Certain things switch my personality off like a light. When it happens, I feel locked in a vise, unable to express myself. I hate it when it happens, and especially when it comes to define me. I fall under the label of “quiet”, among other things, and become viewed in ways completely contrary to how I feel and live. Sometimes I become trapped in that position for years, cornered by those views. People turn away from me and talk amongst themselves, and I cannot follow. Nor can I break free. There is a problem I cannot name, an oppression that is heavy and silent.
Typically I blame myself or my hearing loss. At times I fall into despair, angry with myself for not being more outgoing, friendly, talkative. I take on the contempt I imagine is felt toward me, the quiet person who is not entertaining. The double bind of my inner self raging against others’ perceptions of me, knowing that it is not who I am but being unable to make it any different, is perhaps the most frustrating and deeply disheartening experience of my life.
In contrast, the greatest freedom I’ve felt are the places where I came alive and words and energy flowed like water. Parker Palmer writes about how rare, in our culture, safe places and fully accepting people are for the “shy soul” within all of us and so we can go our whole lives without experiencing our true inner voice. I seem to have a hyper-sensitivity (sometimes to a fault) to when situations are safe for self-expression or when people somehow perceive my true self. I married one of the first men who did so.
Even now, it still makes me smile when Steve turns to me and says “You’re awfully quiet.” To him it is unusual; to many others, it is expected.
I started, and then finished, Reviving Ophelia today. What Mary Pipher says about being female in this culture puts this predictament into a different light for me. Maybe I do not shut down in certain situations entirely because there is something the matter with me, but because participating would mean sacrificing parts of the self- including parts I have yet to discover or develop- to a culture that can be poisoning. It is a protective measure- maybe not the most ideal- but protective nonetheless.
The situations that cause my personality to utterly disappear include any sort of clique where people are excluding and devaluing others. That meant my high school experience was completely and utterly lonely. Pipher writes:
Many strong girls have similar stories: They were socially isolated and lonely in adolescence. Smart girls are often the girls most rejected by peers. Their strength is a threat and they are punished for being different. Girls who are unattractive or who don’t worry about their appearance are scorned. This isolation is often a blessing because it allows girls to develop a strong sense of self. Girls who are isolated emerge from adolescence more independent and self-sufficient than girls who have been accepted by others. Strong girls may protect themselves by being quiet and guarded so that their rebellion is known by only a few trusted others. (p 266)
Of course, that is a generalization about strong and smart girls and not true in every case. It’s funny, because I would have never viewed myself as being strong or my experience as a rebellion (though I was certainly angry about what I was observing and experiencing). I just felt invisible and left out and too anxious to approach others. But Pipher states more than once in her book that many actions and experiences felt by women (and others who view them) are misinterpreted to mean the opposite. “Strong girls are trying to make good choices, often without much help. All of this is so difficult that weak often looks strong and strong looks weak.” (p 267)
I also shut down when I am with women where I hear (or sense) critical statements about weight and appearance that is of such toxicity that I want to either run from the room or slap them silly. Sometimes it is outright, sometimes it is a vibe hidden in the body language and the conversation. I may not be conscious of it, but if I shut down and no longer feel safe to express myself, I know that I’m not in a good space. The merciless scrutiny, the comparisons, the underlying secretive competition. I don’t want to become a part of it. Many women are so focused on their own appearance that they have lost all sense of self-worth beyond what they look like and whether people are looking at them. What I need to work on is not blaming the women, but our culture.
If I got caught up in conforming to cliques or desperately trying to attain the cultural ideal of beauty or being female, I would have been utterly lost to myself. I would have been vacant, an object of others, painfully carving myself into something I’m “supposed” to be, prone to unbelievably destructive forces. Self-esteem based on the whims of others is a foundation made of sand- a nasty set up. Yet there is so little available to women to be able to define the self any other way. The enormity of this issue is more crucial and dire today than ever.
I am not immune to these influences, for sure. But some part of me (with self-preservation instincts and access to the on/off switch) seems to know that as painful as it is to be isolated, it is better than participating fully. How liberating to think that it could mean I am strong.
Aug 20th 2006Hearing loss & Introspection