I’ve mentioned this before, so I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but I never really developed much of an ability to use or understand body language. I thought words were the thing, and so I missed out on a lot of what other people were actually saying and everything kind of sucked. Childhood was no fun. I couldn’t connect with the other kids. Our social languages were too different.
When I was 15, I decided that I was going to sort through all of this. I could tell by then that something was going on. I looked around at my peers and they seemed to magically know things about how humans worked. I thought every other kid was a genius because when people asked, “How are you?” they knew what to say. People always seemed to know what to say. It was miraculous to me. That was my life then. Lonely and anxious and curious about people.
So I was trying to sort through all of this. This was 1990. Diagnostic types of thinking weren’t around then. People weren’t clinically framing all of the behavioral stuff, so I had to go on observation.
And I figured it out. Mostly. 80%.
I watched people and I tried to understand the patterns and just visually I began to realize that body language existed. It existed and it served a purpose. I could see in the rhythmic, recurring gestures of people that these gestures were purposeful. They were providing emphasis to words and almost orchestrating shades of meaning in a discussion.
Those were weird days. It was a weird adolescence. Everything was a mix of super interesting and extremely depressing. Anyway, body language. I was stunned with that discovery. I couldn’t stop watching the way people moved when they interacted with others.
And I was so angry at myself. I didn’t communicate with movement, I didn’t know how, so I looked down at my body and felt miserable. My arms just hung there pointlessly. I felt like a robot that had been turned off.
I was in a panic to start memorizing as much body language as I could. I kept asking myself, What are the rules? What are the basic types of body language and what do they mean? I wanted to absorb all of that and fit in and be one of the magic people.
My point (that I am inventing as I type this sentence) is that this is the moment that I most needed help. 15 and self-hating and trying to memorize non-verbal communication: I needed help. Not help in being a certain way, not help in meshing with the social world. I needed help learning what not to do. I needed help learning to be at peace with myself. I needed someone to talk me out of the social mimicry phase. That was no good.
I don’t know what the nature of any help would have been in 1990. There were sympathetic school counselors who seemed to not really have a lot of depth of insight into the nuances of human behavior. Lovely people, though. Don’t get me wrong. It just wasn’t a compelling option for my existential predicament. I needed something more next level and really there were no options at that time. Not in rural Arkansas.
But I suspect that 10th grade, when I’m really digging into the low self-esteem and idolizing the lives of others, that’s probably when help would have been most impactful. I didn’t have any way of understanding that I needed the opposite of what I wanted.
I got help later in life and it was enormously beneficial. Later kinds of help can work too. I just can’t not have memories and so those exist and as I sort through them I think a lot about the past.
Memories often print too deeply, but I’ve probably said that before.