When I was 13, all I wanted was to be one of the “cool kids” with the perfect Picnik-edited profile picture on Facebook, and I was willing and ready to hide my love for “uncool” things like Glee and novels about dragons to be popular. I covered the things I was so worried about people judging me for with a facade of condescension and unkindness; I was in middle school and life was confusing and I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be. All I knew was that I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t like the person I was.
So I hit my sophomore year of high school and decided it was time to become a real human.
And I found myself through other people.
I studied my friends and classmates, and I purposefully acted differently than people I didn’t enjoy being around: people who made rash judgements about others based on their appearance, who assumed the worst in others without considering their motives or hardships, and who refused to consider opinions that differed from their own. I discovered things more important than Instagram likes and bad hair days and what other people thought about me– like embracing my quirks and love for chicken tenders.
On the other hand, I tried to copy the traits I admired in others.
I learned empathy from my best friend at school. We would close down our favorite pizza place talking about our lives, and her stories always included some variation of the phrase “I understand why he/she did/said that.” Despite the cause of frustration or disappointment or confusion, she fought to consider the feelings and motives of the other side, to find the best in others, and to give everyone a second (and third and fourth) chance. Trying to understand others became a key to understanding myself.
I learned lightheartedness from my best friends at dance. They embraced everything life threw at them, shared their infectious laugh with it, and then threw it right back, whether it be their own path of self discovery or a devastating family loss. Every ballet class started with me at my most focused and attentive, sweating profusely during barre, and ended with me at my most silly and obnoxious, laughing as we made up our own choreography to the Cirque Du Soleil ballet music. I learned that life is more fun if you don’t take it seriously.
I learned how to be a good friend from my sister. Every holiday season, I witnessed the best gift-giver in the world shop for her friends, every present thoroughly thought through to fit its recipient in a perfect combination of practicality and meaning. She knew everything about those closest to her, and celebrated all of their differences and similarities and interests. I realized the importance of fostering relationships that enable both people to be themselves, unapologetically.
And with these things, I learned to love others, so I learned to love myself.
By junior year, I felt as though I had found my own emma balance. I retained my introverted nature while surrounding myself with people who made me comfortable enough to come out of my shell. I had found compassion somewhere within myself, and I was surrounded by the people who had unknowingly helped me along the way. I was content. No – I was happy.
Then this August, I was thrown into college. I go to school only 45 minutes away from home but I feel worlds away from the people who have kept me grounded for the past two years. Now, with a semester under my belt, I am still scared of losing myself and reverting back to a person I don’t like.
I worry when I find myself in full introvert-mode, watching Netflix in my dorm instead of going to any place where there are other humans. I worry when I am in the middle of a conversation with someone, and I realize that the words I’m saying are those I think they want to hear, not those I actually want to say.
And then I find myself dancing on a bridge in the middle of Atlanta with my childhood friends, my people, and I am calm and content and me.
I’ve worked really hard to become a person I like– the person I want to be. But with the changes this year has brought, I know I still need to find a way to ground myself– to glue my own feet to the ground.
So many people have entered my life in the short time I’ve been at Georgia Tech, and they have already shown me the importance of encouraging others and being a good listener, characteristics that I’m now working to improve in myself. But it’s not easy for me to know the ins and outs of someone without having years to get to know them, so I’m being challenged to maintain and improve and be me without anyone else to guide me towards goodness – my moral compass has seemingly lost its markings and the only person who can draw them on again is me.
Emma is a first year student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. We are so excited to include her story in our series on self acceptance.