The last time we went round to our neighbours’ for drinks – what actually turned out to be an opportunity to show off their newly landscaped garden – there was a lot of good chat going on. Laughs, storytelling and the usual comfort of being among friends. That is, until the second bottle of wine was opened.
One thing to know about our neighbour is that they like to talk about themselves… a lot. Even if they are asking you a question or expressing an interest, we have found over time that this serves more as a prompt for them to offer their opinions or pearls of wisdom. After all, our neighbour is older and more experienced in life than we are. What do we actually have to contribute compared to her?
The second thing to know about our neighbour is that she likes to drink… a lot. And encourages others to do so. Now, I like drinking, and I like chat. I’m happy to sit back, nod and smile passively as our neighbour’s own personal audience. But on the odd occasion when we forget ourselves and begin to lead the conversation, or, dare I say it, offer up our own opinions, the evening will take a sudden turn. This has become a regular routine my partner and I are now accustomed to. We know why we are summoned and what our role should be – quiet yet entertaining, passive yet interesting, naïve yet able to hold our own – and yet on the last visit I ended up leaving feeling utterly embarrassed, and the experience has stayed in my head since.
As I say, it’s a routine we are used to so you’d think we’d be prepared. But sometimes, when our neighbour has tipped over to what we know as the ‘second bottle phase’ of the evening, her patience seems to start running a little low. To cut the story short, my partner and I were confident enough in our own opinions to contribute to a particular topic brought up by our neighbour. We were having a good conversation, until we weren’t. We had clearly forgotten ourselves. With a swift ‘shouldn’t you be getting home now for dinner?’ we were struck down and reminded of our position. Not ones to miss social cues, and always conscious of overstaying our welcome, that remark came down like a sledgehammer. We made our attempts to save face – ‘oh yes, the Bolognese should be ready by now!’ – and made a swift departure.
The whole thing took such a sudden turn and happened so dramatically that my automatic reaction was to feel embarrassed. Had we drunk too much and lost our British superpowers of sensing social awkwardness? Had we said something offensive or out of turn? Or had we just been too, god forbid, BORING? I was cringing at the thought of the endless possibilities. I was embarrassed.
After a few days of obsessively going over the details of the evening, I still couldn’t figure it out. And that’s when it finally occurred to me that there was no reason for me to be embarrassed, because we hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t embarrassed; I was annoyed. How DARE my neighbour make us feel that way and dismiss us so casually? As I rolled this thought around in my head it still didn’t seem to sit quite right. Yes, I was annoyed – angry even – but it wasn’t even necessarily directed at my neighbour. The more I thought about it, the more I realised I was annoyed at myself. Annoyed that I had allowed us to get into this weird people-pleasing dynamic with someone we considered a friend. One where we have to morph ourselves into something we’re not in order to make someone else feel better about themselves, when there is clearly no consideration on their part for how they make us feel. As strange a situation as it is, I can now recognise this dynamic at different points in my life. My neighbour is just a different version of a past manager, controlling ex-boyfriend or insecure colleague.
This experience had prompted me to question my intellect, humour, opinions and social abilities. And with this, I had a thought. My neighbour didn’t make me feel that way – I can say with 100% certainty that she hadn’t intended to have that affect and has not thought about it since – but the experience had prompted me to feel a certain way. I had allowed myself to feel a certain way. And with that knowledge, all feelings of embarrassment and annoyance have since disappeared. It feels like I have taken back the power and control I felt without in that situation, knowing that how I feel and how I experience things is completely in my hands. While I’m sure this epiphany won’t stop me from feeling embarrassed, annoyed or all of those other things again, I hope it’ll at least be a little reminder of what is within my control. That’s a nice thought.