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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bigging it up

This Life column from yesterday's Day and Night magazine in the Irish Independent

We all have at least one person who can effortlessly trip every insecure switch in our bodies and put us on the defensive the minute they come within an inch of our personal space. These are the people that you just have to out-do in everything because they thrive on thinking they are better than you, which makes you instinctively rise (or sink) to their game as a matter of pride.

This conscious PR overdrive to big yourself and your life up just so you can best this person at all costs is petty and childish, and borne of some grave injustice, or long-sublimated trauma that involved bullying and/or social exclusion, jealousy, envy or some kind of intense personality clash. For all those reasons, it's normally people from your schooldays who hit this raw nerve.

I have one such person. This is a guy from school whom I never got on with for a variety of reasons rooted mainly in sad secondary school politics and social divisions. We were polar opposites in terms of friends, pursuits and personalities, so inevitably disliked each other for the few years we were forced to orbit in each other's spheres.

It also made us competitive in a totally unhealthy way. He could always trounce me sporting-wise (which, in fairness, a hobbled, one-eyed badger could do), but in almost every other area it was a case of Cold War-style one-upmanship. But no matter how much I may have gotten the better of him, he always had this innate ability to reduce my victory to nothing with just one look or comment. Of course, I always thought of the right retaliatory comment or action about 4 hours later when it was too late.

Anyway, I ran into him in a shopping centre a few weeks back. I momentarily considered pretending I hadn't seen him. I could see him do likewise, until, after a few uncomfortable seconds, we both acknowledged each other and said hello. Now I hadn't the foggiest what this guy had been up to since we finished secondary school and I'm sure he held the same level of interest in me. But this was 7 or 8 years later: you'd think things would be different now that we were both grown-ups (in theory anyway).

It turns out that it doesn't work that way. There was faux civility as we caught up very briefly and I think I responded with the requisite amount of interest in what he told me. But I soon found all my news bouncing back to me off his old patronising, smug reflective shield. So my back went up and before I knew it, I had thrown in that I was in the process of buying an apartment (since he told me he was still renting) and that I had just bought a car (since he said he was on his way to get the bus to work).

The thing is, it's not like he was doing so much better than me in terms of career and so on that I had to embellish the truth like that. It's just I couldn't risk giving him any opening to pounce with one of the self-satisfied looks or condescending putdowns of his that I had come to know and loathe back in school.

However, I think I won this time round as he seemed genuinely stumped. So what if some of the things I told him were technically not real? It's just like adding a few minor stretches to your CV to make yourself seem the more attractive candidate. But hopefully I won't run into him again for another few years, because, just as with the CV, I need some time to nail some of those skills and achievements I've already laid claim to.--

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