Don’t tell anyone. Don’t let them see. Don’t let them know. Keep quiet. Smile. You’re so pretty when you smile, no one wants to see an ugly face. Don’t bother the grown-ups. Be a good girl.
It’s our special secret. Crying never helped anyone. Only boring people get bored. Never let them see you sweat. Anything worth doing is worth doing right the first time. Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which piles up quicker. Dreams are for idiots, geniuses make plans. Only fools waste time on books and art but you’re just a girl so I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t why you try so hard, you’ll never do anything important. Girls only get good grades or good jobs because you’re cute or because you cry.
These are only some of the messages I heard on a daily basis from my parents. I learned to be perfect – to only show people that I was perfect, and to hide every flaw. I was put in an impossible position of needing to be superhuman to be accepted and no matter what I achieved, I was treated as less than human, as nothing, nonexistent, an invisible nuisance like a gnat or fun toy for their sick amusement and pleasure.
Not only did I suffer from low self esteem and low self worth, I suffered from no sense of sense at all in this environment. My parents did not allow me to grow and develop into my own person, with unique desires, needs, and emotions. I existed only for them. I was completely enmeshed and served them. My only desires were to please them and be accepted – something I never knew was impossible. Abused children never know this, how can they?
So today I have some maladaptive behaviors based on core beliefs stemming from no self esteem. In fact I have way too many to describe in one blog post, so I will pick one that I’ve been discussing with my counselor recently.
I have a need to keep my secrets. I still need to hide my flaws. I still try to be perfect.
How can this be? I’m not a tortured little girl any longer. Why do I still resort to the same social behaviors that were taught to me as a child? Well, I haven’t learned any new ones yet. And until last week, I wasn’t even aware of how ridiculous some of my behaviors are, based on these unbalanced core beliefs. I’ll explain.
In January I had a particularly bad hemiplegic migraine attack that weakened my right arm and right leg for a few weeks. Sometime about 2 weeks after the attack, I decided to go grocery shopping by myself. I started pushing the cart and was doing fine for a while, until my right side fatigued as I put more in the cart and as I walked along. This was the first real exercise I had attempted since the attack but I was walking fine so I thought I could do it. First I started to limp, and then my right leg started to drag. I could no longer lift it. This was not alarming to me. Annoying, yes, but not alarming. I just knew it was time to go and headed to the checkout line. But to my horror, as I walked to the front of the store – people noticed my struggles.
People can’t see my struggles. People can’t know. Don’t tell them. Don’t let them see. Smile, no one wants to see your ugly face. Now you’ve done it. You screwed up.
First one, then another, then another, oh God no, another…people kept asking me if I was alright, did I need help, should they call someone, did I need a chair, could they push the cart for me….
Shut up! Leave me alone! Go away! Why did I come here today? Why did I think I could do this? I should have known better. I have to get out of here.
I smiled politely and told each person that I was fine. I refused help. Because I was fine. Because they have to think I’m fine. And if they can see I’m not then I’m actually going to pretend?? Hmmm.
Somehow I slowly made it out to my car, got my bags in it, locked the door. I wanted to take a moment to recover, but everyone was still there watching me! I had to get away. I drove home, with shaking hands, and tears started before I pulled into my driveway. I screamed and cried and hit the steering wheel and had an amazing fit that confused and shocked me. I had no idea what was happening. I felt horrible everywhere. My stomach was queasy, my throat was tight, my head was aching. I thought about my class and therapy – was this an emotion? Ha, I actually laughed at myself while I cried. I pulled out my chart of emotions and went through it….sadness, fear, shame, guilt, despair, frustration, humiliation, anger, grief, anxiety…I went on to name some more and ended with overwhelmed.
Why? What happened? Why is that response so strong for me? I’ve been working on this for a week now, completed several worksheets and I think I have a clue now. This situation actually encompasses several layers of stuck points, each one triggering the next core belief until I short circuit. I used to shut down, numb out and dissociate. This time I felt it all. Woah did I feel it.
Some of my stuck points for this event:
- If I can’t do my job I am worthless
- If people see my flaws I have failed
- If people see my flaws they will know I am nothing
- I’m not allowed to share my faults or secrets
- If I break a rule, I am bad
- If I get caught breaking a rule, I will be punished
- If people see me struggle I will be humiliated
- If people have to help me, I am a bother, a burden to them
- If people see something that I failed to hide, shared unintentionally, I have been violated
- If I let people see the real me, they will hurt me or leave me
- If I let people see my struggles, I am a failure, disobedient
- If I let people see my struggles, I will hurt them, make them uncomfortable
I overwhelmingly felt like a bad dog at that grocery store. Like I had messed on the carpet, chewed up the pillows and now my owner has caught me. The shame and fear were huge, but the disgust and self-loathing were intolerable. I was taught to hate myself and that lesson has stuck.
Like when I asked Mom if we could eat at Wendy’s after my back surgery at age 12, she said we could get drive-thru, couldn’t eat inside because she didn’t want anyone to see my leg brace and be uncomfortable. Wouldn’t want them to be unable to eat their lunches would you? They made me practice walking at night so no one would see. Kept me hidden away like I was hideous and would make people lose their appetites. I had a metal and plastic brace from my hip to my toes to stabilize the knee and ankle. It looked a little like the picture below, but my leg was a bit girlier, skinnier, and not so hairy.
I see this now and I get so angry at my parents. Seriously. I wasn’t ALLOWED to be paralyzed? I am so freaking sorry that my being paralyzed put such a damper on your fashion plans for me and ruined lunch and social events that summer until, all on my own, because you denied me physical therapy and after care, I learned to walk again. A-holes.
OK. Sorry about that.
So anyways, I have some deep seated stuck points regarding how I am to behave, and even though I know rationally they are not healthy or realistic, I can’t simply snap my fingers and change it all.
I told my counselor I am afraid of having flashbacks of my first back surgery during my next one coming up soon. And I’m not sure how to best prepare for it. I told her, it’s not like I can warn the hospital staff.
She says Why not?
The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. No way. not possible. You want me to tell all of those strangers, nurses, transporters, volunteers, doctors, surgeons…that I might have a flashback? That I have PTSD? That I’m not normal? The thought filled me with the same mixed bag of fear, shame, dread, guilt, anxiety…no…we don’t tell people…they don’t need to know…
She challenged me. She does not back down. She asked me to list out everyone I’ve ever told about having flashbacks and PTSD. It was a VERY small list. Then asked which ones of those people humiliated, rejected, or said horrible things to me. Sigh. None of them. Each person I have told has been compassionate and understanding so far.
Then she asked if I’ve ever told medical personnel. I said yes, my neurologist, after I had been seeing her a while. And the counselors in the psych ward. And her of course. She asked if any of those people treated me horribly once they knew about my flashbacks. Again I had to say no.
Then she had me visualize, a brand new nurse coming in to my bed, and I was telling her her hello and just by the way, I might have a flashback, I have PTSD, I just wanted you to know. How do you think she would respond? I tried sooo hard, but in every scenario the worst I could come up with would be maybe a nurse being abrupt or like ok, whatever, but no one being horrible. Most responses I imagined were “Thanks for letting me know, is there anything I can do to help?” or “What can I do to help make this less stressful for you?”
This fear I had…fear of what?? I had no idea. I had no idea what the terrible consequence might be. What exactly had my parents been trying to prevent all these years? Why did we all have to be perfect? What is this horrible thing that happens when people know the truth?
The answer is NOTHING!! Nothing happens. Its all a lie to keep us quiet and afraid. Was it all about control? Did they need us to be perfect so they could be perfect parents? Had my mom not told her friends I was paralyzed so she couldn’t risk anyone seeing me? If kids are perfect, then other people don’t ask questions and they get in trouble? Was it about her and them – and never about me at all? All of my shame was about covering their own asses? And I’m still doing these behaviors, to protect them, unknowingly, because it is habit, hard wired and ingrained in me.
I’m such a good girl.
I’m both sickened and amazed by these revelations. I think one day I may be free. But these chains are still bound tightly.
(picture credit: By Pagemaker787 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)