As I get older, I am starting to realize that we all have a running narrative in our heads. It tells us who we think we are, what we believe we can do, and how we interact with the world. I don’t think it’s as much a psychological phenomenon as it is a sociological one. This narrative is impacted by self esteem and experiences, but also what people have told us we are. How we see the world is shaped so much by our early caregivers and parents, and even extended family. My narrative used to be only negative, showing me how bad of a person I was and telling me I did not deserve any better. It’s getting better, but it’s still a fight to not let the negative side dictate who I am.
For as long as I can remember, there was something “wrong” with me. I was disagreeable, sometimes described by my parents as hateful and sour. I was indignant about what I saw as injustice around me. I was told through actions that I was wrong to run around like a little boy and not sit calmly like a little lady should. A lot of that was communicated directly to me via words as well. i was loud and rambunctious. I needed to be outside and sitting quietly wasn’t on my list of skills. I was a talented and fearless tree climber who also loved monkey bars and jungle gyms. I wasn’t intimidated by the ropes at school, or those weird wooden ladders bolted to the wall. I could do flips on the trampoline and wasn’t afraid to jump in the deep end of the pool. I stood proudly on the front lines of dodgeball games and wasn’t above knocking people around at floor hockey.
But the messaging was steady. This is not how you should behave. When I was 6, my parents signed me up for ballet. I was specifically told that it would “make me graceful.” My great-aunt, who was a talented pianist and singer, told me I had wonderfully long and graceful fingers that should be playing piano, not trumpet. Every time I got my short hair cut at the salon with my mom, my dad would tell me I looked so feminine. I hated all of this messaging. I ignored most of it until middle school when I was told I was a disgusting nerd who looked like a boy. When I was smaller, I didn’t mind being called a boy. My father minded and would angrily confront whoever dared to say such a thing. But I just smiled and moved about my dad, happy that person could see the boy I was inside. But in middle school, it was dangerous. I was too much of an outsider and this messaging was “conform or be forever an outcast.”
I tried to conform, but had no taste in fashion, colors, styles, etc. I was a disaster. It seemed like the harder I tried to fit in, the less I could. In college, I was finally free to just be me. It was a women’s college, so gender just didn’t come up, other than to say it was a social construct. But it wasn’t mentioned in reference to what we looked like, how we dressed, or what we did. I was emotionally stunted and acted like it. I had a few friends but no one I could trust and certainly no one trusted me. I played soccer for the first time in my life on an actual team. It was so glorious that I took a lacrosse class for PE and eagerly signed up for the team. Those were the best four years of my life because I made it so. I made the choices to do what I wanted to do and to socialize with the people I wanted to socialize with. I wasn’t forced into a narrow mindset and I learned so much about who I was. But I seemingly knew that this was just a break from the messaging I’d been stuck with. In the real world, the messaging was back and louder than ever.
I tried so hard to conform. I was moderately successful at best, but often I heard the whispers about how I was ugly or “not trying hard enough” or that I was not enough. I was taken advantage of in relationships because I was just so happy to be in one. I was letting society define my worth because I didn’t trust who I was on the inside. The ultimate hurt came when a co-worker in the Air Force described the new movie “Miss Congeniality” to another co-worker. “It’s where they take a girl like her [pointing at me] and make her look like a real girl.”
Wow. Deep breaths. Fire back with an insult. “Well at least I don’t look like a penis with ears.” Hide the pain. Laugh with the buys. It’s just a boy being the same old dick he is to all his friends. Don’t cry. Keep those tears back. You can do it.
I did it. I never cried in front of him. But the pain hurt more than I can ever explain. I wasn’t fitting in. I wasn’t passing at all. And it seemed everyone around me knew it. To this day, I HATE that genre of movies. Take the frumpy, ugly duckling who doesn’t know how to be a girl and make her be one. Fuck. It still hurts to remember how he laughed at his own joke. The other guys, I don’t remember them laughing so much. Just when I insulted him.
Years later, this same guy who insulted me who tell me that he climbed on to the roof of my dorm building to peek in my bathroom window and watch me shower. It was a huge violation and one that left me a shell of who I was trying to be. When I didn’t believe him, he told me about a tattoo he wouldn’t have seen otherwise and he still remembered the colors of my shampoo and conditioner bottles. When I got very angry with him, he told me I should feel flattered that anyone cared enough to look at me to go through all that effort and danger to see me naked.
But those handful of examples show why the narrative in my head was so negative and how hard I still have to fight to not hear all that. It is easier since I accepted who I actually am. It makes me not care about how I look, or that women’s clothes look terrible on me and make me feel so insecure about myself. It helps me avoid eating my emotions away like I did for so long.
My dad has a different narrative of me and my life in his head. I wish his was true because it’s so much better. I was a good kid who rarely got into trouble. I was only grounded when I talked back and I was rarely spanked. I played youth soccer, played very successfully in college, and then went on to be a referee for soccer. I just loved soccer. I had a very successful Air Force career with tons of friends at every point in my life.
They wouldn’t let me play youth sports. I desperately wanted to play baseball but they said no, ballet was expensive and time consuming and by the time spring rolled around, I’d been in ballet most of the year and couldn’t quit now! Soccer was never even part of the conversation. In middle school I tried out for a bunch of times and didn’t make any but eventually just ran track because everyone who went to practices was on the team. I was finally on a sports team! I did that for 7-9 grade. I couldn’t do cross-country because I did marching band, but I intended to do indoor track in 10th grade. When practices started, I put all of my gear in a big locker in the locker room. The PE teachers warned fall sports students to empty their long lockers but didn’t ever consider that winter sports had started. My lock was cut and my belongings were dumped out with everyone else’s. My shoes were stolen. My running shorts were stolen. All that was left was my shirts. My parents shrugged and said they were sorry but had no money to buy me anything else. And my track career ended there, with no gear left to actually be on the team.
I got in trouble all the time. I was constantly grounded. I was spanked frequently up until I was 11 and too strong to be held down for the torturous spanking process. My brother, only 7 at the time, was able to withstand many spankings in a row and pretended he wasn’t in any pain while my father spanked him harder and harder. When my brother ran away (with a presumably very red ass that was indeed in a lot of pain), my father’s hand was red and his wrist hurt. Spankings for both of us ended that day. I cannot express the gratitude I have for my brother for enduring what he did for us. The decade long reign of physical abuse was over in our house. His sacrifice was noticed and appropriately rewarded with extra candy from my secret stash.
I am not who I am today because of my parents. I know that’s not popular and there are lots of people out there who love and respect their parents with all of their hearts. I was told from the minute I can remember that I was not ok the way I was, I was not permitted to wear what I liked often because it didn’t look nice enough, and I was someone who needed to be more graceful, more quiet, less abrasive, more agreeable, and pretty much not who I actually was. My parents did provide me with opportunities like college and an average childhood experience where had all the material things I needed. But I did not have any emotional support, and no ability to express who I knew I was. In their narrative, we had to be a perfect family who cared what the neighbors thought and had to impress extended family at all times. The real me was unimpressive and not allowed.
The good things I’ve managed to do have come from my resiliency, refined over decades of trying to conform and just not having that ability, and some inner drive that won’t let me quit, even when I was really close. That is who I really am. Someone who doesn’t quit, despite the entire world telling me I really should because I have nothing to offer.