275. vergangenheitsbewältigung

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broken-mirror
According to a Buzzfeed video, vergangenheitsbewältigung roughly translates to in English: “to deal with the past and eventually overcome it.”

Thanks to X years of coaching German lied and picking up bits and pieces of the language, I can correctly pronounce this word without much prompting.

Even the umlaut.

Unfortunately, the concept itself seems to be one I have particular difficulty with.


Let’s start with an excerpt from an episode of This American Life:

Linda Perlstein: This is the time of biggest growth for a human being, aside from infancy… what happens in your early stages of puberty is this fast overproduction of brain cells and connections, far more than you actually need. And only some of them are going to survive puberty. This growth in your frontal cortex, it peaks at 11 for girls and 12 for boys. And then what happens is the cells just fight it out for survival. And the ones that last are the ones you exercise more.

Ira Glass: In other words, during those years, your brain turns you into you, the adult you.

This got me to thinking about my own adolescence and what was happening during the formative years Perlstein is talking about.

Puberty started around age 12 for me. For most boys, it happens in community with other young males. There’s competition, and cruelty, but also camaraderie. I experienced it in a vacuum as a homeschooled youth, with two younger sisters and parents who preferred to pretend nothing was happening.

I had to educate myself about puberty and adolescence by reading medical guidebooks that we had on hand at home, and at our local public library.

This was also where I first (inadvertently) learned about homosexuality.

Puberty was frightening, and deeply uncomfortable. I had no frame of reference to compare my own bodily experience against, and nothing with which to normalize it. Rather than evolving with my body and celebrating its masculinity, it became a symbol of shame and revulsion, something to be ashamed of rather than expressed.

It didn’t help that I was also learning in church that the body was a corrupting influence and a potential tool for Satan, right around the time that I was becoming aware of my own homosexuality.

Couple that with our community’s obsession with spiritual warfare and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety and hyper awareness that would destabilize the sturdiest of people.


Just over a year ago I wrote about watching Jessica Jones, how it deals with living with life-changing trauma, and encountering one’s past to find strength in overcoming it.

The character of Kilgrave was a frightening reminder of how much voices of the past are still taking up residence in my head, whispering, distorting and shaping perceptions, essentially pulling the reins of my behavior and choices for the last few decades.

Around the same time, I also got into another Netflix series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which I found surprisingly emblematic for my own experience of having been trapped in my own proverbial bunker for fifteen years.

This second season seems to deal more with the ramifications of dealing with the trauma of having had your personal agency stolen from you in those formative middle school years, when you’re supposed to begin dealing and coping with all those complicated adult feelings and emotions.


I had a pretty good session with my therapist today in which I finally came out to her about the four personas taking up residence in my head. Writing about them over the last few weeks was good groundwork in preparing to talk about it, because I was able to hit on a few insights while describing what is going on.

One of the things my therapist said today was that people raised in extreme religious environments often fragment their personalities in the way that I described. To make sense of what we’re told every day, we mentally the bury parts of ourselves that are problematic, sinful, and “wrong” in order to be accepted, or acceptable, and to survive.

While my forward-facing social, public self has developed and grown, the four parts that I described a few posts ago—the Dark Man, the Enforcer, the Rake, and the Child—all represent parts of me that did not. In order to stay safe, they went into a sort of mental cryogenic stasis, coming out only when needed, so they didn’t mature along with the rest of me. My child self is still eight years old, the age when I took literally the Bible verse that says to “put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

The Dark Man is still the critical, judgmental, severe parent that fed my perfectionist nature when my flesh-and-blood parents failed to do so. He’s largely responsible for the sense I have of being overly rigid and inflexible.

Forbidden sexual feelings that I vehemently repressed for years, never being explored, realized, or integrated healthily into my personality remain detached and largely inaccessible to this day.

The Enforcer represents the desires and ambitions that I had to squelch and suppress every day, which then inverted into a dark, malevolent, amoral force that provided the energy to kill dreams that God/my parents didn’t approve of and bury my sexual self, but which has also allowed me to kill friendships and reject my family. This is where my black-and-white thinking largely stems from.

In short, these are survival mechanisms that took on a limited life of their own, but are holding me back from true growth and flourishing.

My therapist did have one piece of advice: to not make these personas out to be bigger or more than what they are, and to not grant them too much power or agency.

She also pointed out the fact that I’m actually aware of these parts of myself that are “stuck” is a sign of significant progress.

But all of this is a huge reason why I’m still single.

I’m not prepared to unleash the Four Horsemen of my Psyche onto some unsuspecting bastard.

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224. ethos

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Malkovich

A few days ago I was watching a video in Hank Green’s psychology Crash Course on attachment style theories, parenting styles, the development of self-concept, and Kolhberg’s Stages of Morality:

The course has made me remember how much I enjoyed taking psychology classes, and how much I’ve forgotten in the intervening years.

This bit from about the 6:45 mark stirred up some recollections in my thinking space:

“… if one of infancy’s major social achievements is forming positive attachments then one of the biggest achievements in childhood would have to be achieving a positive sense of self. This self-concept (or, an understanding and evaluation of who we are) is usually pretty solid by the time we turn twelve.”

I’m not really sure what my very early years with my parents were like as an infant. I don’t recall my parents being overly distant or hovering. I can recall, as Hank describes in the video, that my parents were certainly authoritarian. There were sometimes reasons given for the rules we had to follow or why we were being punished, but those rules often seemed unfair and even a tad draconian at times.

“… by the time that tot is headed to kindergarten, their self-concept is rapidly expanding.”

Around the time that I turned twelve was around the time that I was figuring out that I was gay. So while my peers were getting settled in their “positive sense of self” as they moved from childhood into adulthood, mine was like to a field constantly being plowed and turned over so that nothing could take root. With every sermon preached on the sanctity of “traditional,” heterosexual marriage (although in those days there was no other kind), and with every winking or cruel remark someone in would unwittingly make about homos, it was gradually, painfully beaten into me that there was no place for me to be me in the world.

And, given the theology that I was raised with, a sense of self had virtually no currency towards a Christian’s future life in Heaven.

“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)

It wasn’t until I got to public high school that I learned about attachment theory, or self-actualization, or anything that didn’t involve “becoming more like Christ” (1 John 3:2). What I heard growing up was that the chief desire of the Christian should be to literally one day in Heaven have your “earthly” self annihilated so that only Christ remains.

Apotheosis via annihilation. Quelle charmante

It reminds me of one of the weirder sequences in Being John Malkovich where John Malkovich climbs into his own head and everyone looks and sounds like John Malkovich.

Looking back on all of those Sunday school lessons, that’s almost exactly what the process of becoming “Christlike” is.


All that to say, virtually every day that I open Facebook to see the growing children of my friends who have been married going on ten years, and literally every day at home with my housemates, I’m reminded of the reality that I am today where most of them were about 10-15 years ago.

My friends Adam and Jesse who got married earlier this month met around the time that I was finishing college (age 19-20). They’ve been together for fourteen years. At that age, the idea of even being in a relationship with another man was something utterly foreign to me because it wasn’t even possible. One couldn’t be a Christian and be a gay man.

My friends Matt and Jason have been together almost twenty years. My longest relationship is barely 1% as long as that (i.e., nine months). Twenty years ago, I was just starting to figure out my sexual orientation.

So I’m just now starting to do the work at age 31 (well, let’s face it, at this point virtually 32) that most people start doing around age 12—that is, building a “positive sense of self.” And facing this reality is depressing and daunting, and bewildering.

Of course, most people aren’t even aware of the (metaphorical) demons that prevent them from becoming the best versions of themselves. They don’t even know that this is what’s happening to them. They go through life doing what is expected of them… or what they believe is expected of them. They punch the clock. Buy the house. Marry the high school or college sweetheart. Have the kids. Buy the lake cabin. Put the kids through college.

Retire.

Expire.

But I also know some great people who know who they are, what they are capable of and what they want, and aren’t afraid to go after that.

All this is to say that it’s incredibly weird to be in this nether region of being the same age as people who seem to have their lives together (or at least going in a direction) and being nowhere close to having any of that figured out.

“Kids with positive self-images are more happy, confident, independent, and sociable.”

What’s most daunting is that I’m trying to launch this two-pronged attack of getting myself to a place in life where I’m the best possible version of me, while at the same time trying to get over the negative programming that was crammed into my head from practically the time I was born. Because I was given, frankly, a pretty shitty self-concept growing up.

So at the same time as I’m trying to build a healthy self-concept, I’m also trying to build a career and (ideally—not hopefully) find a boyfriend who could possibly become a husband.

Let’s not even go into all of the minefield anxieties that surround that idea…

The bottom line is that, yes, this is a mess, but it’s not an impossible mess to fix. I have a good therapist who works with people from my background on rebuilding their lives.

And I have good friends.

That’s as good a start as any.