“Sarah, I’m trying to READ!”
I’m not sure how old I was; maybe 9 or 10. Maybe younger, maybe older, it doesn’t matter; this same scene played out in a thousand different iterations for most of my life.
My dad wasn’t trying to be unkind; having two chatty children myself, I recognize the exasperation of wanting to claim some space in your own brain while also wanting to honor your child’s need to communicate.
But what I heard was “SHUT UP!” And while I never heard those exact words at home, I certainly heard them many other places.
So I tried to suppress it, whatever “it” was; the desire to connect, to communicate, to articulate and thus to understand my thoughts and the world around me.
These experiences condition our responses. In the middle of one of my recent lengthy musings on the nature of this type of imprinting and the ways in which unacknowledged patterns sabotage relationships, my husband turned on the stereo.
“The music’s a little loud.”
“But it’s so good!”
John is a quiet guy. When he speaks, everyone listens. He observes, absorbs, attends. But when he needs to move something through his psyche, he doesn’t talk, he picks up a guitar.
In my case, however, I don’t know what I think or feel until I express it and examine it. That is why I write, it’s why I have coaches, it’s why I join formal groups for articulating ideas and receiving feedback.
When I was younger, however, I didn’t know that’s what I needed. I didn’t have the observation and integration part. Without those around me helping me understand why I talked so much, but rather just being annoyed (and, in the case of peers, cruel) and pushing me away, the tension was always between my desire to communicate, and the pressure to suppress that desire in order to fit into a world from which I felt profoundly alienated and out of sync.
Back in the days of coiling the telephone cord around my fingers while lying on my parents’ bed, I would try to solve the problem with the only tool I had – more words. Desperate for connection and facing rejection at every turn, acutely sensitive to the hostility and discomfort of my peers and determined to gain access to their love by brute force, I remember making so many cringe-ingly awkward phone calls. Before caller id made it possible to ignore me completely, moms would shout up the stairs at their daughters to pick up the phone, and I would plead, “Are you mad at me? Have I done something? What can I do to make it better?”
(Crying out, “Please, please, include me, I want to belong, I don’t want to be alone!” For years I thought I was an extravert because I would relentlessly socialize, to my physical and psychic detriment. I was trying to compensate for the pain at being left out of every social gathering in my early adolescence, forced to sit at home and hear the stories the next day from the end of a cafeteria table ,where I was begrudgingly tolerated for as long as the teachers could see, and then not at all when they couldn’t.)
If I ever got an answer, (and usually I didn’t), it was, “Stop trying so hard. Just be yourself.”
This was also the advice I got at home, but the problem was that “myself,” at 13, in the bizarre and twisted hell of school society, could no more be readily discovered without skillful guidance than could I spontaneously recite ancient Greek.
But even though it’s terrible advice (for if you knew how to implement such a directive gracefully you wouldn’t need it, and and if you were flailing in misery and confusion you wouldn’t be able to take it) it’s also true.
It’s just that no one needs the Monday morning quarterback or the superfan shrieking at the screen; we need guides, and we need grace.
This brings up an old story, and one I’ve written about before, from 2019:
I live in a small town, with a few thousand permanent residents. In the last place I lived, I never made any local friends; I had no context there, and when we moved it was as if I had never been there at all. In this new town, I was determined to build some community for myself. Because I got sick the year we moved here, I had to ask for help from people who were basically strangers, and I did, and so I formed a loose circle of acquaintances. When I received an invitation that I was able to accept, despite often feeling fear and discomfort, I would go. I would reciprocate, and a few people would come. But over the 9+ years I’ve lived here, I never really caught on. Most weekends, and even holidays, came and went without an offer. For a long time I chalked this up to being new, then to being sick – after all, my neighbors are generous and friendly, and I know no one dislikes me. But despite my peripheral status, I did believe I’d managed to make a few friends.
Then one of them moved away. But before she did, the circle of friends around her, which is passionate and committed (and of which I believed I was a member), threw a big going away party (to which I was invited). During the party, the hosts made a presentation. The gift was a huge, hand-made quilt to which everyone in the inner circle had contributed a square.
For the one person in this town to whose inner circle I thought I belonged.
And no one had asked me. No one had even told me that this was happening. Either I had been completely forgotten, or intentionally excluded; it doesn’t matter. I had to step outside – I could barely speak to anyone for the next hour, out of shock and sadness and a sense of devastating loss. Because in that moment, I was 13, finding out Monday morning that everyone else had been at a party at Matt’s on Saturday night, or watching everyone pile into Kim’s mom’s car for a movie night after the dance while I waited for my ride home; another night with my parents while everyone else was together. Where I had been clinging to some perception of belonging, an actual community existed and I was not in it.
There is some safety in remaining an outcast. Outside, exile, regardless of whether I feel like I chose it for myself initially or not, can protect me from the pain of exposure and the risk of visibility. I spent much of my life with a victim complex about my childhood and adolescent social experiences, finding comfort and excuses in the “bully” story. I like to look for explanations, for narratives, for etiologies, and so the belief that I had been pushed outside, or perhaps never truly allowed inside, and therefore was damaged (but also special), was easy.
It also allowed me to stay outside, instead of trying to connect with people. The identity “I am someone who was ostracized for being different and therefore I have trouble making friends” gave me a sense of power and superiority over the people and circumstances that did not invite me in. The Big Homeopath could just be be too big for everyone and everything; ah, well, it’s lonely at the top.
The dynamic of victimhood and arrogance is a common polarity, but I had never identified it in myself. The Big is Big on taking responsibility, on doing The Work, on not blaming others for my own feelings. But the scared and lonely little girl who felt mystified and crushed by perceived disapproval and shunning and shaming had never had her say, and so she was lurking in a dark corner of the coffee shop of my soul, quietly sticking pins in the effigies of my attempts to be easy and human with other people.
Back to my living room for a moment.
“Yeah, but it’s a little loud for talking.”
He turned it down. And I started to resume my narrative. And then I realized I was upset. Suddenly I didn’t know where I stood; I didn’t know what was appropriate, what was desired, what was received.
I didn’t know where I belonged.
So I said, “When you turned the music on I felt as if you didn’t want to hear what I had to say.” Even more accurate would have been, “When you turned the music on I felt hurt and sad.”
“I’m still listening. I didn’t think we were discussing anything that needed to be talked about.”
So I sat with that for a minute, and I said, “We weren’t. But I am realizing in this moment that I have a big story around feeling like everyone is annoyed by my talking.”
Have you ever been high or drunk and realized that you didn’t know how to act “normal” because you couldn’t figure out what “normal” was supposed to look like? Or been giving a recorded presentation and lost the thread in the middle of a sentence?
Gaslighting is the process of disorienting the target and causing them to lose their confidence in their observations and intuition. No one ever gaslighted me about talking, but they swallowed their annoyance without communicating (at least in a way that I could understand) until they couldn’t take it anymore, and then they snapped. As a child, instead of learning how to use my gifts to meet my needs while respecting other people’s edges and preferences, I ended up in a constant loop of suppression and shame, oscillating between my inner impulses and the pain I experienced when I acted upon them. All I wanted was connection, and every effort to achieve it pushed it further away.
Trying to be the “myself” that would also get my included led me further and further away from the path to discovering who I really am, further from the path to navigating the world with flow and ease; responsive, rather than rigid or reactive.
That going away party triggered a massive tantrum in that hurt little girl, and with it the realization that I would remain in this cycle until I acknowledged the role I play in perpetuating it. Were the mean girls actually, genuinely, mean when I was a teen? Hell, yeah, they were. There were objectively cruel. But I invited it, and submitted to it, because I wanted their approval instead of my own – I cared more about what they thought of me than who I was. Which, at 13, is understandable. But if at 42 I was still carrying that baggage and wearing those scars, I was never going to allow anyone to see me, which means I was never going to connect, and never going to have a community.
We all know people who deny their deepest selves in favor of the approval of the crowd. But we also all know people who are ignorant of, or indifferent to, the effect their actions and expression has on other people.
Neither of these is the answer. The answer is to stay curious about what you are feeling, to allow yourself to feel it, to find words for it, and to share those words without blame towards yourself or anyone else, and to be equally curious about eliciting that expression from the people you respect and connect with. In this way, solutions become clear.
This is how you “be yourself.”
And then it is not possible to talk too much.
My job is to listen, observe, absorb, attend. I had to discover these abilities hidden in myself under all the dysfunction; once I trusted that there was a way I could be heard, I could cultivate the ability to listen. The path to deep intuition, to true healing, to your greatest gifts and offerings, and your work in the world, is right in front of you. Homeopathy opens the door.