I didn't like elementary school. Or high school. Or even the first four years of my post-secondary education. It wasn't that I was a bad student (if I was interested in the subject matter I tended to do very well) or that I didn't like learning (to this day there are few things I like more than reading). I just didn't make friends easily, and all forms of face-to-face education are a social milieu. In that kind of environment, I was less than unpopular. Effectively, I was a nobody, below the social radar to the point that most of my graduating class didn't know my name.
I can safely say that I really didn't make any good friends until I was at least sixteen. Those few remained my only real friends throughout the rest of my education, well into my twenties, because I didn't make any more real friends when I went to university. I met a few people, and there were people I would sometimes have lunch with, people that I would sit next to if we had the same class, sometimes, if they weren't already sitting with someone, but that was it. When I left school at the end of the day (I lived at home to save money) that was it. I wasn't hanging out with them. I didn't know their phone numbers. I didn't go out with them to bars, or parties, or, um, dance-offs or whatever it was people did in undergrad when they had friends.
I was painfully, agonizingly self-conscious. I was shy. I was awkward in so very, very many ways. And by the time I was in my early twenties I had pretty much accepted that I was never going to be popular.
When I went to teacher's college, something changed.
The thing is, I don't really know what it was that changed. Suddenly, people actually wanted to hang out with me outside of class. I was invited to play intramural sports, something that would have been unthinkable to me a year earlier (both the fact that I was asked and the fact that I could play without embarrassing myself).
This trend continued through my late twenties, then into my early thirties. Other teachers wanted me to be part of their social circles. I was invited to things. I was involved. I started to feel, dare I say it, popular.
But the problem is that even now, when I look at myself (literally and figuratively), I still see the nobody that I was when I was a kid.
I realized it very sharply the other night when I was playing volleyball. My team is made up of good friends of mine, people that I cognitively understand enjoy my company and want to hang around with me as much as I want to hang around with them. And that night I was playing my butt off, probably playing better than most non-athletic people do most nights. I was again cognitively aware of all this, as I was cognitively aware that when my friends were telling me that I was on fire that night they were being absolutely genuine, but this is what that fourteen-year-old-nobody inside of me was saying:
"They don't want you to quit and leave them short-handed, so they're trying to make you feel like you don't suck."
"They pity you."
"They're only saying nice things to you because you're a loser and they feel bad for you."
I've been told many times by many people that I have a bad habit of deflecting compliments. What most people don't understand is that I do that mostly because of that voice in my head. Being a late bloomer, someone that came into his social and physical comfort zone well past the developmentally critical period of late adolescence and early adulthood, I have enormous difficulty believing that I am in fact the popular, outgoing person that those closest to me (like my wife) believe me to be.
There is a very serious, often crippling disconnect between what I think I am and what I actually have become.
I'm getting better at trying to understand this state of cognitive dissonance, but I would be lying if I said that I had it all sorted out. The biggest step I have taken lately is simply thinking through and expressing why compliments are so hard for me to accept, why being a late bloomer has left me less able to trust in friendship or kindness than I should. I know I'm not the only one that has experienced this (look up "late bloomer" on Buzzfeed if you don't believe me), and I know it will get better. In the meantime, you'll have to excuse me if I change the subject when you compliment my hair.