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Permission To Be

The knots in my muscles
Were my cage armor
But you smoothed them out
Taught sore muscles to relax
And set the demons free

My massage on Thursday was bittersweet. The therapist did a really excellent job of massaging the areas that really needed it. She succeeded in getting muscles to relax that had been clenched for so long, I’d forgotten what it felt like not to be tense.

Physically, and to some extent emotionally, it felt wonderful. But those muscles held thoughts and memories that were too difficult for me to deal with at the time. As they came flooding back, the primary emotion I felt was guilt. I felt guilty for everything.

As I realized this, I tried to figure out who it was I needed to apologize to. Deep, very deep, inside, I found the little girl who is hurting so much. I apologized – for not protecting her, for not listening to her, for siding with the people who questioned and ridiculed her.

And she forgave me.

It’s not your fault. You were hurt just as much as me. My pain is your pain, my anger your anger. We’ve both been wronged.

I find it easier to feel guilty than to accept that reality. If I’ve done something wrong, at least there’s something I can do about it: I can punish myself. Take that away and all I have is sadness and anger. Unquenchable anger I cannot direct at anyone.

To a child, the adults in hir life are gods. Any anger they provoke is best turned inward; better to suffer one’s own wrath than theirs. I learned that one the hard way and spent most of my life thinking I’d deserved to be physically and emotionally abused. I’ve been emotionally, and at times physically, abusing myself.

Fox and I visited with a couple of friends only hours after the massage. We played two board games. Through a combination of luck and (dare I say it?) excellent strategy I won the first game twice. The second game is very complex and challenging and I was struggling with severe depression symptoms, so I (felt like I) wasn’t able to use as good a strategy. I was winning for most of the game and came in second out of four players – despite being on the verge of tears, having trouble making decisions, and thinking I was doing poorly because I hadn’t advanced in certain areas as much as the other players had.

I think, deep down, I was proud of myself for doing as well as I did. I’m proud now, as I write this. But at the time I didn’t – couldn’t – feel it. Instead I felt guilty for winning the first game because my success required that my friends didn’t do as well, and therefore were disappointed.

I started the second game with a strong strategy, but backed off in response to innocuous comments about how it was affecting the dynamics of the game; without that strategy I felt lost, like I was constantly trying to catch up. I couldn’t see how well I’d done or that it was a good thing; when I realized I’d managed to come in second I felt worse.

I noticed a disconnect between my thoughts and emotions / emotion-related bodily sensations that I found very disconcerting. I mentioned it to Wakana during our session on Friday and told her about feeling guilty when I won the games.

She tied it into my experiences growing up (and my relationship with my mother). From what I remember, at least, I really lacked adult advocates. The staff at the after school program punished me when the other kids knocked down the zoo I’d been building (Breaking and Entering). The teachers and principal at my elementary and middle school didn’t know what to do with a gifted female student who consistently got much higher grades than her predominantly male classmates. They tended to penalize me – by not calling on me, taking away the book I was reading because I was bored in class, and raising the other kids’ grades to be comparable to mine without giving me any praise or benefit for doing as well as I did. They didn’t stand up for me when I was bullied by the male students, but punished me when I retaliated.

When I entered high school I wanted to remain as anonymous as possible to avoid the wrath of my peers. I had some friends whom I unfortunately didn’t have many classes with; I didn’t make friends with the other students in my honors and AP classes. That was a mistake; I felt ostracized most of the time and resented by my “friends” for consistently earning first honors.

My experiences in college taught me that I’d focused on academics to the detriment of my social and emotional development; though I still did well enough in school to graduate magna cum laude I feel like I’m wrong for “boasting” about it. I know it’s an accomplishment, but it doesn’t seem like something most people in most settings would appreciate.

The graduate classes I’ve taken so far have been wonderful because I’ve felt about average to perhaps above average among my classmates – definitely not the smartest, most capable, or most talented person in the room. I’ve felt like my contributions have been appreciated AND I’ve learned a lot from my classmates.

The undergraduate classes I took while in graduate school expanded and enriched my understanding of the world a great deal; I feel very fortunate to have taken them. I learned a great deal in them, from the other students as well as the course materials. But I did notice a difference in the level of critical thinking I’ve become accustomed to, compared with what is expected at the undergraduate level. I often felt very different from the other students because of this.

Maybe masquerading as an undergraduate student wasn’t the best idea. It taught me to once again hide a very significant portion of who I am, to deny one of my greatest strengths. I’m smart. I love to be challenged intellectually. I’m very good at learning – not only ingesting knowledge, but thinking critically about it and applying it to situations. I’m also very good at doing research, organizing the information, and drawing conclusions from / making an argument based on it. I have at least 8 years of experience. References available upon request.

So I’ve focused on my academic development to the detriment of my social and emotional development, lacked support in developing healthy, honest relationships with the majority of my peers, and learned to hide the very thing that has been my primary strength in some weird misguided effort to “fit in.” I like to think that I would have done very well in school anyway, because I’m naturally good at learning and take pleasure in producing well-written (and edited!) papers.

But I did most of it – especially in my younger years – because it’s what my parents needed. They needed their daughter to get straight As, so I did. An A was never an accomplishment (until I reached college). It was making ends meet. Getting by. Survival.

Wakana beckoned me to the piano to sing and express how I felt about all of this. She started playing chords and asked if they sounded appropriate to how I was feeling; I just kind of went along with it because I felt like I didn’t have an opinion, and if I did it didn’t matter.

I apologized for not being the perfect daughter. Wakana sang that there is no such thing as perfect, and started repeating “I’m enough” in the defiant, insistent voice that comes out when we’re practicing setting boundaries. She tried to get me to join her, but I couldn’t say it with conviction. I asked it once or twice before breaking down into tears.

The whole world says I’m not enough, and I’m afraid to show them the truth because it goes against the dominant values in society. I don’t want to be further ostracized. I don’t want to be hurt any more than I’m already hurting myself.

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One thought on “Permission To Be

  1. Pingback: Fourth 3-Month Review | a day with depression

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