for needing to go at such a slow pace. She slowed down, I slowed down, and finally we walked while she told me: Stop worrying about speed. Just pace yourself. Just be steady. Just finish. Speed will come later.
We completed our six miles. I don't remember the finishing time; she wouldn't let me see. (Smart girl.) I was somber for the rest of that week, thinking about what she had said.
My coach, although he wasn't necessarily the most sympathetic to whiners like me, was definitely smart. He gifted me the title of informal "leader" of Team B, which mostly comprised of eighth graders and freshmen. I felt first embarrassed, but the capable, when he would say, "Rachel, just do a nice easy 6 today."
Because someone had been compassionate enough to take me under their wing and help me erase my self-pity, I was able to show compassion to those girls. When I saw them feeling exactly how I had felt, I would encourage them to make it just to the next tree, the next lamp-post, the next crack in the sidewalk...."Make it there and you can walk for a second! Just keep going! Don't stop....stay steady." Eventually, five minutes without stopping turned into ten, thirty, sixty. We progressed from our appallingly slow fifteen-minute-mile pace to a comfortable 9- or 10-minute mile pace on those long runs. We learned to be steady. We learned to stop feeling sorry for ourselves by helping each other.
Somewhere along the line, I learned to hear compliments the way they were delivered, and stopped thinking of myself on some lower plane than everyone else. I came to appreciate the muscles in my body, rather than being frustrated by the appearance of my body.
In my slow, steady way, I made progress and I made friends. I conquered my fearful self.
Now, with the marathon only short months away, I'm making my way through similar obstacles. I feel frustrated by my lack of speed, my lessened endurance, my many inadequacies. I have little mini-nightmares about being too late to the race to be allowed to do it, or not being able to complete it, or completing it hours after everyone else has gone home.
The difference is that I realize who my opponent is this time. I could compare myself to any runner out there, but ultimately, I'll only feel good if I can conquer myself. In whom am I disappointed when I come home from a three-mile run in which only 30% was actual running? And who am I really up against, as I run? The competition is with myself; I compete with my fears, my not-ideal strength, my desire to stop. These mornings where I confront what makes me feel most inadequate, what drives my neuroses, and tame it into submission by dedicated efforts--these mornings, I am most myself. I laugh as loud as I like, I feel comfortable in my clothes, and I see the truth--which is that we're all "important". We're all necessary. Team A, Team B. It's all the same.
Progress is gradual. It happens a little at a time. Become obsessed with shortcomings and it cripples you like a chronic illness. Tackle one issue at a time, and over the grand scheme of things, progress is inevitable.
I just have to remember that soothing advice:
Stop worrying about speed.
Just pace yourself.
Just be steady.
Speed will come later.
.....stop worrying about perfection.
Just do what you can.
Just be consistent.
Progress will come over time.