I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the ways in which we live out the stories that we told about ourselves when we were young.* It is fascinating to trace the person that I am today back to the person I was when I was fourteen years old. I ask myself: how is it possible that the struggles I faced back then continue to live and breath now? And yet they do.
Before I go any further, let me be clear about something–I had a pretty happy childhood. Idyllic, even. I never doubted that my parents loved me, my siblings and I got along (most of the time), and we were not subject to the whims of illness, or poverty, or drug abuse, or any of a myriad of traumas that can afflict a home and a child. We were so lucky. So privileged in so many ways.
My adolescent self was plagued with self-doubt. You wouldn’t have known that to look at me–I projected a great deal of confidence, especially around adults. I was competitive, and academically strong. But all of that was a grand cover. Around my peers, I couldn’t shake the conviction that they knew something that I didn’t. I felt awkward in my own skin all of the time. And when I looked at my (younger) sister, who seemed so popular and beautiful and at ease, I was convinced that it was something inside me that was wrong. I was the problem.
It is amazing how something like this can eat away at your self-confidence over the years. If you believe that you are a problem, and if you are also someone who believes that problems are meant to be fixed, then you are going to spend much of your energy trying to diagnose yourself, and the rest of what is in you administering the cure. And so I tried all sorts of things: I changed my clothes. I starved my body, I grasped about for answers in books, in church, in culture. I pretended to like the things that people who seemed far more interesting than me enjoyed.
It was miserable.
Even worse, it didn’t work.
So I doubled down on self-recrimination.
By the time I got to college, I knew that I needed a fresh start, but the only “me” that I knew was a striver who was desperate to please. I learned, quickly, that on a large university campus, there are countless opportunities to remake yourself. But I stuck to that same, toxic script. I kept stuffing myself in a box that seemed acceptable, single-minded in my pursuit of success but always with my attention focused on how I might find acceptance in others. I joined rigid community groups–Marching Band, Campus Crusade for Christ, a military recruitment program for aspiring clergy–hoping that within the confines of those spaces I would find what I was looking for. Instead, I learned the hard truth that letting other people dictate the boundaries of your acceptable self serves only to isolate you further. All they did was offer further evidence of my inadequacy.
I’m not sure what flipped the script. Somewhere in college, I started to care about my own well-being enough to make it more of a priority. I never fully stopped performing for other people, but I started to care a little more about what made me happy. What brought me joy. I started to be okay with disappointing some people if it meant choosing myself. It felt good to care about myself. It still does.
But the ghost of my teenage self still haunts me. She lingers at the edge of sight, and when life is feeling unmanageable, as it is right now, she sidles closer and whispers that all of this is my fault. That I am the problem. Sometimes, I can see her for what she is. Many more times, I am tempted to believe her. And when I do, I am right back where I started: anxious, afraid, certain that at any moment, the shoe will drop and everyone will figure out that I am a fraud.
Lately I have found myself wondering how things might have turned out differently if I had not felt it so critical to hide myself, and my insecurity and fears all those years ago? What if my younger self had felt like she could have said what she was feeling out loud? what if someone had seen her struggle, drawn close and whispered, “it’s okay. I see you. you can be afraid with me?” How might my life have turned out differently if I had made that choice to be fully known?
I think of this as I raise my own children. As I watch them silently struggle with their own fears and insecurities. I tell myself, if you will not be that person for them, then who will? I tell myself, the choices you make right now will ripple forward, and while you cannot control that, you can make sure that those that you love know that they are loved, and accepted, exactly as they are. If you wish to make a difference in their lives, perhaps you will have to risk being vulnerable now in ways that you could not be when you were young.
I tell myself this, and I wonder: does the adolescent within me hear? And if she does, would she believe me?
*hazard of seeking therapy, I suppose.