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You know that girl in college who gets all the boys’ attention and doesn’t seem to care? She roughhouses with them on the field like a tomboy by day and surrounds herself with them like Christmas tree lights at night? You know—the tease?

That was me. And I’m sorry.

One of my favorite movie scenes when I was growing up was Wild Thing’s entrance in Major League, played by Charlie Sheen. I loved the hero’s unapologetic attitude, his self-obsession, and his hotshot swagger. It seemed to make him so untouchable, so immune to self-doubt or fear.

That same brazen confidence came easily to me. Growing up in the middle of seven brothers provided a girl like me with quite an array of unlikely skills—an intimate knowledge of sporting rules, a stomach hardened against the grisly gore of war movies, expertise on how to punch someone with the least amount of force yet maximal pain (aim for the bony flesh between two muscles), and so on.

In college, I would join pickup games of soccer with all-male crews and hold my own on the defensive line. I knew very well how to make guys laugh—a skill I employed to my own advantage. One of the ruder guys would invite me to the “shirtless” team, and I would politely smile back my refusal. I exploited their fear of hurting me; female aggression, when properly executed, can be so unexpected that it throws off their game completely.

I also delighted in showing off my body. A former ballet bun-head, I loved dancing at clubs with girlfriends. I would do handless backbends to pick up shots of water with my teeth and other virtuoso moves to riotous applause on the dance floor. It was never about sex—but I certainly might have fooled more than one guy in the audience.

The guys I hung out with were friendly, but there was always a line I wouldn’t cross, and that meant our time together consisted of superficial banter and goofing off rather than meaningful emotional intimacy. And I wasn’t very good at opening up to girls either. Though I liked and admired many of the girls I spent time with, I didn’t know how to nurture anything deeper than friendly acquaintance. Truth was, I had trouble being vulnerable to anyone. My persona was a front—but inside I was desperately lonely.

Surrounded by People, Yet All Alone

I purposefully and habitually sought male attention in order to project an image of myself that gratified my lonely, self-doubting ego. I would twinkle my eyes and share with them knowing, mirthful smiles—but I never showed them the real me.

As author M. J. Croan once said, “Maturity is when your world opens up and you realize that you are not the center of it.” It turned out that my behavior of treating guys like birthday balloons exacerbated the very loneliness it sought to relieve. For all my mirth, I had nothing to show for it—no deep friendship, no emotional outlet. Worse, I was actually hurting people.

Some of my casualties are known to me—very good guys whose lives I tormented for a season, building up their hopes with excessive flirtation and then shutting them down with the realization that I wasn’t serious. It is very painful for me to consider how they had mustered their courage and, at great personal cost, dared to approach me romantically, only to be laughingly rebuffed and challenged to a game of “rock paper scissors” instead. As if that were all they were worth to me. Seeing their crestfallen faces, watching them react with pain and frustration to my charade, made me feel downright awful about myself.

The guilt gnawed at me; the price of my notoriety became way too high. Moreover, my “game” didn’t even work. I got men’s attention, but of those guys I “snagged,” most quickly forgot about me. Some tested me and grew irritated by my endless wit, and the few who became emotionally invested in me would live to regret it.

The guys whose opinions and judgments I valued most were always in the second category—those who were unimpressed with the facade of desirability. After all, what is so great about a woman who emotionally exploits other guys to gratify her seemingly insatiable vanity and conceit? I learned the hard way that men who are most worth impressing are smart enough to be unequivocally turned off by such narcissism.

The Rewards of True Intimacy

For me, the emptiness of such an existence became so painful that I finally came clean, acknowledged my yearning for true intimacy, and behaved accordingly. Starting my junior year at a new school meant that my loneliness would be as daunting as ever—but it also gave me the chance to start fresh. I didn’t want to fake it this time: I dared to be emotionally vulnerable to those I admired, submitted to manners, and began the long, slow process of building authentic friendships. I was initially terrified: Friends would require my time, energy, attention to their needs—holding myself accountable to them! However, the path has proven itself over the years; the rewards that have poured into my life as a result of this decision have made me happier than I ever thought possible.

I have come to realize that life’s worth comes from actual intimacy and significance rather than selling the appearance of it. I no longer have to vie for World’s Biggest Ego to hope that I matter as a person. I delight in knowing that I really do matter, a great deal, to a certain special few—as wife to an amazing man and mother to three (almost four!) wonderful kids. Though “homemaker and mom” jobs aren’t generally impressive to the masses, doing them well has given me tremendous lasting pleasure. My life today is the closest I’ve ever come to fulfillment. The joys I’ve experienced in loving my family have never diminished, not years later, not even when it required the best of me. In comparison to this, I now find the fleeting highs of my former attention-seeking behavior—and the fiction it was based on—thoroughly repellent.

The irony of my big bad college persona is that she was so small-minded. If I possess any real merits as a person, she caricatured them into nonsense. Yes, I understand men relatively well at a social level, but the more I get to know my husband and sons, the more the male gender becomes a mystery to me. Pouring out my heart to a close girlfriend feels like medicinal relief after spending so much of my life surrounded by guys.

I used to think I was so strong—an authority on the playbook of magnetizing human attention. But the rewards were so paltry and unsatisfying, and I inflicted so much pain in the process. I now play a very different game. If I am strong, let my greatest strength be in loving and serving others. I can take real pride in this: Not only does love make everyone a little happier, but giving it away also requires way more mettle than hoarding it at the expense of others. If I have any ability to influence or affect people, I want my greatest feat to be to convince people of just one thing—how worthy they are of my attention, my consideration, and my friendship. Then, I will have the pleasure of having actually won something worthwhile.

Photo Credit: Evgenia Kohan