One night two weeks ago, while watching a Nebraska-based trance band, I suddenly remembered how to have fun.
It happened effortlessly—as shake-out-your-sleeves-and-collapse-on-the-hot-grass casually as I and most of the 10,000 music lovers attending Downtown Riverfest in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that sultry, starry night were dressed.
And that's exactly how such revelations should arrive: spontaneously, manifesting in the heart and body before they form in the mind—that overworked, overplayed entity that always tries too hard.
When something's true, I want to feel it first, then think about it.
At Riverfest, swaying in rhythm with the songs, watching people in tank tops stream past smiling, holding hands, singing along beside the sparkling Big Sioux River under that soon-to-be-lit-with-fireworks sky, I didn't feel like my usual tense, self-conscious self. I felt like someone relieved to be far from home amidst strangers whose joy at once accepted, absorbed and (mercifully) ignored me: someone who loves music too, and loves being near water.
One of the meanest tricks self-loathing plays is that it won't let us simply enjoy ourselves. It's the voice that whispers This can't last, warns You don't belong here, and taunts You look terrible. It's lying, and we have believed it for too long.
Thinking about Downtown Riverfest these last two weeks, I've discerned a few ways in which we might learn to outsmart/ignore/eradicate that cruel and too-familiar voice.
Expect nothing. Expectations raise anxiety and make disappointment more likely. So the next time you're in a situation that would be fun if only you didn't instantly think and talk yourself out of it, pretend that you never planned to be there in the first place, that you don't even know what it is and that you've just wandered into it at random. Shrug, gaze around and wonder: Hmm, so what's up here? Tell yourself you need only stay five minutes. Then just let those minutes unfold around you. When we let go of expectations, we let situations not be all about us, in all our imagined awfulness. Releasing expectations releases pressure.
Stop acting. Low self-esteem tends to make everything feel like a performance during which our every act and word are, consciously or not, aimed at pleasing others, appeasing others or evading punishment. The next time you're in a situation that would be fun if only your eyes weren't fixed on everyone else's reactions to you, stop looking at everyone else. Imagine that no one else is there and you've got the whole situation to yourself. If that's not possible, imagine that you're invisible. (Yes, sometimes invisibility has definite benefits.) Best of all, tell yourself (and believe it) that everyone else on those premises is having too good a time to fret about whatever you wear, do or say.
Focus. Another of self-loathing's sinister strategies is to distract us, jarring us into forgetting why we're doing anything anywhere with or without anyone. Like the thief who yells, "Hey! Look over there!" then pickpockets everyone while they're looking over there, self-loathing jabbers away at us in would-be pleasurable situations—yelling You're making a fool of yourself or Danger, danger, danger until we forget all about the game, the trail, the friends, the food, the film or whatever else we set out to enjoy. Every ten minutes or so, pause to remember why you're there. It will almost certainly involve something, or someone, that you love. Reconnect with that reason. Again. And again.