My son is beginning middle school in a couple days. We’ve been reflecting on his elementary school experience and looking forward to what comes next in middle school. I don’t remember much of my own ceremony from elementary to middle school. I do, however, remember that I received a medal for “honor, scholarship, deportment, and general character.”
My son and I laughed together that my elementary school gave out awards like that, that it was a freaking heavy medallion, and that I still have it. I remember feeling very honored and validated at the time for receiving the award. Now, I feel an inner collapse about receiving the award; while it was given with the best of intentions by my teachers, it also represents a reward for my socially conforming, institutionally compliant behavior.
F**k you, Mr. Bennett
My parents often used to sing “Put on a Happy Face” when I was a kid. It’s originally from Bye Bye Birdie. The second verse goes like this:
Pick out a pleasant outlook,
Stick out that noble chin;
Wipe off that “full of doubt” look,
Slap on a happy grin!
And spread sunshine all over the place,
Just put on a happy face!
The other morning, I woke up singing this song in my head. Then I started singing it out loud. And then I got pissed. I did indeed say, “F**k you, Mr. Tony Bennett,” at the breakfast table.
The lyrics speak to many of my childhood experiences. I put on a happy face–even when I wasn’t happy–while calming the waters of everyone else’s experience. I learned from a very, very young age–before I even had language–that my docile behavior was necessary for my survival and an emotionally tolerable existence. I self-denied my own emotions needs. I dissociated from the sensations in my body related to emotions. I created the fantasy of being happy, content, and calm in order to receive responsive, age-appropriate care and attention. I lived in terror for what would happen if I was anything other than people-pleasing.
Magical thinking and pathological hope
I wasn’t being real with myself or others about how I felt. I projected the illusion of everything being fine and the perception of what I thought people wanted from me. On the outside, I had the socially acceptable, normative, institutional identity of a dutiful daughter with involved parents. The secret reality on the inside was that I was maintaining a victim identity and had codependent behaviors. I organized my life, thoughts, behaviors, and self-concept around “if only…” fantasies:
- “It will be better when…”
- “It will be better if I/they…”
- “If they would only…”
- “They should just…”
- “I just need to…”
Fast forward to my adult professional life. I have the socially acceptable, normative, institutional identity of a productive and content worker in a position of status. The culture of higher education hits on just the right context cues for me. The constant grind of the academic year deadlines. The annual rituals of initiations, applications, and performances. ‘Power over’ struggles instead of ‘power with.’ We take pride in overwork and exhaustion, we work on weekends, and we check email on vacations. We say, “I’ll take a break after I finish grading,” only to pick up the next urgent thing on the list.
I have made the maintenance of these impossible, “I will enjoy myself and life when…” fantasies the centerpiece of much of my professional life, especially when the demands are at a tipping point of manageable. I was always living slightly in the future instead of in the present to prevent imagined (and in reality, unjustified) catastrophes. I was also contributing to the thing that was hurting me, maintaining that thought-behavior pattern took a lot of energy. I wasn’t being in integrity with myself – my values or my body.
- Calm the waters (i.e., everyone else’s water).
- Stuff down my inner turmoil.
- “Everything is ok [but I’m not ok].”
- Put on a happy face.
Moving out of denial
It comes down to denial. I was denying myself the rich life I was trying to offer and protect for others. I was denying that this was working for me. I was denying many friends and coworkers the ability to work with me in an authentic way. I was in denial about my integrity; while I value communities in process toward a liberated, interdependent, joyful, humane life, I withhold the same things from myself.
Over the past six months or so, two mantras have been bubbling up for me:
“This isn’t the experience I want to be having right now.”
“My experience matters to me.”
I’m starting to speak from my true inner self. I’m starting to tell the truth to myself and others about my experiences. I’m saying how I feel so that others can interact with me in ways that do work for me. I’m making my experience matter to myself. It feels a bit like the fire in my spirit has been kindled.