As part of our #BREAKFREE campaign, author Louise O'Neill reveals why she let go of worrying about other people's opinions
In interviews, I often get asked if the main characters in my novels are based on me, as if I would be incapable of creating fictional characters unless they are thinly veiled versions of myself. This isn’t too offensive in the case of Freida, the main character in Only Ever Yours, but since the majority of interviewers then go on to detail why they find Emma (the protagonist of Asking For It) to be deeply ‘unlikeable’, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of impression I’m making on those around me.
A few years ago, this would have bothered me.
A few years ago, I would have found it difficult to sleep as I turned those questions over and over, searching for its underbelly.
Because even though neither Emma nor Freida reflect me or my life, there is one attribute that they share that I can identify with. Both characters are constantly looking for the approval of those around them. Their lives are indelibly tied up with their concern about how they’re being seen.
And yes. That was me.
Up until I was 25, I read other people’s letters, I eavesdropped on people’s conversations, I looked through my mother’s text messages, I hacked my sister’s Facebook account, I made my now ex boyfriend give me the passwords to his Gmail account so I could look through his emails. (I wonder why it didn’t work out?!)
The reason for this wasn’t nosiness. I wanted access to the innermost thoughts of those around me, because I wanted to know how they saw me, what their opinion was of me, and of my behaviour and personality. I didn’t know who I was so I thought I needed that validation from outside sources in order to even begin to understand who I was.
I think this obsession with what other people thought of me began when I was a teenager. Before that, I was a bit weird and I didn’t fit in with the other kids in my class, but I didn’t care. I was happy spending time by myself, playing make-believe or reading yet another book. It was only when I entered secondary school that it started to feel vitally important that I be accepted by my peers, and I think that was when I subtly started to change facets of my personality so that I would become more ‘acceptable’. I started dressing in a certain way, I would temper my sense of humour and the jokes I would tell, I tried to be as ‘nice’ as I possibly could be so that no one would have any reason to criticise me.
It began to impact on my life in a number of different ways. I would only admit to finding certain boys attractive if friends of mine agreed that he was good looking, I laughed at misogynistic, sexist jokes because I didn’t want to be seen as humourless, I allowed myself to be treated badly because I didn’t want to be one of ‘those girls’, I wanted to be seen as relaxed, and easy going, and chilled. I chose my university, Trinity, because it was seen as being the most prestigious in Ireland, I travelled every summer to get away from my small town, all the time wondering if the people in my small town would think I was really ‘cool’ for doing so. I starved myself, or binged and purged, in order to ensure my body would conform to what society said was appealing. In my most private moments I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to get married or have children but I started a relationship with a man who looked perfect on paper because I thought I should. I just ignored the twinges in my gut that told me something didn’t feel right.
I wasn’t happy, but I looked like I was happy, and other people thought I was happy, and wasn’t that the same thing?
I was 25 when I moved to New York to work for a prestigious fashion magazine. I was living in the most exciting city in the world, on set with the A-list celebrities, designer clothes, jewellery that cost millions of dollars. All of my family and friends were so impressed – this was, without a doubt, the coolest job ever.
And yet, I wasn’t happy. I came home at Christmas, 30lbs lighter than when I had left in September, and a trip to the doctor revealed that my body was once again under severe pressure. I was, at 25, a heart attack waiting to happen.
And I knew that I had to do something.
That something involved a lot of therapy, and the willingness to finally figure out who I was and what I wanted for myself. It meant letting go of an idea of perfection and understanding that it was impossible for everyone to like me and that, somehow, that had to be okay. I had wanted to write for years but felt paralysed by fear – what if everyone hates it? What if the critics slate it? What if (and this was my greatest fear) what if I’m just not good enough?
But I sat down at the desk, and I wrote. I ignored that little voice in my head that told me if others didn’t approve of this book then it was worthless, that I was worthless. I didn’t think about what I looked like, or what I was wearing, or what other people thought of me. I just wrote every day because by doing something that I loved (but doing it for my own pleasure rather than for the purposes of procuring the approval of those around me) was making me whole again.