All my life I’ve been criticized for wanting to be the center of attention.

In my earliest memories I hear the grating, high-pitched voice of my mother chiding me for wanting everyone to look at me.

You don’t care about others. You just want to be the star of the show. You need people to praise you, how immature do you really have to be? She repeated this throughout my childhood and early adult life. She would no doubt say it again if I gave her the chance. But since I stopped talking to her 17 years ago, I get a bit of a break.

I always objected to the accusation. And resented it, too. I didn’t want to be the star. I just happened to attract a lot of attention no matter what I did. And regardless of whether I was trying to get it. I was a bright, articulate and talented child. But you know, that’s not necessarily an unmixed blessing. Sure, you attract attention. But you don’t just get praise. You also get plenty of uncomfortable — and some downright inappropriate — reactions, too.

I got touched in ways that made my skin crawl. I got enough lewd remarks (including from relatives) and unwelcome advances to fill a lifetime and a half. And of course I was the target of jealous sniping, along with physical threats and a couple of blows, from classmates, co-workers and, yes, my own mother.

****

I always thought the reason she berated me for hogging the spotlight was because I took it away from her. To hear her talk, she used to be the light of the party, the popular and pretty girl whose affection people fought over.

Maybe it’s true, I don’t know. Or care. A woman in her thirties ought not to snipe at her pre-pubescent daughter for being pretty and interesting just because she’s no longer pretty or interesting herself after gaining a bunch of weight letting herself go after two babies, to say nothing of that stupid bad perm. It was never my fault. And do you know, I myself had three babies and — through a lot of discipline and effort and that little thing called daily strenuous exercise coupled with the right diet — am back to my pre-motherhood weight. So yes, I get to judge.

I have three beautiful, bright, articulate and talented daughters… who attract a lot of attention no matter where they go. And I’m pleased for them, all the while teaching them proper self-defense techniques should they attract the same kind of inappropriate or jealous reactions I got.

But back to me and my mother. Why she thought it fair to beat me down so much over this is beyond me. It wasn’t my fault I was younger and fresher (and thinner; did I mention the weight issue?) than her. I was 25 years younger than her. Of course I was fresher. You can tell it bothers me to this day. In my mind, objecting to her accusations and fighting back against her behavior became tangled up into one giant ball of anger and resentment that stayed with me for decades. (See “haven’t talked to her in 17 years”, above.)

But something recently changed. Someone whose opinion I highly value, a man I love profoundly, criticized me for always seeking the spotlight.

Fuuuuuck.

****

I objected. Defended myself vigorously. I was annoyed, to put it mildly. That caused a minor rift between us, which in turn made me think. And not the pleasant kind of thoughts either. I peered deep into my soul, and encountered some mold and more than a few dirty cobwebs.

What if he’s right? What if the others before him who made similar remarks were right? What if even my mother was right?

Do I really seek the spotlight? I asked myself that question very seriously. I took my time answering it.

Er, maybe?

****

Being the center of attention, being admired, lauded, applauded, is intoxicating. No question about that. It makes you feel good about yourself, your accomplishments, your dedication, your hard work and discipline. Hell, if you’re going to get up early every morning to go run 10K before breakfast, you want people to know about it and react with appropriate noises. I know I do.

I guess that makes me guilty as charged. Busted, I find myself. And good. But not exactly in the way I was accused of. My seeking attention wasn’t just a cheap and easy way to get praise. No, I developed this bad habit to protect myself, to shield my vulnerable core that could so easily get hurt if it let itself be seen.

Being the clown, the spark, the life of the party serves an important purpose beyond being looked at, even if being looked at was never my aim. It’s pretty twisted. You ready for it?

****

When I seek attention by highlighting my accomplishments, I am in fact trying to shield from the world who I really am. I do this by pointing people to the things I want them to see. My good side. What I’d put on the billboard if my life were an ad. With a big neon flashing light just to make sure nobody misses it.

Yes, I’m trying to be a control-freak about this, as with much else in my life. Not that I need to try hard; let’s just be generous here and say wanting to control things comes very naturally to me.

And the truth is, most people are easy to manipulate, and they don’t really have that much time or interest to devote to me so when I decide for them what they should see in me, they’re more often than not very happy to oblige. And on the flip side, whenever I mess up or feel like I fail to measure up, I beat myself up harder than anyone else could. That, too, is a fine way to control others and hide my sensitive bits, to say nothing about avoiding the hard work of improving my character. It’s not like it doesn’t need it… But first, I need to remove a few bits of armor.

****

In her fantastic book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown talks about this. Well, not directly. But you’ll see: “The word persona is the Greek term for ‘stage mask.’ In my work masks and armor are perfect metaphors for how we protect ourselves from the discomfort of vulnerability. Masks make us feel safer even when they become suffocating. Armor makes us feel stronger even when we grow weary from dragging the extra weight around. The irony is that when we’re standing across from someone who is hidden or shielded by masks and armor, we feel frustrated and disconnected. That’s the paradox here: Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.

She has a way of putting her finger right on the festering wound, doesn’t she.

I want to see your vulnerability. I crave it. But I hide mine, because deep down inside I’m scared shitless that if you see the real me you’ll run away screaming.

Some people hide their fragile core by denying themselves joy (I’ve done that). Others do it by always trying to be perfect in everything they do (ahem, that’s me a bit too). Others go through life detached from everyone and everything, too cool to care because if they allow themselves to care chances are they’ll get hurt (yup, been there). Others divert attention away from their fragile bits by being so loud and bright in their accomplishments that the light and sound show masks everything else. That’s me, to a pointed and painful T.

****

I don’t need to be that way. I can be brave and fearless and quietly let my soft bits out in plain sight. Maybe some people will pinch them. But maybe they won’t. Either way, hiding them under a bright spotlight does nothing good for me and I shall stop doing it for that very reason.

How? By learning to shut up already. Instead of volunteering the information I want people to have, I’ll just ask them about themselves. I won’t use false modesty to downplay my accomplishments when someone notices them without my help and makes happy noises about them, because downplaying your accomplishments is bullshit. I’ll smile and say thank you and mean it… then move on. I think that’s called “genuine modesty”. I’ve heard of that concept. I know people who are good at it. Maybe I’ll study what they do and try to emulate them.

And if I ever accomplish that — if I ever become the kind of person who is genuinely modest about her accomplishments and genuinely interested in what other people are doing — then maybe instead of shining a bright spotlight on myself I’ll quietly embrace my loving friend and thank him for the kick in the ass I sorely needed.