“My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.”
― Margaret Edson, Wit
From my experience over the last few months, the therapeutic journey is a lot like exploring a TARDIS—the further in, the bigger it seems to get. Each new revelation puts the past in a different light as pieces swim to the surface of my consciousness.
Last week, on recommendation of a friend of mine, I started reading a book by Laurence Heller and Aline Lapierre, Healing Developmental Trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationship. Because the more I unpack my childhood and young adult years with my therapist, the more I’m realizing how deeply scaring the experience was.
Everyone’s childhood fucks them up. Parents don’t know what they’re doing, and to a certain degree everyone re-enacts with their own children the very mistakes their parents made with them. Some of it is simple social learning. We are primates, after all. Most parents just do the best they can.
And there are people who have had legitimately horrific and brutally traumatizing experiences. I have never seen anyone murdered before my eyes. Ditto being raped or sexually assaulted. Or suffered a debilitating physical injury.
But spending the majority of my formative years trying to suppress my true identity ingrained unhealthy and pathological behavioral scripts in me. This is what I’m in therapy for.
In the first few pages of the book, there’s a table that describes the various responses to when our core human needs (i.e., connection, attunement, trust, autonomy, love-sexuality) are either not met or outright denied us:
|Adaptive Survival Style||Core Difficulties|
|The Connection Survival Style||Disconnected from physical and emotional self
Difficulty relating to others
|The Attunement Survival Style||Difficulty knowing what we need
Feeling our needs do not deserve to be met
|The Trust Survival Style||Feeling we cannot depend on anyone but ourselves
Feeling we have to always be in control
|The Autonomy Survival Style||Feeling burdened and pressured
Difficulty setting limits and saying no directly
|The Love-Sexuality Survival Style||Difficulty integrating heart and sexuality
Self-esteem based on looks and performance
Read through that list a couple times and see how many of them describe how you relate to other people and to yourself.
This table describes virtually every friendship and romantic relationship I have ever had. I think the next couple of blog entries are going to be unpacking each of those lines and what they have meant for my life, one by one.
What I’ve realized over the past couple of weeks is that the vast majority of my relationships (romantic or otherwise, but especially sexual and romantic relationships) have been based on fear. Fear of rejection, failure, and even success.
Growing up, once I realized that my sexuality fell outside the bounds of what was considered “acceptable” to my community, I couldn’t afford to let anyone get close to me for fear of them finding out my deep, dark secret. So I became exceptionally good at blending in, at becoming who I thought someone expected me to be.
It’s surprising how easy it is to do. And still is.
In essence, my identity growing up was built around what I thought people didn’t want me to be. It was a negative self-image.
The thing is that this identity was bolstered by the Christian theology I was raised with. And one of the core beliefs we had was that pursuing our personal desires was sinful: the phrase often heard in my house was, “dying daily to self.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
I memorized these and many other similar Bible verses growing up. Combined with constant exposure to weekly church sermons, Bible study groups, and in general being surrounded by evangelical Christians every day, as I grew up, it gradually became clear what I should want: to be annihilated by Christ. My personality, my very identity, was so deeply warped and perverted by my sin nature that it needed to be wiped clean and rewritten with that of Jesus: the only truly perfect man who ever lived.
That did wonders for my self esteem, as you can imagine.
How this eventually played itself out was that I didn’t believe that I had permission to want anything for myself. I majored in music because, while I enjoyed music, that was what my father and music teachers wanted for me. It never occurred to me to ask what I wanted.
I pretended to be heterosexual for fifteen years because that was what good Christians were supposed to do, though it was suffocating and miserable. I even pretended to be a Christian long after I’d stopped believing because I thought that was how I’d win Seth over.
None of my romantic relationships lasted long as those guys weren’t dating a 100% real person. They were with the David that I thought they wanted to see. And it’s not inaccurate to say that I stayed with my last boyfriend as long as I did because I didn’t think that I deserved better.
So my current project is to learn to get comfortable in my own skin, to listen to my wants and desires, and learn how to communicate them to others when appropriate.
It’ll be by taking small steps and embracing those moments when it feels like I don’t know my lines that an authentic “me” will emerge.