It was July and surely what the grown-ups would've labeled as Damn Hot Outside; but I was only six and that didn't bother me because I'd yet to learn about the psychological consequences of the Texas heat. Back then, all I knew about summertime revolved around cold cans of Shasta Sodas, homemade ice cream, and endless outdoor activities discovered by Mom encouraging us to Go outside and find something to do NOW! But this particular Damn Hot Summer of 1976 meant something new for me: Swimming lessons at Mrs. Burleson's house. This was big kid stuff.
Mrs. Burleson was our neighbor from down the block and around the corner, and the first person I'd met who had a swimming pool that was actually in the ground, just like the ones on TV. She was tan and petite, and always looked like she'd either just finished a round of golf or was headed out for one, with her pleated khaki Bermuda shorts and white polo shirts. All of the swim teachers were high school girls; they were cheerleaders or in the marching band or on the drill team; they drove Pintos and Gremlins and Pacers; and they were so cool. Not only was I learning to swim which was a very big deal, but I was hanging out with the REALLY big kids (juniors and seniors!), so of course I needed just the right swimsuit.
It was a conservative little one-piece number in a psychedelic print of green and orange. I was very proud of it. Three days a week I would eagerly walk the seven minutes from our house to Mrs. Burleson's, carrying only my towel as I kicked little pieces of gravel along the curb and talked to myself. On one particularly Damn Hot Day that July as I turned the corner while shuffling my sandals and daydreaming about Detective David Starsky, I suddenly heard a whistle. Not a Get your ass back here! kind of whistle like I'd heard my dad issue when calling our dog home after he'd gotten loose from the yard, but a different kind of whistle that instantly made my body stiffen and my skin tingle. Before I could react, this psychic intrusion was followed quickly by a gravelly male voice directed at me from across the street, saying something to the effect of 'You sure look good in that bathin' suit'. From the corner of my left eye I could see the figure of a man on a porch, not moving toward me physically but all over me energetically. I instinctively wrapped the towel around myself and hurried my pace, head lowered as I walked toward the safety of my swim family. An icy sensation poured over my tiny body as a fire burned in my cheeks. I felt embarrassed and guilty, as if I'd done something wrong. Had I done something wrong? I was suddenly very small compared to how tall and carefree I'd been just minutes earlier.
I couldn't have known it at the time, but this was my first memorable shame* attack, and my earliest recollection of feeling that It's not safe to be me...I should be more careful...I can't let my guard down when I'm out there in the world. In other words, I unconsciously absorbed responsibility for what happened and assumed It must have been my fault.
According to Pia Mellody in The Intimacy Factor:
In a shame attack you may feel as though your body is getting smaller. You may blush, want to disappear, run away, crawl under your chair. It seems that everyone is looking at you...In general, the experience of a shame attack is a dreadful sense of inadequacy.
*And this was a special kind of shame known as induced shame. Induced shame takes place when an adult puts shame onto a child through abusive behavior, forcing the child to either carry the shame or process it, the latter being incredibly difficult/nearly impossible due to the fact that children don't have the emotional capacity required to do so.
Now, this probably-a-pedophile but definitely-a-creep didn't single-handedly destroy my confidence with his disgusting behavior on that summer morning. As an adult, I can look back and recall examples of how I was already struggling with low self-esteem and with simply being me: I was anxiously attached to my young mother; irrationally fearful that my little brother would be abducted; obsessed with an idea that my upper arms were too skinny (I thought I had a disorder and examined them many, many times a day); and I was working hard at becoming the Needless Child. So, yeah, there was some stuff brewing. But here's what that man DID do: He validated preexisting insecurities regarding my safety in the world, fears that until that day were only real in my six year-old mind. That man's behavior was a single crochet stitch in a very long scarf of insecurity and fear that would grow in length and weigh me down for years to come, precluding me from being my fully-expressed, Authentic Self.
From The Intimacy Factor:
There is an authentic self. We are born with it ... [As children] we get shamed about who we are. That shame gets bound to our experience of self. When we are "ourselves" we will have a shame attack, and in that attack we feel worthless. Spontaneity is frightening for us; it triggers shame attacks, bringing us back to our feeling of worthlessness...Over the years we become cautious in what we say and do. We lose contact with our authentic self.
So in order to cope with being me I learned to play small, to be cautious and careful, to hide my Authentic Self. And this actually worked in my favor because, as it turns out, not everyone likes it when you're big and shiny. For example, when I was in grade school and chosen to play the princess in our school play, The Beautiful Princess (ridiculous, yes, but it was the 70s), some classmates stopped talking to me and actually seemed angry with me, which was confusing but [shame attack]; I was moved to honors courses in middle school and again some classmates stopped speaking to me - one even informed me that I thought I was "too good for everyone else", which was not true AT ALL but, still, [shame attack]; when I made cheerleader in junior high several girls in my grade suddenly ignored me and there was a rumor that I only made the squad because my aunt was a judge, also not true, but [shame attack]. All of these events, which should have been positive experiences for me, I downplayed in order to hopefully make others feel comfortable in order to hopefully avoid disconnection and abandonment and instead be liked and accepted (hopefully). This is known as an external locus of control, or negative control, and it was an early symptom of my unhealthy boundaries and codependency (reminder: love addiction is rooted in codependency).
According to Pia Mellody in Facing Love Addiction:
Codependents either (1) try to control others by telling them who they ought to be so the Codependents can be comfortable; or (2) allow others to control the Codependents by dictating who they should be to keep others comfortable. Either form of negative control sets up negative responses in the person being controlled, and these negative responses cause the Codependents to blame others for their own inability to be internally comfortable with themselves.
Yep, #2, that was me; and this people-pleasing, tell me who you need me to be so that YOU can be comfortable, boundaryless behavior continued well into adulthood. I played small by accepting jobs that weren't right for me just to remain employed in an industry that had never been good for me; by holding onto toxic relationships because I had a deep-seated belief that I was the problem; by agreeing when I desperately wanted to disagree then becoming resentful because I didn’t speak up; by tolerating sexual harassment at work and abusive behavior from partners. And I did all of this while diligently nurturing a sparkly presentation for outsiders because I was only OK if everyone else thought I was OK. In fact, I was so good at this for so long, that even I bought my own facade; in reality I had absolutely no idea who I really was.
When will I see that I live much smaller than I am capable of? I envision myself floating high above the earth. Able to accomplish and realize all that I want. But I am constantly trying to make myself fit into someone else's world and it shouldn't be that way. I do that because it's easier for me to fit into their world than is it for them to fit into mine. Why? Because I don't even fit into mine.
Here's the thing about a maladaptive childhood coping skill: It will eventually stop working. Not that it ever really worked to begin with, but it temporarily serves us by creating a sense of safety and control, even if that safety and control is fictional. We build a foundation of Self based upon the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves when we're young, but that starts to crack as we outgrow old self-concepts and slowly realize the inaccuracies in our outdated narrative. And that can be very scary.
I am afraid...of myself. I'm afraid people won't like me. Who cares why, I just am. Embrace it. I'm afraid of my own strength. Fear is what keeps me in knots. Fear keeps me from being healthy. Fear takes away my energy...I'm afraid of what I can and will accomplish. I'm afraid of all eyes on me, judging me. And I'm afraid of being invisible. I'm afraid of all that I am.
My fractured foundation manifested itself as depression and anxiety, along with self-doubting questions like What’s wrong with me? Haven’t I created the life I was supposed to? Why do I feel like this? Reading through the journals today I can see evidence of my internal struggle as I attempted to maintain the facade while uncontrollably leaking authenticity, a vision similar to holding a dam together with my bare hands. I had surrounded myself with people who, in the past, would've been considered good friends; but as I unexpectedly began showing my Authentic Self through vulnerability and imperfection, I slowly realized that these were not my friends, yet still wondered maybe it’s just ME?
I never thought I'd grow up to be one of those people that others don't like. If I'd known that I would have cared less about what others thought all my life. I guess that's how a person should be anyway - trying to please others is a waste of time. Who are these people I thought were friends? Am I just a bad judge of character?
I was asking the right questions, but it would take years to find the answers.
To be continued.
Thank you for reading~ Jodi
We hold onto such a small perspective of who we really are,
believing we are just a leaf when we are in fact the whole tree.
-Guru Singh, from his lecture on this date at Yoga West, Los Angeles, CA