When I was a little girl, I liked being the centre of attention. I liked being thought of as special. I always wanted to perform for people and be in the spotlight. People often indulged me and I thought this was normal and acceptable. As I’ve grown up and matured, I’ve stopped seeking ways to be the centre of attention everywhere I go and I’ve learned to focus my social energy on getting to know other people rather than making social situations about myself. I give others the limelight and the attention that I used to seek from everyone around me. I’ve learned to create the boundaries, space, and privacy that I didn’t have when I was growing up. In the last few years, I’ve become a very different person. I want some anonymity and autonomy. It’s a major part of why I wanted so badly to move to London. I wanted to be invisible and alone in a cosmopolitan city; I didn’t want to be known, recognized, or treated specially because of my impairment. I wanted to further grow up, and part of that growing up is to accept my place among the billions of people in the world and to stop using my disability to be thought of as either (or both) exceptional and excusable.
People around me – friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike – still treat me like I am special. They are careful, considerate, understanding, gentle, kind, and protective of me. This helps me survive in the world, but it also frustrates me because I wish people would treat me ‘as they would treat anyone else.’ In writing this, I realize that I am also more sympathetic and compassionate towards other people who have visible challenges or struggles; my parents told me that when I was two, if I saw a sad person, I would want to give her a hug. The truth is that it’s a shock to my system when people are critical, rude, harsh, judgemental, or mean; I also often take instructions, corrections, and opinions as criticism rather than support. I am still working on developing thicker skin and more effective coping mechanisms for things like rejection, failure, mistakes, and disappointments.
I don’t like being the centre of attention anymore. I like listening to people. If I go out for lunch with a friend, I spend 98% of the time listening to her, asking her questions, and letting her talk about herself. In group situations, I try not to talk and just to listen to people. I’ve found that this has hugely transformed the way people perceive me and relate to me. They feel more relaxed and happy in my company, they are more open with me about personal things, they trust me, and they find me much easier to talk to. In learning to listen, I’ve become much better at reading people. My previous poor social communication was not a direct result of my brain trauma or my resulting physical disability, but my sheltered upbringing. People often blamed my lack of social graces on my disability, which further enabled me to continue in the alienating social behavioural patterns. Once I was made aware of those patterns, I caught myself in them and changed them. Where I once loved the spotlight, now I would much rather retreat into the background and listen to the conversation. It has helped me further understand my place in the world among everyone else (rather than my place of being ‘different from everyone else’) and it has changed me socially. It took (and still takes) a lot of humbling hard work and awareness, but my work has definitely paid off. The benefits I have gained from changing my social self far outweigh the fact that it involves continuous work and commitment.
My friends and family have all noticed a significant difference in my social personality in the last few years. I have a much healthier relationship with my sister and I am less of an embarrassment to my parents. People will comment on the difference without me asking them. They say I am much more mature, a better listener, more aware, and that they enjoy my company more. This feedback does two things: it shows me I have worked effectively and it motivates me to work more. It’s proof to me that behaviour is changeable just the way physical trauma and illness are changeable. It’s worth the work and I’m worth the work.