You are not hard to love

About a month ago I posted a meme to Instagram from Word Porn, which stated:

To date, this post has had more attention than anything else I’ve shared: more views, more likes, more comments, more saves, and more shares. By far.

I shared it with the intent to draw awareness to the psychological damage that can be caused by emotional abuse. What I realize is that this is a message that more people need to hear.

In a lot of ways I had a privileged childhood. Both sides of my family are well-educated and accomplished. We weren’t wealthy, but I didn’t want for many things and there was no overt abuse. People were probably confused as to why I was not happier. We look great on paper.

I received the message that I was difficult to love as a child. This is not to say that my childhood was bad or filled with trauma, but there was a lack of affection and connection. I’ve mentioned before that there is addiction in my family, but I want this blog to be about healing and not about blame or the negative behaviour that accompanies this disease so I hope you understand why I keep the focus on myself.

I will make the point that if you are actively numbing yourself in one way or another to the world around you a wall is built. It is much harder to connect with people, be open to their needs, and connect with healthy intimacy. This can be an especially challenging situation for children who look to adults to model relationships, self-worth, and community.

As a child, I had the perception that the discord in our household was because I was not smart enough, active enough, social enough, thin enough, whatever enough. Positive achievement and events were applauded and then backhanded with suggestions on how I could be better next time. Negative events were blown out of proportion and over time lead me to conclude that no matter what I did, my deficits were glaring and insurmountable. I don’t have memories of discussion being encouraged and I recall my efforts to express my feelings being shut down, often with physical barriers as people stormed off and left me.

Interacting in this way was confusing. I don’t think the intent was to make me feel inadequate and unloved, I believe if anything it was to encourage, toughen me up, and ready me for high achievement in the same way that has been done in my family for generations.

In some ways, I guess it did.

I am driven, independent and strong, but I also have a crushingly low opinion of myself and have a lot of trouble being vulnerable and open. To this day, I shrug off compliments and achievements and push myself to the next goal. It’s hard for me to relax without feeling guilty and I am more invested in what other people think than my own opinion of myself. I sometimes feel that people aren’t being sincere when they give me positive feedback, like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop and for them to tell me what I could do to be better.

Although not a conscious choice, it has lead me to sabotage relationships with emotionally healthy people for fear that they would eventually see my flaws and reject me. I believe it has resulted in me choosing to maintain relationships with people who are also emotionally closed because it is more comfortable not to be seen.

Reflecting on my childhood, I was a good kid; I was smart, caring, and cute as hell. I wasn’t hard to love or deficient. Without understanding why, I’ve been angry for her for a long time. As I work through recovery, I’m also starting to feel sorry for the people who couldn’t show her that they loved her in a way she could have understood. Likely because they also had not received this message when they needed it most.

I feel compassion and gratitude for her for continuing to try to protect me by pushing people away and lashing out in anger. I’m sorry that a part of me feels the only way to survive life is to be perfect, invulnerable and alone.

As I patiently wait for my heart to accept what my brain knows I work on giving myself what I needed as a kid: understanding, encouragement, and unconditional love.

I tell myself I’m not hard to love now just like I wasn’t then.

Lake Monsters and Jelly Shoes

My family has a cottage on a lake in rural Ontario, Canada. In lieu of travel and family vacations to exotic locations we spent most of our time off at this magical place.

When I was little, my extended family used to enjoy spending time up there together. I had four older cousins and I idolized them; I thought they were beautiful, animated and godlike. Unfortunately for me, with a significant age gap, they thought I was annoying, clingy and lame. I remember being very excited and nervous on those rare occasions when they chose to include me.

The lake is small and shallow. As an adult, I have to walk out at least a hundred feet for the water to reach over my head. As kids, we had access to a homemade raft made from solid wood which weighed a ton, nothing like the lightweight foam contraptions I see around the lake today. We would push it out to the middle with great effort so we could compete in jumping and diving off, something that wasn’t safely available closer to shore.

Even at that age I remember being scared of deep water. I used to imagine monsters and animated plant life with tentacle like appendages ready to pull me to the bottom. Of course I wouldn’t admit that to my cousins and did my best to hide my fear hoping that would somehow convince them that I was mature and cool enough to be around them.

It was the 80’s and plastic shoes were all the rage, most cottage seasons started with a trip to Zellers to grab a pair. They would be promptly christened as lake shoes on arrival.

Walking out from shore, as the water got deeper, the bottom would get murkier and your feet would sink into the clay and sand. It wasn’t unusual for someone to lose one or both shoes yielding shrieks from the victim and laughter from the rest.  They would then have to press their bare feet into the muck to help push the raft back to shore; one of my first experiences with the concept of “chicken”.

In hindsight, my cousins were also scared of deep water and the bottom of the lake. The jelly shoes were a sort of armour we all shared but didn’t discuss; an illusion of safety against imagined demons. At the time I was too absorbed in my own fear and trying to be cool and accepted that it didn’t occur to me that admitting my feelings probably would have brought us closer together and helped me work through it.

As an adult, I’m still not crazy about deep water. I feel momentary panic when seaweed wraps around my ankles or I realize I can’t see the bottom. But I also recognize this fear is mostly in my head and rationalize that I am fortunate enough to swim in lakes that are free of most monsters. I accept that I have these irrational feelings, I can’t change them, but I can choose my reaction. I can choose to acknowledge my fear and move forward bravely with awareness and without a crutch. I may even choose to share that fear with a trusted friend.

Sometimes, when I am lonely and feel disconnected and I desperately seek comfort in others, I remind myself that there are lessons in fear and am grateful they can help me stay safe. For example, if I ever go swimming in the Amazon I will be grateful for my apprehensive and fearful mammalian brain reminding me of dangers in the deep. But in the relatively safe lake of my youth my fear is irrational, outdated, and holds me back.

I calmly remind myself that I am strong, smart, and independent. I am grateful for jelly shoes for getting me in the water as a kid but I’m happy I’ve grown enough as an adult that I can swim without them.