by katie zhu

14 Sep 2015

Taking Back Expectations

My sister and I have always been very close.

As kids, we pursued a host of entrepreneurial ventures: bike washing, because car washes were too mainstream and we were too small; rock polishing, which, to our great surprise, turned out to not be very lucrative; and an indie apple stand, where we exclusively sold Granny Smiths and discovered “sour tooth” isn’t really a thing. We didn’t limit our creativity to business either — after discovering our parents’ old typewriter, we spent two years working on a novel about the adventures of our stuffed animals. I wrote it and Nicole illustrated. Print date still to be announced.

This all goes to say that my sister and I have always been tight. Partners in crime. But I was unintentionally limiting the dynamic of our relationship with this preconceived notion of playing the “big sister,” always feeling the need to be the leader, compelled to project this aura of success and provide a shining star example of how to succeed.

A lot of this was self-imposed, and my sister fed into it. She’d always compare her performance to mine — academic, physical, emotional. I cast far too much of my shadow over her, and in trying endlessly to succeed (for her, I told myself, but the truth was more selfish than I’d care to admit), I eclipsed her personality with mine.

This compulsive need to over-assert myself, to display benchmarks of success, to prove my worth, stemmed from a place of deep vulnerability and self-doubt. And it manifested acutely in my relationship with Nicole. I’ve always found it hardest to be vulnerable with those who are closest to you. There was a limit to the realness I showed my sister.

She looked up to me, but I think what she didn’t realize was how much she was actually holding me up. Her validation, admiration, and unwavering support was something I needed, because I never fully believed in myself or my ability to succeed.

I spent a lot of time overcompensating for everything. Nothing ever felt like enough. I was never smart enough, never talented enough. Never pretty enough. Never skinny enough. Just never enough.

That was the wrong framing. It shouldn’t be about qualifying “enough,” because this idea of enough is inherently tied to your perceptions of those around you and comparisons to others. It should just be about yourself.

By always thinking in terms of “enough,” I stopped focusing on what my own internal bar for excellence looked like. I calculated everything outwardly based on what I thought others would think, and this drove me to lose control.

One summer weekend in college, I had my sister over to visit and spend a night with me. I was a sophomore, and my sister was a junior in high school. We went to a house party, and drank an appropriate amount of PBR to survive a hot summer night in Evanston. I started talking to a boy, which was fine. He was nice, I was vaguely interested.

But I soon left to take my sister home, and on our walk back, we had some Real Talk. She told me how unfair she thought I had it and that she felt she couldn’t measure up. She also pointed out how I was, in her eyes, skinny, attractive and could “get boys.” How she thought I did everything in high school — kept good grades, played sports, did extracurriculars and got into a good school. Now in college, all she saw were the times I made the Dean’s List, the internships I told her I landed, my close-knit circle of friends, boys hitting on me at parties… By all her external checkboxes, she counted me as successful.

I realized then I had done her a great disservice by selectively sharing only my accomplishments, and none of my failures or struggles. For every quarter I made the Dean’s List, there was one where I hadn’t. For every internship offer, there were miserable failures on technical interviews that made me think I never deserved to call myself a programmer ever again. Sure, I had found a great group of friends in college, but that was after enduring two years of intense bullying in high school where my “friends” pantsed me in the middle of the cafeteria, stole my iPod and then returned it to me (broken, may I add) months later, and drew cartoons of a blobby fat monster they named Fatie. The monster also had its own theme song. “Fatie fatie fatie, we made you out of lard…”

I finally opened up to Nicole about all of this. I told her how paralyzing my computer science classes were, and about shitty boys who had used me in the past. I detailed how grossly incompetent I felt on a daily basis. And I told her that somewhere in the middle of my junior year of high school, I learned how to make myself throw up.

I explained to her how every time I have a meal, it’s an intense battle with myself to not overeat. Because every time I feel even slightly stuffed, I think the only reasonable course of action is to shove my fingers to the back of my throat. It’s a concerted effort to talk myself out of this plan, to remind myself of the actual truths — that I’ll be fucking my body up in the long run, and having a bit of a food baby for the next couple hours will be okay.

Being vulnerable is really hard. It’s so easy to get caught up in the public personas of others, to only see the carefully edited Instagrams, the meticulously crafted Facebook posts and celebratory tweets. Realness gets lost. Even in close personal relationships – my sister is my best friend — it can be so scary and impossible to admit your faults out loud. But having done so, it only strengthened our relationship. I can be my full self, and not edit my life events to meet some barometer success before sharing them.

Embrace vulnerabilities as a means of accepting yourself and putting your true self out there.

See it as a way to take back expectations, and challenge any preconceived notions that you’ve tacitly accepted. To be vulnerable with someone is the most sincere form of trust — don’t cheat relationships.

Put the most raw, unfiltered version of yourself out there.

Not just for you, but also for the person you’re sharing yourself with, being honest does them a favor – especially if you’re in a situation where they’re looking up to you in some way.

It’s tempting to curate a narrative of yourself according to wins and other yardsticks of varying achievements, but we should strive to be more real and wholly representative of our experiences, disregarding the feelings of trying to be good enough in the eyes of someone else, and just be.

Connections are forged over real vulnerabilities, and these help make us better, stronger, and lift us up.

Being vulnerable opens up the possibilities for others to surprise you, to create moments of serendipity, to forge or strengthen relationships. I learned it’s not all about me, and we all need to rely on others — especially those who we feel might rely on us in some way.

My experience with my sister has reversed my idea of what it means to be the big sister, and our dynamic has changed for the better now that I’ve abandoned this pretense of being on some pedestal. At the end of the day, it’s no one else’s fault but mine for buying into that.

I’m trying to no longer run from those moments when I feel overexposed, and instead be the most honest version of myself, even if it means owning up to failures and letting insecurities creep through.

So. Tell me something about yourself.

I couldn't have written this without the amazing support and feedback from Nicole, Jacob, Winnie, and Grant. ❤

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