I have an emergency crew on standby in my head. Anticipation of anxiety-infused situations revs up my first responders. We are prepared for disaster. When the alarm goes off, it is nearly impossible to recognize reality, and not buy into the story I’m telling myself.
Let the Fun Begin . . .
Last July, I took Noah to a friend’s birthday party.
This is my second year at this annual event – summer birthday pool party, tons of parents, most of whom I don’t know. A few of which I barely have a casual acquaintance. Like I said, emergency crew on high alert!
I showed up prepared: book, journal, and pen in hand. I waved a few tentative hellos – awkwardly stood around for a few minutes – scanned the crowded pool. People were huddled in their respective tribes, a group of 3 here, a pair there, all animatedly conversing.
Socially anxious and self-conscious, I plopped down on an isolated bench near the deep end. The plastic pool chair welding itself to the back of my thighs. I whipped out my notebook and feigned interest in the pages. Embarrassment clinging to the insides of my stomach.
Suddenly, Noah caught my eye. I tracked his movement across the pool, isolated as well and swimming towards the deep end, climbing up the ladder, flipping off the diving board. He wasn’t playing with the other kids – no conversation, just dive, flip, splash, swim, ladder, repeat.
He was a solitary figure. A lone kid diving in the deep end while floaties, noodles, happy screams and peels of laughter created a colorful frenzy on the other side.
Just for a little background – Noah is 10. This is the summer before his 5th grade year. He had a tough year prior. He lost several key friendships. He and his teacher constantly butted heads.
He felt suffocated in school to the point he dreaded it most days. He’s one of those kids that questions and challenges when things don’t make sense. That attitude just doesn’t fit in with a system that says, “Here, take all these tests, make all A’s and B’s, don’t ask questions, oh, and don’t forget to turn in all that homework. If you don’t, you can forget about recess.”
It physically hurt to watch him go through all of that pain and frustration day in and day out.
And seeing him alone . . . that was the trigger. The sirens screamed to a start in my OCD brain, and the emergency crew strapped in and hit the gas.
Pump the Brakes
Immediately, I wanted to call Noah over and remind him to talk to the birthday boy, make some friends, be more personable and let his boisterous side win people over, and be less selfish with his time. My thoughts bombarded me.
Is he uncomfortable?
Why isn’t he engaging?
He should act more appropriately.
What if this is the start of him losing more friends?
He should do this . . .
I should tell him to do that . . .
Thankfully, my recovery brain kicked in. Why did I feel so invested in this? I decided to stop pretending that I was writing and actually put my pen to paper. I started thinking about the S.O.S. signals going off in my brain. The first word that came to mind?
When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a singer.
I vividly remember telling my mother. We were walking down the road near our house on a dusky Georgia evening.
It was late summer. As the sun set, and a magic array of colors spread across the sky, she looked over at me with scrunched-up eyes; her nose crinkled in unspoken criticism.
“You never be a singer,” she scolded. “You hunch over and no stand tall. People no like that. Why you crying? I tell you truth.”
She crushed my dreams with her unexpected disapproval. I attempted to stand as straight as possible while fat, warm tears slid down my cheeks. We walked on in silence.
Moments like this taught me that I needed to earn love. That it wasn’t freely given – it was based on my performance. Unmet expectations meant rejection. I bought into that lie, and I lived this way for thirty-odd years before I could accept who I was.
Hello Childhood Trauma – Meet My Son
Eckhart Tolle says, “You look at the present (moment) through the eyes of the past within you. In other words, what you see and experience is not in the event or the situation, but in you.”
As the heat beat down on me, and I wrote furiously. I realized I was looking at Noah, but my own insecurities were bouncing back at me. The thing is that we see our children through the lens of our own experiences. We look at the present as if it is the past. There is this sense of inevitability – the fear that our wounds will become their wounds if we don’t step in and prevent it.
When I go to a crowded place, I am nervous.
When I am insecure, I try to make others happy.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be well-liked, accepted, and loved by everyone.
Sitting there by the pool, I realized I was putting these expectations on my children as well. I assumed that Noah was insecure and wanted to be liked and accepted and didn’t know how.
My expectations of him were tailored to my experience. I was playing a story on repeat, but this time, Noah was the main character in a story I had lived.
The truth is we often give our children complexes based on our past. We want to take the pain or prevent the pain but we handicap them by not allowing them to learn for themselves. I didn’t give them a chance to see that . . .
Vulnerability Leads to Resilience
Both of my boys are strong-willed children with big personalities. I often haven’t been okay with my children choosing vulnerability by being themselves. I haven’t been comfortable with exposing them to the harshness of others not liking them because of who they are.
I know that I have interfered.
I have told them to be quiet when they expressed their opinions.
I have taught them to back down for the sake of peace.
I have asked them to conform to societal norms that make no sense.
In recovery, we practice living in a continual state of honesty; honesty with yourself and honesty with others. Honesty means being yourself, setting boundaries, and owning up to your mistakes. Showing people who you are is one of the greatest ways to embody honesty. Honesty takes courage. Honesty requires vulnerability.
Like Brene Brown, I firmly believe in vulnerability and courage. I believe in putting myself out there and receiving criticism and allowing these experiences to build my resilience. I believe in facing the disapproval of others in order to live a joyful life. In order to build meaningful, lasting relationships.
Finally, I am comfortable with who I am.
Now, I need to be comfortable with who my children are.
I have been guilty of teaching them the opposite of courage and vulnerability. That day, I wasn’t okay with Noah possibly facing ridicule for being himself.
But . . . within a fifteen minute window, I began to understand that my emotions are not his emotions, and my life is not his life. He is his own person. I also realized that my sons deserve the chance to build resilience through their own experiences.
If people don’t like them because of who they are, they deserve the opportunity to become stronger. They deserve the opportunity to say, “I’m going to be okay with me regardless of your opinion.”
A sentence I wish I’d had the courage to say years ago . . .