When I was like 18 or something, I played a board game with my family -- my parents, an aunt and uncle, and some other people probably I guess.[1. I mean, I've done that a lot. Maybe hundreds of times. My parents and that aunt and uncle have been doing a game night on Saturday, with occasional interruptions, for as long as I can remember -- which, I mean, my memory sucks, but that's at least 10 years regardless.] The game was called "Loser." It was sort of a version of 'Never have I ever' rendered on cards, with pawns on a board instead of fingers held-up. If I recall correctly -- and some of this is probably just approximating based on common party game mechanics -- players took turns rolling a die, reading the corresponding "Have you ever...," then, if they had, advancing along a line that said "Loser!"
Everyone who made it to the exclamation point was eliminated, and whoever was left on the board won.
I won, of course, because I was under 20 and was playing with a bunch of people who were almost 50, so there was a huge number of things that I had never done. Furthermore, due to the normative nature of the game, it dealt with whole categories of behaviors that were normal, and therefore unfashionable, at some point during my parents' and their friends' lives, but which I'd never had access to.
We never played that game again, because it wasn't fun -- it wasn't even really a game, it was just a mechanism for ridiculing your friends. It was missing that layer of mutual validation that more successful self-exposure games have, which is to say you won by having the fewest things 'wrong' with you.
One of the several questions for which I was the only person not to lose a point was "Have you ever been to a movie theater alone?"
At the time, I hadn't. And, in fact, I still haven't. Even though there have been several movies I've wanted to see, but which either nobody I knew wanted to see, or which everyone I knew happened to see at some point without me, or everyone was busy and schedules didn't line up. There are movies that I still want to see, that I have never seen, because I missed them in theaters and they haven't been on Netflix.
Because every time I think about it, I remember that card, and some part of my brain goes "You can make this small sacrifice, and retain that victory" -- the point I won for having never done a thing, in a game I didn't even like, that promoted a value system that is actively offensive to me.
But since it's so small, so insignificant, I have, maybe a dozen times, chosen to take that small pleasure of retaining that validation (again, by a game that I consciously would prefer not to be validated by) over the other small pleasure of getting to see a movie.
I think about that fact about me more and more. About this particular example, and other examples, of small, normative gestures that emerge seemingly from nowhere. Board games, or TV shows, or T-shirts, or things somebody just said once. I imagine that I probably dwell on this one so much because it's easier to think about the fact I've never been to a theater alone because a board game told me not to than the fact that I didn't come out as bisexual until I was 22 because every time I thought about it I was afraid my brothers would find out.
In ways that my mind resists noticing, I know I'm still trying to impress hundreds of people, and even things that aren't people, that I disagree with and even hold contempt for. I'm doing it by making choices that feel like they don't really matter, because someplace in my head I know that choosing wrong makes me vulnerable to attack.
I don't think there's really anything I can do about that, on any large scale. All I can do is keep looking, and noticing why I'm making choices, and untangling individual snags of shame and fear as I come to them.