Monday, December 5, 2016

Approval Sucker

Tons of people say they are people-pleasers.  They do all sorts of things to make other people happy and feel validated themselves because of it.  At least that’s how I think it works for them.  That  isn’t an accurate description of me.  I am an approval-sucker.  A lot of the time, I don’t care if my actions PLEASE the other person, I only need to gain their approval to feel a sense of validation and relief that makes  everything feel “ok” again.  Unfortunately, this feeling only lasts temporarily and as it fades, the dis-ease starts to build and before long, I will have to concoct a plan to perform the next task/fete/trick to impress them and gain their approval all over again.  It’s chasing a high, just like any other, and was learned at a very young age and ties directly into your question about why I’m insecure.  To get to the answer, I think I better back up and work my way forward.

My childhood, for simplicity’s sake, can be summed up by saying a lot of people either flat out told me I was “wrong” or “bad” or implied it quite strongly.  I learned to be ashamed of who I was.  I talked too much, I was too chubby, I always seemed to get disapproving looks for one reason or another, and I was often made to feel like I was unimportant.   The best way to work around this was to perform.  Literally.  Piano recitals, singing in front of the entire church on Sundays, great grades etc., if I could perform and do really well, the grownups would cover me with praise and approval and I could breathe and all the bad things about me were ok and for awhile I could believe that I had made up for all of it and they must have changed their mind about me.  Except then something would happen, or the glory of it all would simply fade and before long, things were back to normal and I’d have to go back to figuring out what the magic combination of acts I’d have to perform would be to make everyone happy with me again.  I remember feeling like I knew the RULES of the game, but someone had taken the board and the pieces, yet still expected me to play.

 My teenage years weren’t any better.  I figured out that gaining my mother’s approval was a lost cause and I gave up.  Drugs and alcohol entered the picture and I spent my nights engaging in behaviors that no teenage girl should be engaging in.  I was looking for an escape from reality, but that escape came at the price of addiction and abuse and being conditioned to believe that I was a worthless and was lucky that the abusers I was spending time with were kind enough to take pity on me and let me continue to stay in their presence.  And every time they reminded me of what a bad person I was, I performed some trick or task or favor to try to convince them that I was worthy enough to keep around.  I needed their approval like I needed air.   It was a very messed up situation, but I stayed.  Addiction makes you do all sorts of things that seemingly make no sense, unless you have been there.

Eventually I got out of that situation and moved on to whoring my way through the bar scene.  Alcoholic women wrapped in guilt and shame hike up their skirts and pull down their shirts just a little bit lower to get the free drinks and validation they need to fool themselves into being someone worthy of being wanted.  I had been told for YEARS how awful and disgusting of a person I was and I knew it, but I figured if I played the part right, I could fool the dimwitted men in the bar into thinking I was someone else.  At least someone worth getting drunk and fucking.  That’s what I was after - the alcohol and the physical connection.  If I “let” them talk me into taking me home (because of course I had to let them think it was all their idea most of the time), I could pretend they thought I was sexy and that would quiet the insecurities about my size.  I could also tell myself that I was special because they could have picked someone smaller/cuter/funnier/nicer/etc, but they picked me.  I knew it would only last until morning (which was usually a joke because I’d end up freaking out and sneak out in the middle of the night), but a short-lived delusion was better than the truth.  The approval-laced compliments blurted out by these men in the heat of the moment would usually be enough to carry me through the night and if I could ignore the guilt and shame of once again going home with a relative stranger, I could ride the "approval high" for a few hours.

Eventually I broke the cycle.  I got away from that behavior.  I got sober, got married, got sober again, had kids, got sober again, got divorced, got sober again.  Addiction is a real bitch and I will be in the ring with my addictions for the rest of my life.  I'll keep fighting though and that's a good thing.

So...this begs the question...I’m 41 now and no one else in my life is actively telling me bad things about myself (unless you want to count the passive aggressive condescension from a certain matriarch).  So why am I still prone to bouts of insecurity that lead to the same approval sucking behavior?
FEAR, mostly, I think.  I am terrified of the past repeating itself.  I have a very shaky construct of who I am as a person.  I’ve never been able to give a detailed description of “WHO AM I?” because everything gets jumbled up and there are too many “me’s” to choose from from too many eras and none of them have a very positive spin on them.  When you ask me who I am, I immediately think of the person I was in my mid-teens to early-twenties and that person was awful.  That person did awful things.  I worry about what people will think about me if/when they find about about that part of me.  What if they condemn me without giving me a chance to explain WHY I was like that?  I didn’t just decide one day to become that creature.  There were mitigating factors.  I can handle thinking negative things about myself.  That’s old news for me.  But if other people think bad things about me too and I know about it, I have the overwhelming need to fix it.  Even if I don’t necessarily care about the person, I feel I need to educate them about the situation so they can see the facts and see that they’re misjudging what happened (i.e. their opinion of me is wrong) and if they’d only listen to my side of the story, they’d clearly see how I wasn’t nearly as bad as they were making me out to be (phew, I fooled them into changing their minds about me and gained their approval, now I can breathe again).  And that’s just what I go through with people I don’t even really care much about. Lol.  When it’s someone that I actually care about and respect, I’m always scared that someday something will happen - I’ll say the wrong thing, or screw up some way one too many times - and they will finally see me as I see myself and that will throw me into a tailspin because I won’t know how to fix it.
Maybe it just boils down to me feeling inferior?  I have always thought I should be better/smarter/quicker/nicer/funnier than I am.  I have intangible, yet high expectations for myself that I cannot possibly meet.  In the Big Book there’s a line about alcoholics being egomaniacs with inferiority complexes.  It’s not wrong.

As I’m writing all of this, I’m beginning to wonder if some amount (I’m not sure how to quantify it right now) of my insecurities are actually based on an older version of me.  I talk a lot about how the person I think of when I think of myself is actually the “me” of 20-25 years ago.  Just yesterday I had to send a picture I had taken of myself to my sister to ask her if that was what I actually physically looked like or if the camera made it look weird because I didn’t think it looked like me (she said that’s what I actually look like now).  What if I’m basing my physical insecurities on a body I don’t have anymore?  And the fear of “If people REALLY knew who I was, they wouldn’t like me any more”...perhaps that’s an outdated insecurity too based on the picture in my head.  If you take who I ACTUALLY am, you’d see a single mom, trying her best to raise her two daughters, working for her family’s company, while trying to unravel a lifetime worth of “stuff”.  That description doesn’t seem TOO entirely awful, does it?  It’s a very surface level description, but that person wouldn’t seem like they should have a lot of insecurities, right?

I don’t know if I have more answers or more questions now. Lol.   It’s clear I have to keep working resolving the past, but I still need to find a way to figure out to update the version of “me” in my head so I see a more accurate picture of myself.  Perhaps then I will be more content and accepting of myself and less concerned about everyone else.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Looking back to move forward...this is just the beginning.

I have been on a journey of healing for the last 2 years.  Trying to undo a lot of the damage that has happened to me over a lifetime.  Damage I've done to myself and damage inflicted upon me by others.  It has been a painfully slow process at times; yet sometimes happens so fast that I fear I'm going to get whiplash.  I've had to learn to be vulnerable and ask for help and that means I had to learn to trust.  For someone like me, that is nearly impossible, but when you are tired of being able to feel your body and soul die a little more each day, you'll find that sometimes you can pull off the near-impossible after all.

My latest endeavor was to write my younger self a letter; to pick any point in my life that made an impact on me, and write THAT me a letter.   From the get-go I was apprehensive.  I don't like to think about the past much.  Too much has happened.  I'm 40 so there's a LOT of past to weed through. Thanks to some lovely "quirks" my brain has, once I start down the path of remembering, I can't always stop it and that's never good.  For me, remembering the bad stuff is like an alcoholic taking that first drink.  I never know how long the bender is going to last, how badly it's going to hurt, if there's going to be collateral damage, or how long it will take me to recover afterward.  My body remembers trauma VIVIDLY and when triggered, it feels like I'm right back in the original situation.  Not only does my mind remember what happened, but my body FEELS it.  The sights, the smells, the physical sensations...all of it.  You can probably imagine why I avoid going there if possible.

That being said, I'm at a point in my life where the fear of NOT getting better, far outweighs the fear of staying the same, so with tentative steps, I moved forward.  I clarified the assignment, figured out the parameters I was working with, and went back as far as I could the first impactful memory that always stands out.  Back to when I was 5.
Dear 5yr-old me,

I see you sitting in the back seat of Betsy’s dad’s car chattering away on the way back to their house after another outing with their family.  You were so happy and excited and when you got that way, you talked.  Bill was driving and I’m assuming Sandy was in the front seat and Betsy was most likely in the back with you, but you don’t notice because you are too busy going on about whatever it is that has your mind and mouth going a mile-a-minute.  I wish I could stop the clock for you right here for just a few minutes.  Just a few minutes to let you talk and talk until you wear yourself out.  Things are going to start to happen to you and it’s going to change you and steal this bubbly innocence away from you and I just want to let you hang on to it for a few more minutes.

“You talk too much.  Can you shut up for awhile?  We’ll like you a lot more if you just don’t talk.”

I see your face drop as Betsy’s dad, Bill, says that to you.  Bill, who was always kind and joking and fun to be around, just changed the rules.  He made it not ok to be you.  As you slump back into the seat in silence, I wish I could tell you not to take it quite so personally.  I wish I could make you understand that sometimes grownups get short-tempered just like kids do and say mean things just like kids do too.  He wasn’t trying to be hurtful.  He just wanted a little break from the conversation.

Thirty-five years later, I still don’t know why this affected you as deeply as it did, but hang on, because here’s how it’s going to affect you.  “YOU TALK TOO MUCH.”  You start trying to talk less.  It’s a struggle, but you start to learn to fight what feels right. “WE’LL LIKE YOU MORE IF YOU JUST DON’T TALK.”  Every kid wants to be liked more; I was no different.  Go against what feels right for you, and you’ll be rewarded.  That’s the lesson I was learning.

And over the next month, when you are sexually assaulted by the teenage boy at the park while Betsy and her mom are just on the other side of the building, you will tell no one because “YOU TALK TOO MUCH” and “WE’LL LIKE YOU MORE IF YOU JUST DON’T TALK.”   And the next day when you BEG to not have to go to the park again, but can’t talk your way out of it without telling them what happened, you’ll finally just stop talking and go, and he’ll be there again, and he’ll hurt you again, but worse this time, and you’ll keep your mouth shut for 10 years because the boy said if you don’t, he’ll do the same thing to Betsy and you’d rather die than let him do that to your best friend.

Take a deep breath, dry your eyes.  Finish the car ride in silence.  Have dinner with their family tonight and enjoy your time playing with your best friend.  Things are about to get very dark for awhile and you need to hang onto whatever moments of joy you can right now.

After I finished it, I shared it with my most trusted friend M.  He read it and said, "What if the lesson you learned from Bill's comment was untrue?"  I thought about it and told him that had it been an isolated incident, I could perhaps concede, but it was something that has been reinforced throughout most of my life.  It's a pattern.  I am fairly quiet until I get to know you and am comfortable around you.  Once that happens, I am more open and talk more.  As we get closer, I feel free to talk/share at will and eventually the comment will arise in some form, "Man, you talk a lot."  So I stop talking and eventually the relationship falls apart because I know I have to censor myself in order to be accepted.  I know it is not ok to be me.

I have spent the last 3-4 years quite isolated other than the necessary conversations at work and at home.  Almost all other communication has been done online. Online, people have the option of not reading what I say.  I have the option of observing and not speaking at all.  Hanging out in the shadows is my comfort zone, but has its drawbacks.  I think I'd like to dip my toes in the pool of human interaction again one day, but first I have to finish looking back so I can move forward.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Eight months and counting...

One of you readers was kind enough to ask how I was doing after my last post in March so I figured it was time for an update.  I will work on a more detailed post, but I thought I'd get this one up to give you a quick idea of where I'm at.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Coming out to ensure a future.

Last October I made a decision to change my life. Things had to change if I wanted to see much more beyond the next 5 years. I couldn't pretend that I was ok anymore. It was getting too physically hard to live life in my body any more. On November 5th, 2015, I walked into the University of Minnesota Medical Center and admitted that I need help.

Four months, a half-dozen appointments, many dark moments, and many MANY more swear words later, I have lost 50 pounds as of this morning's weigh-in. I have lost weight, but gained so much more. I have learned that asking for help isn't the end of THE world, but it was the end of MY world as I knew it. I had to let go of the false notion that "I got this" (which obviously I didn't) and suck it up and let people see me vulnerable.

The mental work is SO MUCH HARDER than the physical work. Shutting down the negative crap in my head is so much harder than shutting my mouth and not putting food in it. Learning the difference between "I'm hungry" and "My mouth is bored" is something that I'll always probably deal with. Learning to let myself be brave enough to grab onto the tiniest sliver of trust in other people and hope like hell that maybe just this once things will work out for me...that is a life lesson that I have to relearn daily.

This is just a start. There are many more steps to take and many more life-altering changes coming in the near future. However, I am doing this one step at a time and trying to stay in the moment. Part of trying to ensure that I have a future is to learn to enjoy the present and to do THAT, I have to learn to actually slow down and experience what's going on IN THIS MOMENT. And in THIS moment, I'm thirsty. Off to find my giant glass of plain ol' water.