One of the hardest realizations I have come to in my adult life, was realizing several years ago that I was not being completely genuine with myself. In my work, in my marriage, in my relationships with my friends and my children, I had compromised myself over and over again for decades, perpetually prioritizing harmonious relationships over speaking up about anything I was feeling.
Through therapy, I became aware this is not an uncommon scenario for a person with siblings, particularly a person with younger siblings. I can absolutely imagine when I was young, and a baby brother or sister appeared on the scene, receiving some praise or positive feedback from parents when I successfully made myself scarce, or wasn’t too demanding, or found a way to play independently. Words of affirmation are my love language, and as a child I must have craved that kind of feedback. With no one at fault, I simply learned to value making things easier for other people, and if it was at the expense of expressing my own needs, that was okay. Over many years, I became so good at this that I began to lose track of knowing what I was actually feeling. I habitually suppressed my internal stuff; I didn’t trust my own words or emotions. My reaction in any situation became: if I express this thought or feeling, is it going to negatively impact someone around me? It became a guiding principle in my life, something I valued about myself without consciously realizing it, and it impacted virtually every aspect of my life. Some examples:
– My sister teases me because for as long as she’s been aware, I’ve demonstrated a ‘delayed reaction’ to jokes and funny situations. There’s a delay in my response.
– I hung back in social situations, letting other people talk first, unable to be fully engaged because I wasn’t fully participating.
– At work, my boss became frustrated in meetings because I couldn’t readily speak my mind.
I was very easy to get along with, but rarely did my spouse or my band mates or my other friends know what was going on in my head. Usually, I myself was barely in touch with the thoughts and feelings I was suppressing.
I thought this was a strength. In some ways I suppose it is – being able to listen, being patient, understanding delayed gratification. But it’s also been a massive blind spot. If someone asked something of me, sometimes I couldn’t respond because I didn’t actually know my own opinion. Even when I knew my mind, I was unpracticed at articulating my thoughts. Intense pressures welled up inside, piling up on themselves, magnifying each other from long-ago circumstances that I never processed. I could be triggered and blow up without notice. Usually this was a private event, sometimes it was not. More destructively, the suppressed feelings leaked out in passive aggressive and usually negative ways, poisoning conversations and sometimes relationships.
The very worst was when I realized my kids were not getting the genuine me. This was the tipping point. Understanding they were not getting a genuine experience from their dad, that they were growing seeing only half a person, was the fire that finally fueled me to seek help and make a change.
Turning to face this suppressed self felt foreign and unnatural. Confronting it seemed scary, because there might be dark things that would not show well once they were brought into the light. Nonetheless I understood this was a part of me. Intuitively, I knew there was something richer, and it required that I dig up and confront the hidden parts. I didn’t want my kids’ only experience to be with a sanitized version of their dad.
The experience of what I found and what I did with it, is perhaps (and only perhaps) substance for some future post.