Narcissism and Diffidence in The Basque Country
Or, Anxiety and The Anxiety of Having Anxiety
I’m sweating. I’m shiny. My teeth are too yellow, and I’m wearing all the wrong clothes, and I’m making some sort of pained face, and that pained face is probably going to give me awful wrinkles, and I’m an awful bad feminist for thinking that right now, and I can’t stop thinking about myself, and that’s probably why no one wants to talk to me. I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I follow all the rules: eye contact, but not too intense. Ask more questions than you answer. Avoid too-small talk but don’t get political with strangers. And I try very, very hard to follow all the rules, but also to seem like I’m not following any rules, and like I don’t need rules at all because it should all seem so effortless and natural. And it works for an hour or two, but then something happens and everything falls apart, and I’m back standing in the corner, sometimes on the verge of tears, begging for someone to notice me and crumbling when they do. It feels so pathetic. I feel so pathetic. I feel like a child, holding onto something I should have let go of a very long time ago, and I feel guilty about how pathetic I know it all is and how I am unable or unwilling to do anything about it. How do you explain to adults that the reason you always look terrified and nervous and jumpy is just because you’re shy? That you’re scared of small talk and small judgements, that you’re scared everyone will resent you for the intrusion of your presence? Is there anything more embarrassing?
I can smell the Bay of Biscay and I wonder why doctors ever stopped prescribing barbiturates. I know why. I know if I jump into the water and swim in a straight line west I’ll be back in Maine, not too far from the house I grew up in. The new owners painted it blue. It looks better that way.
It’s cliche to binarize personalities, but I really do think shy people come in two varieties. There’s the perpetually shy, the mousy sort with big eyes and an air of mystique, almost endearing in its demureness and humility. It’s a very literary quietness, romantic, twee like earl gray tea during a rainstorm, and though this has never been me, I often wish it was. But I never learned how to step quietly, and my thick ankles stem into shoes which thud when I cross a room. Instead, I am boisterous and bawdy, rambling on, unafraid of confrontation or disagreement, filled with trivia and anecdotes and mildly embarrassing stories. I dress like a jackass—I love vintage clothing with loud patterns and clashing colors—and probably sound like one too; I like to talk about art and film and music I find strange and captivating, and I am fatally opinionated. This version of myself exists for the first two social hours of the day, before sprinting out the front door and disappearing into the street, taking whatever charisma and bravery I possess and leaving me with nothing but my anxieties and the psychosomatic rashes they produce. I am suddenly still and stiff and silent.
The corner of the room begins to feel seismically magnetic. The walls are yellow, like flu phlegm, but I and my fellow minglers are contained in a pen walled by airport-security-style line dividers. How do they do it, everyone else? Why aren’t they afraid? I’m mortified, perhaps not of judgment or even rejection, but of the possibility that my presence is so universally grating and draining that I look like an idiot for being the only person in the world to not notice as my victims are trapped by the conventions of politeness to endure my proximity. If I knew who hated me and who didn’t, it would be so much easier, but my worry above all others is that everyone else knows I don’t belong in this room or at this party or around these people and they’re all collectively watching as I perspire desperation and obliviousness (and coffee breath, and body odor).
I write in my journal. I have more to say to myself than to anyone else, and I know there is something deeply narcissistic about my anxieties, that they are the byproduct of obsessively thinking about myself and believing everyone else is also thinking about me. But. But. What if? If they’re true, I’d rather be too self-obsessed than not self-aware enough; if I believe everyone hates me and as a result I retreat into the background, the worst that happens is that I feel like shit. If I tell myself that it’s all in my head—but it isn’t—and I continue to socialize, then I’ll have ruined everyone’s lunch. It’s like a Punnett Square, isn’t it? I’d rather assume all the risk myself. I may be shy, but I’m tough enough.
I don’t belong in Spain. I sunburn easily, I walk too fast, I can’t stand the omnipresent and inexplicable smell of ham. The non-profit think tank that is funding my trip has given us a two-day schedule, and everyone is very nice and nominally liberal and very normal, and I am petrified to admit that I am petrified of eating in front of strangers. There are no less than four scheduled blocks of light, unstructured mingling accompanied by light, unstructured snacks; I accompany myself to the bathroom each time for a light, unstructured cry which has less to do with the anxiety from the food and more to do with the anxiety over the anxiety of the food.
If you spend enough time thinking about yourself constantly, you’ll come to an uneasy alliance with your brain. The intellectual capacity for so much self-hatred typically comes with the intellectual capacity to know when you’re being irrational, a schism between head and heart in which the anxiety doesn’t stop, but you know it’s all in your head, but that doesn’t make it stop. It’s nice to know when you’re acting crazy, because at least you know you’re acting. The real problem comes when the data arises.