Friday, October 29, 2010


"Each of those memories is like a ribbon," he said. "The ribbons are attached to a pole. What's the pole? What is the pole you dance around?"

Yes, I somehow ended up in counseling. It's not something I do regularly. Eight or nine sessions in the mid-90s, on CP's recommendation, before I moved to Colorado. Three more when CP (and my love life) crashed a few years ago; I was so devastated.

This time it happened because I asked my pastor - an excellent counselor - about Erik Erikson's theory of human development. He offered to conduct a personal assessment for me using the Erikson-inspired Measures of Psychosocial Development. Before you know it there I am in his office, pouring myself out, tears in my eyes. No money involved, he said: he's a pastor, and I'm part of the church, so I already help pay his salary...

He says I'm basically a healthy person, and functioning quite well - I, uh, "passed" the MPD. But I'm not happy, not satisfied with the way things are. We have some work to do. Though I tend to dread this kind of probing, it's been very helpful.

Looks like one of the poles to which the ribbons of my life - the strongest memories - are attached is the one that says "You don't matter." You should keep quiet, blend in, be good, not make trouble. Because goodness knows we have enough crises to deal with already.

Maybe I heard this from others, maybe I just drew this conclusion on my own, but it went deep. Somehow I came to believe my true self wasn't valuable or accepted, that I'm not lovable and likable as the person I really am. Relationships, work, and society repeated those messages. Don't think too much of yourself. Don't expect too much or think the world's going to be fair to you. Maybe your "contribution" matters; maybe your behavior counts, but what you think or care about or how you feel about things probably doesn't count for much. You're not going to get your way: You have to be the one to give in.

And so I don't see much value in being close to people because my gut tells me they are going to use me, put me into some kind of box, etc. Deep down I have a hard time trusting people or believing that intimate relationships aren't going to cost me more than they are worth. 

Yikes, how can I think that - well maybe not think that, but feel that - and what do we do about it?

The world will throw this kind of crap at you. It's not surprising when some of it sticks. And there's enough truth and even appealingness in "you don't matter" that it's hard to dismiss. And after all, isn't being "humble" better than being a narcissist? I've been around narcissistic people and I hate it. But imagine how much better it would be to walk in a sense of being accepted and loved just as you are, just as I am!

Along the same lines, although I've largely broken the power of the performance trap in my life - I recognize and turn away from the "you should do this / you should do that" statements - I am still strongly affected by (and mad about) the "you should be this / you should be that" statements. No wonder I'm angry, no wonder I expect people to hurt me or be hurt by me: I'm carrying around all this pain and rejection. 

In journaling about this the other day I realized a lot of my ministry may have roots in this story. Hmmmmm.... The work I do as a journalist and sociologist, the roles I step into as a leader and a writer, all have to do with listening and inclusion, with giving people a chance to be heard. Nothing makes me madder than leaders who are arrogant and trample on other people. Nothing makes me gladder than seeing someone who really sees, cares for, and empowers others. What I want to say to people, especially people who don't have a voice, is: You matter. Your story matters. You may feel like an outsider, but we're inviting you in. 

That seems like great fruit from some pretty negative roots. Now how to get to the point where I really believe that message, for myself?


Megan Noel said...

i feel the same way a lot, especially at work and in the social group i "have found myself in" (what, i had nothing to do w/ ending up here?)
i am not big on self help books, though there are some good ones. my absolute favorite one is by a zen monk named cheri huber. it's called "there is nothing wrong with you.. regardless of what you were taught to believe." we say stuff to ourselves we would never say to, say, a child, or a friend. i hope people are generally not born broken. little kids don't seem to usually have that idea that they can't do things. they have not yet learned they can't draw, or can't sing, so they just do it anyway. it would be nice to have that sort of faith in one's self in every day life.

Dean Smith said...

This might be the 'Smith/Jackson' curse. Your Grandmother suffered from it to the point of debilitation for large portions of her life, and her mother before that. i have also had the problem and have sought counseling for it. I think i may finally have outgrown it. It took 60+ years. It is NOT the truth of your life!

Marti said...

Counselor said - and I'm still chewing on this - that whatever happens to you when you are a child, is not your fault, even though your tendency might be to believe, from the get-go, that it is. And whatever happens to you as an adult, you have to own it, now that it some way yes you have indeed chosen it and it's worth it to get in touch with how, and why. And of course the two are often connected.

Interesting use of the word "curse." I do believe there are family patterns that are passed on like that, and it's as good a word as any to describe how they work. Perhaps this one - the idea that you don't matter, you don't count, that you are insignificant or irredeemable or that there's something seriously wrong with or lacking in you has got to be one of the more common. I would go so far as to attribute it to Satan.

in response to "i hope people are generally not born broken": Actually, I think they are. Certainly born very fragile and breakable. Which sounds a bit different from the stereotypical statement of what it means to be fallen, but maybe is really the same idea.

I think this is part of what attracted me to Christianity. It was/is such a relief to me when someone says, "Yes, actually, what your gut and experience tell you is right, there is something seriously wrong. You were made for something different!" And actually, evangelical Christianity, specifically, grabs me partly because it's about reaching out, inviting others in, saying: look, we were all made for something different, the invitation is for you.