by Anushka Agarwal
How do we see ourselves? How are we perceived? Who am I? I want to be at peace with my personality, with my thoughts, and with my friends. A better way to put it: confident, calm, and well-liked. Why not become this way? I have rarely tried to reinvent myself, beyond small outfit changes and new activities, but what if I made a bigger change and tried on different augmentations of myself? This is my challenge. Will I ‘find myself’ by playing with the wardrobe of my personality? What will happen if I showcase my true neuroticism? Can I make myself a more likable person? Why do I care so much about what others think? I am taking the ‘experimental’ part of experimental non-fiction (arguably too) seriously. I execute this experiment in hopes of feeling more connected to my true self. It is an admittedly lofty goal, but by consciously toying with my self-presentation, I hope to navigate the whirlwind in my brain and bridge the gap between who I am and who I want to be.
Note: I use mode, persona, version, character synonymously to mean the different augmentations of my personality. In this experiment, I will undergo six challenges. It is a game. I will consciously present myself as hyperbolized modes of my personality, ‘more desirable’ versions of myself, and aim to find which ones make me feel most comfortable and confident. Each persona must do two things: meet someone new and attend a social event. Any additional challenges are up to my discretion, based on earlier success. For the planned days, I will journal before and after each round. I will be very self-aware of how I carry myself, how others react, and the minute details of my interactions. I will craft all aspects of my modes––outfits, music, and goals for the day. After completing a round, I have the option to eliminate personas. To keep the game consistent, I will evaluate each interaction based on aforementioned observations: my own comfort, my dedication to the persona, and external feedback during or after the round.
The goal of this experiment is to be more comfortable with my thoughts, my personality, and my friendships––to feel calm, confident, and well-liked. I anticipate that this array of characters will introduce me to new behaviors that I will adopt beyond the length of this experiment. With frequent intentional self-reflection, I anticipate feeling more connected to myself.
Temporary hair dye, three different outfits, journal, open mindedness.
Crafting the Personas
To make my lofty goals concrete, I will craft my personas based on the Big 5 personality traits:
|Extraversion||Energized by others’ company. Talkativeness, assertiveness, emotional expressiveness.|
|Agreeableness||Trustworthy, altruistic, kindness, affection.|
|Neuroticism||Emotional variability, instability. Reaction to stress. Anxiety.|
Imagination, creativity, insight, eagerness to learn.
|Conscientiousness||Thoughtfulness, impulse control. Organized, detail oriented.|
I will focus on extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism as the variable traits in this experiment to maintain overall clarity. These projected traits are my concern––am I perceived as a good friend? Do others enjoy my company? How can I prevent myself from overthinking and overreacting? Many intrusive questions! Hopefully, we’ll find some answers.
1. The Control
Extraversion: 8.3 / Agreeableness: 7.5 / Neuroticism: 7.7
These scores are reflective of how I see myself. I admit that others may perceive me differently because I filter my thoughts before they become action. I aim to toy with this ‘filter’ in the different caricatures/personas.
|You’re a lot. Sometimes in a good way. Energetic. Fun!
You show how you feel on your face, but you rarely say it. Fronting often. Usually half present, half in your head.
|Somewhere between confident and closed off, lots of oscillation. Very fidgety, bouncy. I have trouble making eye contact. I nervously bite my lips often and scratch at myself.||Sometimes too loud, overbearing. Sometimes too quiet and shut down. Tends to get lost in thoughts and sentences.||Very neurotic. High emotional variance. Energizing, sometimes too much, but very fun.|
2. The Pleaser (to be liked)
Extraversion: 10 / Agreeableness: 10 / Neuroticism: 2
|You are the ultimate people pleaser. Be the best version of you (for others). Perfectly programmed. Peak EQ. Is this Penn Face 2.0?||Consistent eye contact. Smile. Open, strong posture. Nod when someone is speaking. Mimic others’ body language. Deepen your voice.||Ask more questions, fewer statements. Be a giver, not a taker, in conversation. An active participant. Compliment others genuinely. Say hello to everyone with their name. Always follow up after interactions.||Low emotional variance.
Optimistic, positive, encouraging.
3. The Observer (to be calm)
Extraversion: 4 / Agreeableness: 7.5 / Neuroticism: 2
|Angsty girl on a walk, incognito mode with sunglasses and a cigarette. NPC (non-player character).||Consistent eye contact. Attentive. Calm, confident.||Minimal, share thoughts sparingly. Be an engaged listener. No need for active questioning and participation. Pause before you speak.||Low emotional variance, stay neutral. Reserved.|
4. The Wildcard (to be confident)
Extraversion: 8 / Agreeableness: 7.5 / Neuroticism: 8
|How I see myself.||However I feel at the moment.||Say everything that comes to mind, no filter. Be brutally honest.||High emotional variance, exaggerated. Energetic, eccentric. Be fully yourself, no filter. Separate yourself from how others may react.|
Each round requires self-evaluation. The scores will range from 1-5, 5 being the best.
|How comfortable do I feel in the round? Do the behaviors feel natural? Do I feel authentic?||1||Discomfort. My therapist will be hearing about this! The round aligns with acting a part rather than being myself.|
|5||Incredible! This is the new me! Anushka 2.0!|
|How accurately did I maintain the persona? Am I following the guidelines for their behaviors?||1||Bro, do you even mode? Disqualified round.|
|5||Okay, Hannah Montana! You really flipped the switch. The old Anushka can’t come to the phone right now. She’s dead.|
|How did others feel? How did they react? What was the tone of their feedback?||3||Mixed feedback. Some people liked you, others didn’t. Maybe you couldn’t decipher how they felt. No strong feelings, negative or positive.|
Round 1, The Pleaser: The Giver
I develop The Pleaser first. How do you craft the ‘perfect person?’ I sift through research on the most likable and pleasant behaviors––ask questions rather than statements, mimic someone’s body language, maintain eye contact. Pretty straightforward. Predictable. How hard can it be?
I imagine this experiment will be very structured. Each round will begin and end at a specific time, on some predetermined day. But my head hurts. I can’t shake this behavioral recipe for success. Why be myself when I can be better?
Jenna is a good friend of mine. We were close during her sophomore year but faded out with her junior year situationship. I enjoy catching up with her, but there is always a tinge of tension in our conversations. Clouded with competition. I don’t know what we’re competing for, yet there’s always some unspoken bitterness.
Jenna and I are walking towards my favorite coffee shop Rival Bros, right across the Schuylkill. I am obsessed with their espresso tonic and hummus toast. Our walk is another tally on my embarrassingly high streak of daily visits. I meet her at 36th Street to stroll out of our campus bubble and enter ‘the real world’––seemingly separated from us by the bridge. The fall colors warm our path. I crunch leaves below me, marking the orange and yellow with my damp footprints.
I feel anxious. I don’t think it’s Jenna’s fault. All I can think about are these perfect behaviors and how I fall short. The recipe for the perfect person requires equal amounts of solid but not overbearing eye contact, active listening, thoughtful questions, confident composure, and maintained reliability and respect. You must be a giver rather than a taker in conversations––don’t make it about yourself. My god, people must hate me. I can barely maintain eye contact. I am a taker in conversations.
Today, I will change. With this step-by-step plan for success, I will become the ultimate giver and people pleaser. Screw my plan. What better time to start than the present? Today is Round 1.
“Wait, tell me more about that. What did it feel like?” Good to ask a question.
“Oh, how’s family though?” I hope that was an okay transition.
“Haha, how’s the boy? What has been going on lately?” Be a better friend. Ask more.
“What were you thinking about then? Is there anything you wanted to say?” Listen … even if you don’t want to hear more.
She is receptive. We unpack her situationship of the past year, each minuscule feeling she had in the past week. I appreciate her updates, but I am running out of questions. I can barely hear what she’s saying over the screaming in my head. Why can’t you listen better? Why can’t you be better? Sigh. I smile.
I punctuate every sentence with a question mark. Most of the updates are redundant from our last hangout, about a month ago. Time trudges forward. I want to care more, but my god, it’s been three hours. I wonder if she knows I don’t feel like myself. I wonder if she even cares. I wonder if she likes me more. I keep smiling.
“That totally makes sense. I love the way you put that, it’s… Can you tell me more?”
Positive feedback! No room for negativity! In any other mode, I probably would have pushed back more––I’d usually encourage her to step away from her situationship, but today I’m tired. My advice clearly carries no weight. There is no point in bringing her down with reality.
The coffee-colored walls close in. I fixate on how closely everyone in Rival Bros are sitting to others. I doubt anyone else is listening, but what if they are? What do they think? Why do I even care? I try to focus on the bitterness of my Americano. I dump some Splenda into my cup, saturating my mouth with artificial sweetness.
“hey, i had one of the best times hanging out today. probably one of my fav convos. let’s definitely run this back soon <3,” she texts me right after we part. Jeez. This was ‘one of the best’? I’m relieved it’s over. Fuck this. I’ll respond later.
Why do I feel guilty? Was I lying to her? I don’t think so. I try to be better. I become better. I even get unsolicited feedback that I am better. Why am I so frustrated? I want to throw my phone across the room. This friendship feels like bullshit. Is it my fault? Am I being insincere? Am I being a bad friend? The whole point of this persona is to be a people pleaser, Jenna is pleased. Why does it feel so wrong?
I am pretty fatigued after hanging out with Jenna. I need to craft my personas more deeply. I need to step into who they are. I hesitate to call them ‘characters’… I want them to still be me, just a different part of myself, something I wouldn’t show on the surface. This interaction felt forced. I need more tweaking to get these right.
|2||4||5||Positive, unsettling, expected.|
|I felt very disconnected to myself and Jenna. This persona feels inaccurate for who I am.||I believe I successfully embodied The Pleaser. My posture, eye contact, questions, and energy were strong.||Jenna’s text was incredible, unsolicited feedback, even if it doesn’t sit right with me.||“Best time” together. Damn. Her feedback was perfect for The Pleaser.|
Round 2, The Wildcard: WWTWD?
What would the wildcard do? Ah, the million dollar question. On a weekend of Halloween shenanigans, she will host. Welcome the world to the wonderful wildcard! Coming to theaters near you with free alcohol and cheap Halloween decor! I make a Facebook event for a pregame at my house. My guests are unaware of my intentions––I doubt adding a project summary to the event description would have as much attraction as ‘drinks and edibles provided.’ People are simple to sway.
I temporarily dye my hair pink a few days before the event. Why? Why not! Becoming a knock-off Lavagirl seems like a solid step into chaos. I feel unsettled looking in the mirror, the bright streaks of magenta compliment my acne scars from stress scratching. I conceal them in extra coats of ‘Maybelline: Age Rewind’ foundation.
What would the wildcard wear? It’s Halloween. There is no limit to how little clothing I can wear. My birthday suit might be too much. I stare into my closet’s military lineup of tops. What would I wear if I didn’t care who saw me? I grab two corsets.
I stuff myself into a tiny, sky-blue crop top. I lace the strings through the waist loops, pull them tight, and try to shrink into a size too small for myself. I want to feel hot, but I feel disgusting. I have the silhouette of a muffin top, my boobs spilling out over my compressed rib cage.
I untie the strings and let my stomach breathe. I remove the top in defeat. I poke my pudgy sides and turn away from the mirror, avoiding eye contact with my naked self. I crave a superhero suit-up moment, like Batman’s instant changes, but into my own unquestionably strong, sexy allure.
I grab the other corset. I will like this. I will wear it. I slip it on and tell myself the color held me back. Now, I wear black, like Batman, with white stitched lace around my waist. Sugar, spice, and everything nice.
I will be ready once I look like too much. I pat my normal makeup routine down. My face is my canvas. I will wow. I pick up my eyeliner. Three thin lines radiating like blackened sun rays. I draw three U’s between each pair of lines, adding in the rungs of my spider web. One side feels like a safe amount, so I draw the same under my other eye. My dark circles are the perfect shadow underneath the spider webs, the grayed backdrop for my spooky makeup. I spray-set my makeup and character into place.
My first guest knocks on the door, just as I finish. What a main character moment! No time wasted! I rescoop my boobs into the corset, open the door, and let the night begin. Three girls––a Sim, a cop, and an unidentifiable character––arrive to finish setting up. I look good, feel good. No worries right now. I settle into the couch to curate a soundtrack for chaos.
The collection of characters file in. I pinball from Doctor Strange to Alice in Wonderland to The Queen of England. Great costumes, disappointing conversations. Superficial catch ups as they fill the kitchen with bodies. Let’s have more fun. Let’s get drunk!
“Shot?” I look at whoever’s around me. I don’t know either of their faces. How did they get here? “Wait, what are your names?”
“…, what about you?” I don’t hear what they say. I don’t really care.
“I’m Anushka. This is my house! Haha. Who’d you come with?” I could have been nicer about it, but no apologies, no regrets, no filter.
“Oh, Anushka! Thanks for hosting! Philip brought us.” The first girl nervously replies.
“Alright. Rally everyone for a shot.”
“We love your house! Yes, we’re on it.” The second girl grabs her friend and hands everyone a plastic shot glass. Crisis averted. I hope they don’t think I’m rude. You are not supposed to care. Focus on yourself! Wildcard, not Pleaser.
“To senior year!” a voice floats over the sea of faces. I jolt my head back, swallow, and let the chill of alcohol run down my spine. I take a deep breath. There are a lot of people in my house. I take another shot.
Wildcard’s fuel is alcohol. Each shot erases anxiety. My persona settles in with a rosy glow, this redness means go. I take off, continuing to bounce through the evening.
“Hey, so good to see you! Love the costume. What’re you up to later tonight?” I shout over the music. I feel warm.
“Yes! Thanks for hosting. This is so cute. We might head downtown later. You should come with us.”
“Totally! Keep me posted. I’ll be back.” Good enough for me. I won’t be back. I worm through the crowd. I hear snippets of surface level conversations. Normally, I would be sucked into them. I would be nice, friendly, and eager to see my friends, but these are just meaningless moments. Tonight, I keep my interactions under a minute. That’s not a requirement, but I’m just not interested in staying longer.
A hand yanks me. I stumble backward. My purely platonic friend Ben slides his hand up, grips my upper arm, and melts himself over the mold of my body. Neither pure nor platonic.
“I’ve been trying to catch you all night. You’re impossible to find.” Ben whispers into my ear. “I want to talk to you. You look great.” Still clutching my arm, Ben steps back and stares at me from head to toe. Oh my! The first excitement of the evening. I find it hard to believe that he struggled to find me. I’m a head taller than most of the girls here. I doubt his flirting is a reaction to Wildcard as much as my breasts on display.
Deep breath in. What would the Wildcard say? “That’s nice. You can just say that my boobs look nice. And if you actually want to talk to me, you can find me again later. It’s not hard to spot me.” I break his grip and travel outside of the kitchen. Deep breath out. I can’t believe I just said that. That was… direct. I need a smoke break. I see Phillip’s friends twiddling a joint and sinking into the couch. Perfect.
Smoking clouds my liquid confidence. My mind slows and fixates on my flaws. What am I wearing? What am I doing? I retreat to my room. The redness has spread to my eyes. My spiderwebs are smeared down my cheeks. My tinted hair feels tacky. You look terrible. I feel overwhelmed. Why are you acting like this? It’s unhinged. It’s messy. I lay down on my bed and take a second to recenter.
The door wobbles. Someone’s knocking.
“It’s open!” I stare up at the ceiling, the fan twirling above me.
“You’re not that easy to find.” Ben creaks the door open and closes it behind him.
“Just come in. I needed to take a second.” Honestly, I felt nauseous.
“The pregame is great, but you’re driving me crazy.” Ben keeps distance between us, him standing a foot from the door and me on the other side of the room, sinking into the safety of my bed.
“Wow, that’s nice!” He’s only added to my nausea. I don’t know where any of this is coming from.
“I can’t get your attention tonight. What changed? I can’t shake it.” His eyes are locked on me. I haven’t shifted my focus from the fan’s hypnosis, the cycle of arms racing around each other.
“I am being myself. I’m glad you’re enjoying the pregame. It’s fun, but nothing and nobody is interesting enough to keep my attention right now.”
“Damn. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve just wanted to talk to you all evening.”
“I find that quite hard to believe. You’ve flirted with half the people here, and I do not need to fall victim to this too. Please save both of us the time and awkwardness and talk to someone more interested.” I don’t have room for sugarcoating right now. The fan’s arms multiply, the wooden panels spiral on the ceiling. My only goal is not to vomit.
“That was cold. Harsh…” Ben springs off the door and begins inching closer. “It’s hot. I’ve enjoyed chasing you for your attention tonight, you’re normally more into me. It’s driving me crazy.”
“You’re kidding?” This is more entertaining than the fan. I close my eyes and push my weight up. I look directly at him, trudging toward me, and allow myself to take up the full bed. I feel dizzy. I would rather be alone. “You’re not kidding! Wow. That’s fucking hilarious.”
“My disinterest has sparked your interest.” The sentence slurs in my mouth. I stretch out the s’s in each word. My intended harsh tone feels diluted in the slowness and softness of my high thoughts. “The irony is incredible.”
“Ironic, maybe. Definitely fun. I want to hang out later. I’ll stick around until the end, I said no to plans with the ‘other girls’ you mentioned. Your decision. I promise I’ll be worth your attention.” Maybe he finally picked up on my reactions. Ben slowly turns back, despite only moving two feet from the door, and vanishes back into the main room. The ghost of our conversation echoes in my room, in my mind. I quickly scribble what we said into my notes.
INTERESTING CONVO WITH BEN. WHAT THE HELL. FEELING BETTER. FEELING PRETTY CONFIDENT. GOD I MIGHT THROW UP??? THIS IS CRAZY FEEDBACK. THIS WILDCARD STUFF MUST REALLY BE WORKING BUT WTF. HOW IS IT THIS SIMPLE???
|I felt confident for most of the night. My dialogue made me uncomfortable, but they were all genuine thoughts I had. I am surprised I was able to speak my unfiltered mind, though I do not want to do it again.||I was a great Wildcard. I can’t believe what I said. I almost regret it, but maybe that’s the point.||While Wildcard intrigued Ben, I don’t think the majority of my interactions were very consequential. Most people did not realize the difference of my persona or changes in behavior.||Drinking helped. Most of my interactions were before smoking, so I will focus on those. Alcohol normalizes weird behaviors… probably why nobody noticed.|
Round 3, The Pleaser: The Ex-Pleaser
Homecoming weekend worries me. My ex-boyfriend would be back on campus. Simply knowing of his presence at Penn is enough for me to barricade myself at home. I can watch the leaves fall, like the petals of a flower, from the safety of my bedroom window. He loves me, he loves me not.
I am eager for this to be one of my rounds. Does meeting ‘someone I used to know’ count as a new person? This is my chance to show him I was doing better. Am I? Maybe. Not that I want him to know otherwise. I will project perfection, an unflawed life with him gone, even if the ghosts of our two-year relationship still haunt me down Locust.
Should I call him first? Some part of me hopes we would continue walking circles around each other in an endless game of tag, our paths never crossing. Is reaching out first a sign of weakness? As the perfect people pleaser, I am too composed to cave. I have my shit together! Low emotional variance. Should I delete his number? No, that’s too rash. I am calm, composed… dare I say, cool.
I sit in the safety of Louie Louie. Closely watching the sea of students trudge up Walnut. Hoping I would see his face in the crowd. My phone buzzes in my pocket. I hate to admit my excitement to see his name on my phone. How long do I wait to respond? Should I reject the call? Should I let it go to voicemail? No, what if he doesn’t call again? I am nothing but a simp. I pick up after a few rings, hopefully suggesting how busy and fulfilling my life is now that I almost missed his call in between the demands of my single lifestyle.
“Hey, I’m around for the next few hours, would you like to go on a walk? I would love to catch up and see you.” He is being nice. Maybe he is The Pleaser too.
“Yes. I’m at dinner right now but should be done in thirty! I can try to leave early. I would love to catch up too.” Was that cool? I sound confident… maybe just confident that I am ready to give in and see him. I blindly offered to leave early. Why am I prioritizing pleasing him over my friends at dinner? I return to the table, our 15 second phone call on repeat. I scarf down my salmon and rice and remedy its saltiness with the melted Moscow Mule ice.
Green light. I race up Walnut home. Springing off my heels with each step, trying to hide my eagerness for what felt like my impending doom. What the hell were we going to talk about? I could ask him about post-grad life, how his Homecoming visit is, and just go through my talking-points for surface-level conversations. I practice biting my cheeks and soft smiling. Perfect your poker face.
He follows through with our plans. I look down at my phone, as if I haven’t been watching him pass by each Locust house on his way to mine. He strolls with nowhere pressing to be; his baffling coolness and confidence only heightens my anxiety. His body sways left to right, bouncing weight between his two legs, in adagio. We meet on my front porch.
“Hey, let’s walk?” He looks up to me, I feel myself crumble inside. I take a deep breath and smile. I let my internal bulletproof wall rise up, ready to deflect the emotions that threaten to pull me back into the past.
“Thanks for reaching out. I’m really happy you called.” I feel uncomfortable. I don’t know if I can be The Pleaser to him. I try to make eye contact but find myself fixating on the wire frames of his glasses instead. He smells distinctly male. Some generic musky cologne. I hate to admit that I like it. He looks good. He put on the healthy weight he had wanted to for so long, as if he had finally stopped replacing his meals with bowls of weed.
“You look great, by the way,” I say. Good compliment. Am I flirting? I don’t know, but I honestly mean it.
“Thanks. I gained some weight! If you can tell. You look good too. Let’s get off campus.” He waves towards a world beyond 41st street, the Penn bubble, and into the playground of the past. We had spent the online school year meandering the streets of West Philly and making them ours. I rarely go past 44th now, just in fear of reentering the golden age of our retired relationship.
I cycle through my rehearsed questions––“How’s post-grad life? How’s being back on campus? Are you excited for Homecoming? How are your friends? How’s….” I fill the hour with learning about the high-level changes in his life, the monotony of work, the discomfort of being back at school. I think his answers are honest, but they feel diluted.
I keep the sides of my cheeks between my teeth––it helps the stress. Don’t overtake the conversation. My answers are brief. “Life is good, being back is weird, but I’m adjusting.” “I’m moving to SF. Feeling nervous, but I’m sure that’ll change.” “Friends are silly, but what else is new?” Everything has a but, never one he seems to think is worth asking about.
“You seem much calmer,” he mentions. “Much more than the last time I saw you. I’m happy to see how you’ve grown.” I feel anything but calm. I sit comfortably in the backseat of our conversation. I don’t know what ‘growth’ he is referring to. Is his comment condescending? Is it baseless? I never say anything of substance. I want him to know how I’ve actually grown. How my mental health has finally improved since our destructive demise. How I’m finally finding friends that make me feel valued. How I’m learning to stand up for myself, after I let him trample all over me for the whole second year of our relationship. I feel myself slipping back into his shadow. Don’t get angry. Focus on what’s to come: your plans for later tonight. Your friends and you will rise to an artificial euphoria, seemingly far away from now.
The hour feels, well, like an hour. It doesn’t slip through my fingers the way time with him normally does. The walk is pleasant, nothing more or less. I wish time evaded me. I wish I’d lost myself in our conversation, in his presence. I want him to fill the gap he left behind, but I guess I stopped that from happening.
His surface-level observations weigh over me. Am I actually calmer? Am I actually better? I find myself in the same spot as the past: contorting myself for his approval. Now it’s for the sake of an experiment, but is it any different? He reaches out to hang out the next day. Yesterday must have gone well for him. I reply amicably, eager to see him again. I feel unsettled. The Pleaser is an excuse. Is it really for this piece? Or am I just like this? Pacifying my pain with short term smiles. I willingly ignore my emotions for the approval of people who do not care for me. Is this really better? I feel pathetic.
Elimination 1: The Pleaser, you have been Chopped!
I hit a wall with my experiment. I hate The Pleaser… because I am The Pleaser. The persona is exactly as predicted. I please people. Why does it feel so wrong? Why does it spike my anxiety? How do I feel more liked and more insecure? The Pleaser sends me deeper into my own insecurities. My confidence sits on an unsteady foundation, fickle external validation from others. I feel distant from the people around me. I cannot shake the discomfort from our differences in perception––others view our interactions as so positive while I feel so empty and jaded. The relationship feels transactional and filtered; I do not want to surround myself with one-sided parodies of friendship.
As The Pleaser, I find myself replaying the past. This past spring semester, I reached my rock bottom. My mental health and self-worth were at an all-time-low; I fell into a frightening pattern of daily panic attacks and weekly self-harm spirals. I never told anyone about it. I felt embarrassed and alone. To my friends, I scapegoated ‘feeling off’ as a result of my breakup, though the only person to blame was myself. I was petrified of being told I was ‘attention-seeking’ or burdensome. I was stuck in my own suffocating negative reinforcement cycle, until I reached out to my therapist Lisa and found security in paying her to support me.
I hid behind a fragile smile and self-deprecating jokes. Sober me began every morning as The Pleaser. With one too many drinks, my facade would crumble to reveal the emptiness and numbness inside, a Wildcard. It’s funny how these characters existed before I actualized them in this piece. Each time I forced myself into the mold of the perfect person, I felt even more inclined to break free. To become The Wildcard again. I was oscillating from the most to least filtered version of myself, and for what? This volatility was not worth losing myself.
I feel a lot better now, after a summer of therapy and separation from school. Yet The Pleaser sends me back to the depths of my demise. I anticipated this character to help me feel better about how I can affect and support others, yet I feel as jaded as before. I am not obscuring pain and fear, but I am still hiding myself.
So, Goodbye, Pleaser. You may always be better than me, but I will always be happier without you.
Round 4, The Observer: Napkin Joints
Cotton candy skies sweeten the outside of the bar. Inside, the pub’s wooden panels absorb the sunset’s warmth, concealing the onset of the evening. My skin is beer-toned under the sparse overhead lights, as if I’m a true Indian Pale Ale.
My edible loosens me up. I artificially send myself into observer mode, letting the THC soften my face and facade my feelings in a haze. I feel calm. I feel no pressure to be talkative, to carry a conversation. I sit back and allow the bar to fill the silences between us.
Under the dim bar lighting, his skin glistens like plastic, not porcelain. Like an Indian Ken doll. His face is perfectly symmetrical, he’s a med student at Penn, and he even hails from New Jersey (the best state, not that I needed to clarify that). I let him ramble on about the difficulty of school, the stress of moving, the rarity of his accomplishments.
Spoiler alert: this is not a very eventful evening. He asks me a few questions about my life as an undergrad and my hometown in New Jersey. We make light hearted jokes about the Indian American community and walk in circles over our common ground. Nothing bad, nothing good. Hardly novel.
“I really love chatting with you, though you’re shyer than you were when we texted.” He holds his third beer like a microphone. I want to respond candidly, telling him that I’m actually often too much, and he is fortunate to see a toned-down version of me. Instead, I let the words fall back into my throat and chase it down with a cherry sour ale. I pause.
“Yeah, I would rather listen to you talk. I enjoy sitting here.” I sound robotic, emotionless. Though he seems to like my answer and begins another anecdote about med school.
After a few beers, his stories begin unraveling. Characters and settings float in the ether of the bar––I am no longer paying attention. He anxiously rolls his napkin like a cigarette. His speech slows as he fixates on the spirals of the paper. I am irrelevant to this conversation. I wonder if people feel like this when I tell my own stories.
“I like hanging out with you. You’re much more calming than I expected.” He looks up from his napkin joint. I admit I am surprised to hear this. I’m the perfect NPC––he has found paper more compelling than my presence. He talked to himself all night. I can’t help but laugh.
“Thank you. I’m glad I could make you feel calm and comfortable.”
|4||3||3||Neutral, leaning positive?|
Round 5, The Wildcard: UnHinged
New semester! New me! The Wildcard is back and better than ever! Rather than unveiling the Wildcard to the real world, I choose to hide behind a screen. (Unfortunately, based on my own rules, I can’t eliminate The Wildcard until I’ve executed at least two rounds). I take my place at center stage on the American Idol of dating apps: Hinge. Designed to be deleted. Will I find my one true love? If they can handle The Wildcard, they must be the one.
I create a photo album called ‘UNHINGED’ of pink hair photos from Halloween, scandalous selfies, and embarrassing events that I would normally never publicize. With my curated collection of photos, I am ready for the prompts, aka the fun part.
Two truths and a lie? Unexciting.
First round is on me if? It’s not. For immature college boys? The least you could do is buy me a drink before rambling on about your life and asking me to go home with you. Sorry prospective partners, but the first round is on you.
Dating me is like? Probably a rollercoaster with no safety bars. That’s an exaggeration but boy, would that be a hilarious answer! Hinge does not seem like the platform for chaotic satire, maybe sexy satire… but I will likely frighten the masses with that answer.
I won’t shut up about? Literally everything. I like talking. Survey says, you probably do too.
My therapist would say? Whoa. Don’t bring Lisa into this. She would be quite angry that I’m making a Hinge. The last thing I need right now is a boyfriend. I can barely handle myself, let alone another chaotic college student.
Biggest date fail? A man once sent me a Google form for feedback on how he looked and acted during our first date. Yes, I filled it out. It took over 30 minutes. No, we did not go on a second date. I regret not asking for feedback on myself, but I spent too much time filling out his form to then make my own.
We’re the same type of weird if? You create a multipart experiment to test out different personalities within your head in hopes of figuring out who you want to be.
Piercing prompts and perfect pictures. This isn’t a profile, it’s a performance. Though, I do not think I will have an audience for this. Wildcard is the inverse of my default profile––the profile of a Pleaser. I typically make safe jokes––my first prompt is Two Truths and a Lie, how boring. The photos are a reduced catalog from my Instagram, already publicly approved with likes and comments. My profile is made for the male gaze, an unsettling realization. How would someone craft my personality from my profile? Who is the person they perceive me to be? How would I live up to their baseless expectations? Hinge is made for immediate perception, and I do not want any judgment from these silly one-liners and filtered photos.
I take down both of my Hinges. I wish I could pride myself for being ‘above’ social media and dating apps, being unaffected by these platforms. But I would be lying to myself. I care a lot about my online image. I doubt Hinge was ‘designed to be deleted’ thirty minutes after creating a profile.
My rounds have lost all structure. This social experiment has permeated my life and daily interactions, to a point that documentation has become quite difficult. One-off conversations trigger different personas, and I can no longer discern who I am. Is this a game? Is this just my life?
My mood varied as normal, but I would push my fluctuation into the extremes. If I felt a bit more reserved, I would lean into The Observer. More social, I would lean into The Pleaser. More chaotic, I would lean into The Wildcard. These personas exist within me––as I initially presumed––but they can come out at a higher frequency than I expected when I spark them intentionally. I placed myself in the peripheral, the bounds of my categories, as opposed to letting my personality freely move across the spectrum without notice.
My little social experiment has unearthed the effects of my blind behavior. How does substance affect who I am? The Pleaser is a sober student, The Wildcard is my worst wasted self, and The Observer is secretly a stoner. How does the male gaze influence me? My fixation on male perception and attraction are accidental threads in my experiment, confounding variables that affect every round. Maybe it’s insecurity about my level of attractiveness, externally and internally. I feel jaded for future romantic relationships, especially within the bounds of college. It consumes so much of my mental real estate. Yet, my actions are unimportant. Inaction is often better. How do I value male vs. non-male perception? A nice preview of my upcoming existential crises.
I finish this experiment with more unanswered questions. Is it even over? I don’t know. I continue to oscillate between modes, though The Pleaser, Wildcard, and Observer are not comprehensive categories. Are there more? Will I continue subconsciously separating my identity into qualitative modes? Is there a finite range of personas within my personality? Can I abstractly recreate who I am? As I age and develop, how do I maintain confidence and comfort in myself? How will I continue to reinvent myself? Is it possible to become the person everyone wants me to be? Or the person everyone believes me to be?
How do I end? Writing any ‘conclusion’ feels wrong. My publication does not mark the end of my self discovery and growth, but rather the beginning of choosing to be me. Instead, I will let this piece be Round 1 of an endless experiment to find myself.