One of the greatest misconceptions others have made of me is that my quirkiness and individualism mean I don’t care what other people think. I care far too much about what other people think. I worry about making others uncomfortable. I worry about being perceived as “annoying.” I worry that potential friends & significant others have been deterred by a bad first impression, or that meaningful friendships & relationships have been ruined because, in a weak moment, being associated with me embarrassed someone.

The difference between a narcissist and an egotist is that a narcissist feels satisfied by self-love and disregards others, while an egotist only feels satisfied by the love of others. Their sense of self-worth is too closely tied to what other people think about them, and as a result, what suffers is their ability to form positive relationships with other people.

I am neither a narcissist nor an egotist, but my obsession with how I’m perceived and talked about by others has led to negative behaviors that are undeniably egotistical.

Every so often, I text all my high school ex-girlfriends. Sometimes I apologize, usually for things that happened long ago, things they no longer care about, things they no longer remember, and things that might not even have happened. They are never receptive. Most of the time, they ignore me, and if they do respond, it’s to tell me to let the past stay in the past.

Plenty of people are friends with their exes, or at least on good terms with them. I don’t understand why I struggle with it so much, but I do, and it frustrates me.

Well, Giorgio, why do you want to be friends with your exes?

Because I need reassurance.
Because I don’t like knowing that there’s a person in the world who hates me.
Because I want the peace of mind knowing that whatever happened is behind us.
Because I hope they will acknowledge that I’ve changed, and I want them to forgive me.

When I say each reason out loud, they all sound incredibly selfish.

“I think you need to be with someone who’s obsessed with you,” my 10th grade girlfriend told me when we broke up for good. “You are twisting all of this around and making it seem like it’s all my fault. You’re very manipulative with your words, and I know you’re very proud of it.”

She was wrong. I wasn’t proud of it. I didn’t feel like I was manipulative. I felt like I was the one being manipulated, especially when she gave me the last line:

“Everyone was right about you.”

I had too much pride to ask what those words meant, so instead, I let her walk away and spent weeks trying to decipher them. Every day, I combed through her LiveJournal wondering if something on there had been cryptically written about me. Meanwhile, I wrote about her regularly on my own LiveJournal, knowing she would read it and hoping she would take the bait. I would ask mutual friends what she had been saying about me, and of course, it was never stuff I actually wanted to hear.

None of this behavior is unusual. Even adults have ugly break-ups, and in the world of Facebook and Instagram, it’s easy to digitally keep tabs on our exes after an ugly break-up. Even though we know it’s unhealthy, so many of us still continue to do it. It’s a way of holding on. It’s way of trying to see if they’re still thinking about us. We eventually accept that they don’t want to get back together, but it’s harder to accept that they aren’t thinking about us at all.

…and if they are thinking about us, they’re probably talking about us, which means other people are talking about us, too. And we just have to know who is saying what.

When I got divorced, I once again got very paranoid about what others were saying about me behind my back, but people kept repeating the tried-and-true self-help anthem: “What other people think about you is none of your business.”

That advice wasn’t helpful to me. It just made me feel like there were important secrets out there that I wanted to know but wasn’t allowed to know. The point was for me to feel empowered, but it just made me feel powerless. So I started repeating my own modified version of the expression:

“What other people think about you does not define who you are.”

When I repeat this to others, most of them just shrug and say, “Well yeah, DUH.” But for me, it has been a huge revelation. I used to feel like there was an objective truth about who I was as a person, and that everyone else knew it except for me. I felt entitled to know it, because I equated knowing what others thought about me with knowing myself. That meant I felt entitled to know what others were saying about me behind my back, what others were posting about me online, and even the thoughts others had about me that they kept to themselves.

But those feelings, whether they were spoken, typed, or thought, are not the objective truth of who I am. In fact, they might not even be the objective truth about what others think about me overall. In the case of my exes, the negative things said about me, however misguided, were meant to comfort a former girlfriend, not to hurt me.

…and even if it was meant to hurt me, I still get to decide whether I’m actually going to be hurt by it. Gossip, judgements, & put-downs have all weighed me down over the years, and frankly, I’m exhausted.

If my vision of success requires all people to have only good words and only good thoughts about me, then I am setting myself up to fail. Nobody is loved by all, especially not successful people. When you put yourself out there, you draw criticism and negativity, but allowing that negativity to deter you from succeeding doesn’t make things less negative for you. What makes things less negative for you is staying above the fray and actually succeeding.

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