The combination of working full-time plus the wind-up to the end of this semester has been kicking my ass recently. Perhaps it’s the research methods class I’m taking, or enduring a contentious and divisive election for almost two years, but I’m feeling pretty run-down.
What I have been planning to write about is the increasingly clearer picture of one of the dominant psychological constructs in my mind.
Let’s call him “Talos.”
He started out as a sort of mental protector figure—an internal proxy father in place of the one I didn’t entirely trust or feel safe around. He was a distant man (who himself had had a distant and sometimes physically abusive father) who tended to work a lot. He tried to do things with us: take us to parks, teach us to ride bikes. But it was clear he didn’t really know how to do any of the “traditional” things one expects from a father.
As we got older, the desire to connect with my sisters and me manifested in various ways (such as going to baseball games with my younger sister, or going to concerts with me), but so did his critical voice. While his intent was probably to help us by pointing out our mistakes, he had a way of turning compliments or feedback into backhanded insults.
Following one of my piano recitals as a teenager (which I thought went pretty well), we were driving home afterwards and after a moment of silence between us, he mentioned how some of my ornamentation had been slightly off.
In college, following the performance of one of my songs in a colleague’s recital, he said later that he thought a song I’d written previously had sounded more “true” to my style.
This was the state of things growing up. Some of that came from their theology, such as where Paul writes in Romans that “everyone among you [is] not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3).
Praising or encouraging us would’ve given us big heads, I guess.
MARC MARON: See, I’m projecting because what I was gonna say is that the children of alcoholics either become alcoholics and drug addicts, or control freaks.
JULIA SWEENEY: Oh, really.
MM: Well, yeah.
JS: I wonder if I’m a control freak.
MM: You don’t feel like one… Usually it’s because you’re in this position with a grown person that’s completely out of control all the time, and you’re constantly—you can’t do anything about this primary situation in your life, so when you get out of that you’re like, “I’m gonna keep it tight.” You know what I mean? There’s a reaction.
And that got me thinking about growing up in a rigidly-controlled religious household where one never felt entirely secure. Some flip out once they leave home and become totally debauched.
Others become control freaks.
Guess which direction I went.
For me, the gradual appearance and rise of Talos began as an internalization of those parental admonishments. After all, to a child, the sun rises and sets with their parents. It’s biologically wired into us to unconditionally accept what our parents tell us. Skepticism carried no survival benefits.
It started as anticipation of disapproval—of observing, learning to predict what behavior would result in a spanking, or a lecture, or a threat of burning eternally in hell.
As I got older though, Talos grew in size and scale. He was the internal eye, standing over my shoulder to criticize everything I did. And nothing was ever good enough. I’d practice piano for 3-4 hours a day to get one section of a piece just-right. I’d edit and rewrite papers until they felt perfect.
He also commented on the world around me, evaluating passing glances or turns of phrase.
“They know what a horrible person you are.”
“Nobody here likes you.”
“What a miserable disappointment.”
“You’ll never be good enough.”
This goes beyond stunted self-esteem.
It was crippled self-worth.
I was trying to come up with a face this week to put with Talos, and John Noble’s Denethor from The Lord of the Rings films came to mind. There’s this scene in particular:
It was a self-protective impulse turned inwards on itself, like a black hole. And once I became aware of my sexuality, that mechanism went into overdrive, controlling every thought and mannerism lest anything give me away to my parents, who were big fans of James Dobson and Focus on the Family.
I’ve also been considering how this has impacted my romantic life, and my attitude towards myself and my demisexuality.
Specifically, is this sexuality an inborn trait, or is it the result of this darkly controlling inner force that looms over everything?
Regarding my orientation, of only being sexually attracted to men I have a close connection with, that has always been there. The more I got to know someone, the more attractive he got.
But would I feel more comfortable being more sexually and romantically open if Talos’ shadow wasn’t everywhere? Would I feel less pressure to find romance?
Who knows. But no wonder I stopped smiling around age eight.
But even non-sexually/romantically, would I feel less anxious in social settings if Talos weren’t threatening me not to fail, to say the wrong thing, to not let everyone know how stupid I am?
Though I’m now an atheist, the pressure to be perfect is no less overwhelming. I’m constantly analyzing social situations, draining my mental CPU.
The curious thing is that I became my own jailer.
So how then to unlock my own cell?