I live to perform for people.
I don’t mean I’m an actor — though I’d love to be. I’m not a comedian or a radio personality. What I mean is that when I’m with people, I’m always playing a part.
The role I play depends on the group I’m with. Sometimes I’m the uptight, organized know-it-all. Sometimes I’m the extroverted, charming princess. Sometimes I’m the class clown. The bigger the crowd, the bigger my performance.
The people I’m most myself with are those I’ve known the longest. My family knows who I am, of course. My partner of six years knows me. My childhood friends see through me.
But even with them, I find I am putting on not an act, but a performance. I’m not changing who I am, deep down, but simply playing up the parts I think will get the best reaction, the biggest laughs. I love it, but it’s exhausting and it leaves me with the unsettling feeling of not knowing myself. Not really. Not deep down.
It’s that melancholy feeling when a party ends, when my friends go home when I’m alone with myself and my thoughts for the first time all day. I run to put on a podcast, a Netflix show, to talk to my partner — anything but confront the vast space in me that is filled with personality when other people are around.
For me, it’s a catch-22: to be liked by others, I feel I need to showcase the parts of myself which will be most appreciated. But to love myself, I feel as though I shouldn’t need to put on this show for others. Surely if I were just myself, people would still like me?
Surely I would still like myself?
It’s spawned a few identity crises: who am I when I’m not with people? Who am I when I’m not performing? Who is Zulie, and what is she like?
So I did what I always like to do when I run into problems like these: I google them.
Google told me that if I wanted to know who I was when I wasn’t with others, I needed to take myself out. Get to know myself. Date myself casually, with no promises made. Make time for myself, with no interruptions or distractions.
I spend time on my own fairly frequently — I commute half an hour each way to work on my bicycle; I do grocery shopping on my own. I go for walks when I need story inspiration. But it’s rare that I don’t take some kind of distraction with me, or that I’m alone with no ulterior motive. I listen to podcasts or music when I work out or go shopping, and when I’m going on story-walks, it’s with a specific end in mind.
But there’s a difference between being on my own, and spending time in my own company. And I wanted to find out who I was when there was nobody else around.
I took myself out to dinner. No phone. No friends. No plan. Just me, out on the town, eating some food.
I was nervous about my first date with myself.
What would people think? What if I got bored? What if some dude tried to chat me up? How on earth would I cope on my own for an hour and a half?
True to my promise, I walked the fifteen minutes to the restaurant I showed up exactly on time for my reservation at a fancy restaurant in town. I was dressed nicely, with my hair half-up. I clutched my bag as I anxiously waited for the waiter to take me to my table, and started scanning the menu as soon as I sat down. I chose my starter and entree and requested a glass of white wine — a rare indulgence for a perennial tap water drinker as myself.
Honestly, it took me a while to relax and unwind, enjoying the atmosphere and rather than searching for a distraction. I spent the first fifteen minutes while I waited for my starter continually patting in my purse to check for my phone. But eventually, I let myself be distracted organically by doing what people have done since the dawn of time: people watch.
There was a couple on a first date next to me. Nearby, a table full of raucous old ladies uproariously laughed. A young family sat behind me — their little girl ran up to my shiny bag and picked it up with both hands, eyes wide. I took mental notes on what I imagined their conversations were, picked up from overheard snippets.
When my starter arrived (the best French onion soup I’ve ever had), I fully committed myself to the food: I smelled it, inhaling the Frenchy, oniony aroma, nearly nourishing in and of itself. Each spoonful was a salty delight. I’ve had French onion soup before, but never as my main occupation. In the past, I’ve always been distracted — with my partner, phone, television, book. It was wonderful to discover that the flavors were so complex that they needed no accompaniment.
I made my way through the next two courses, enjoying every mouthful, keeping an eye on the folks around me, and staying, despite myself, quite entertained
All in all, it turns out I’m pretty good company. I keep myself entertained with witty commentary on the world around me, even if I’m the only one who laughs. I’m kind to others who approach me, even if there’s nobody to see it. And I have a genuine and abiding curiosity about the people whose lives I only tangentially touch. I want to know more about their story.
I still don’t know who I am.
It’s a big question. Unfortunately, I don’t think ninety minutes of being alone would be enough to give me a definitive answer to that age-old question, frankly. But it was enough to have a break from the expectations of others, a break from jumping through the hoops I imagine they need to like me.
It will take more than one dinner on my own to break the habits of a lifetime. But it’s enough to take the first step — knowing a little bit more about myself outside of the context of others. I’m a little more secure in spending time on my own, and a little less afraid of boredom.
I’m funny and intelligent and kind and forgiving. It matters less what other people think of me. And that’s worth the price of a solo dinner.