About a year ago, I discovered a new passion of mine. It began with a dinner with friends, as we picked at our salted edamame beans and waited for our glorified instant-noodle orders. Conversation about classes and computer science sputtered until we settled into silence, each person waiting for the next to bring up another topic. Rather than retreat into my usual way of quiet observation, or finding sudden interest in a smudge on my cup, I spoke up.
“What is one thing you would change about yourself?”
The discussion that opened up was well worth the initial looks of confusion I got for how out-of-context my question was. From that night on, I have been on a mission to think of conversation starters that force people to think about things they wouldn’t normally have the space to talk about. The more random, the better.
I have used this one enough to recognize the general aftermath of asking it: The response typically includes rapid blinking and the “only one thing?” follow-up. And usually, for both the purpose of giving them more time to think and to gauge how vulnerable their response should be, I am asked to answer first.
The list of things that barrage my mind seems endless. I’m short, coding makes me cry, emotions often get the better of me, I’m not outgoing enough, I’m bad at keeping good habits, I’m not cool, I wish I was prettier and, according to a health test I took, I don’t eat enough whole grains.
If I were to be completely honest, my genuine answer breaks the rules of my own game.
“Me? Oh, everything. Everything, everything, everything.”
Except I don’t say that. Why? Well, for one, saying so might imply that I hate myself, which is not the case. There are aspects of myself that I greatly appreciate, but at the same time, there are so many traits I wish I possessed. It leads me to the question: Can self-improvement coexist with self-love? What even is self-love? Sometimes I wonder whether anyone, despite the commercialization of the concept, really knows what “loving yourself” means. I don’t think love is the absence of dislike, so self-love shouldn’t be expected to be the absence of insecurity. But that’s what the goal often seems to be.
Secondly, voicing my discontent could be interpreted as a grab for attention. When people publicly address negative aspects of themselves, it’s often construed as a “pick-me” attitude or fishing for compliments. But asking what people would change isn’t meant to give reason to complain about something that should be argued against with the polite “nooo, don’t say that about yourself, you’re amazing!” I’m not hoping that my admission will be counteracted with validation, but simply that we can mutually acknowledge the existence of our insecurity; to admit that loving ourselves is hard and abstract compared to the reality of not feeling good enough.
The third reason is the simplest: I don’t want to expose myself. Even though I like to ask questions that allow deeper insights into who people are, there are still walls I keep around myself. I don’t want to look like the one who struggles the most. I want to maintain the outward appearance of being completely self-assured and avoid the potential of being looked down upon.
It’s interesting that by not saying aloud that I would change everything about myself, I’m acting upon that fear, and in doing so, simultaneously contributing to an issue I wish could be resolved through vulnerability. I often wonder what the world would look like if everyone was honest about the things they struggled to accept about themselves. I have contemplated what would be different about our relationships with others if the idea of being confident did not act as a barrier against admitting that we are sometimes afraid. Maybe life would be much richer, and the hard parts much more bearable.
If I were to grab stills from my life, the moments that stand out the most are the times when the masks came off. Embracing my friend in an Urban Outfitters parking lot as she confessed the things she had been going through. Staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. as I admitted my struggle with anxiety for the first time to someone. Watching raindrops splash against glass as my childhood friends and I reminisced over the years we spent together and shared our fears for college. Through the times that I have poured out my heart to people I trust, the result has always been greater closeness. And while having those kinds of conversations didn’t necessarily solve all my problems or provide me with a resolution, I’m at least reminded that the people around me share the emotions and experiences I thought isolated me.
As humans, we thrive through connection. We crave authenticity. Every day, we have the opportunity to create that kind of culture — one where we don’t shrink from honesty and are unafraid to truly be ourselves, as imperfect as we may be.
It starts here. It starts with me. Here I am, no longer holding back, saying everything, everything, everything.