When I was 9, my favorite cousin got a small part in the movie “Annie” and I was beyond thrilled. We grew up together, had lived together when I was younger, and I worshiped her. On top of that, she was coming out to visit from California around the same time the movie would be released in theaters. So I got the soundtrack on cassette tape and for the next few months could not be seen without my handy Walk-man glued to my head. I sang those songs everywhere I went and knew every word by heart (still do!). My 9 year old heart was filled with love, joy, and “The sun’ll come out tomorrow!” No, I did not know at 9 that maybe my singing out loud sounded awesome with my background music, but that no one else could hear it. All they heard was a 9 year old singing at the top of her lungs. Sadly, the reviews were quick and harsh. “Your sister is weird. She is always singing to herself.” “You need to stop singing all the time, people think you’re strange.” It didn’t take long before I would barely sing above a whisper in the car with my own family. For the record, I was not tone deaf and I didn’t totally suck at singing. I once got a standing ovation from one of the cutest older guys in high school when I sang at an assembly. He was forever one of my favorite people after that (from afar), but that is not my point.
Children do not judge themselves harshly until they are taught to do so. Living in a small town, with a family full of boys and small town thoughts taught me those lessons early on. My uncles never missed a chance to pick at me, whether it was for poking out my lip and pouting or having the audacity to be knock-kneed and a tad chubby as a child. My grandfather meant the world to me, but he was a man who related to others by teasing and joking. Apparently I was just too sensitive, because I frequently took the teasing to heart. Perhaps they did not know that with every joke, with every teasing word, I was taking mental notes about myself. There was no “love yourself, be yourself” movement in small town South Carolina in the late 1970’s. Just “fit in or stick out”, knowing that sticking out was the last thing you wanted to do.
I remember playing with the girl across the street one day. We decided the ditches on either side of our street were amazing places to hide and pretend to shoot the cars that came down the road with our sticks we imagined to be guns. We had a blast! The next day my brother came home from school and told me that a classmate told him they saw me “writhing around on the ground when they rode by, as if something was wrong with me.” What does a child learn when it feels that every person around her is judging her? She learns to judge herself. Harshly. Bitterly. She learns that who she is, and what she does, will never be good enough. People don’t seem to realize that the one comment they make may just be the latest piece of criticism, tossed on the top of the pile of all the other criticism a person receives.
In my teens, I adopted the bravado of “I don’t care if you like me or not”…all the while constantly judging myself while daring others to do so. My best friend thought I kicked ass and was fearless. Some found me unapproachable. Inside, I was still that little girl feeling like no one would ever truly know me or love me for exactly who I really was. In stereotypical fashion, I looked for that approval and love in all the wrong places, and eventually exited my high school years and that small town completely broken and lost. What does one do when you believe that who you are is not good enough and just wrong? Well, you decide that you don’t want to be yourself anymore.
So began the long process of losing myself. Things I enjoyed and loved about myself before the age of 18: I wrote poetry, I loved theater, I enjoyed singing. Ok, scratch that mess. My goal when I left home and started over was to be “normal”. Yes, I know how messed up that sounds now. I know that “normal” is not some yardstick to be measured by. But this is how I learned to hide who I really was from other people, try to fit in, do the things that everyone else did even if I found them inane and just plain ridiculous. I met a boy. The first night we went out, we stayed out all night long in his car talking. He was fascinated with me, and he was “normal”. I was thrilled! We started dating, and we did normal things. His family was wonderfully normal and warm. Of course, I sized them up quickly and presented them with a version of myself that they would find acceptable. Over the years, I didn’t seem to notice that every time I inched out of that box I put myself in, he showed his displeasure with me. By the time it ended suddenly and unexpectedly, I had wrapped myself up in his version of life and given myself a whole new set of rules to judge myself by. The end result was a 21 year old me who barely breathed without him approving it, moved to a new college due to him, and was again left feeling that no matter how hard I tried I was never going to be enough.
I could go on for another 15 years, but I think I’ve laid it out enough. If anyone had any question, this is a blueprint for an eventual breakdown, addiction, and hitting a spiritual bottom before realizing that the problem really was never me. Even realizing this doesn’t fix it. It is a daily struggle against those inner voices. You can’t re-train almost 40 years of learning to judge yourself overnight by just realizing that it was wrong. It is a constant effort to transition from where I am to where I’d like to be. I can’t go back and fix that little girl. The only thing I can do now is move forward, and discover who it is I really am. And those inner voices? Well, sometimes you just have to tell them to suck it!!