Do you ever hear something or read something and think to yourself, wow, that is something I really need to think about? I read something just this morning that had that effect on me.
I am reading the autobiography of singer Carole King, A Natural Woman. Excellent book, so far. I'm so glad I grabbed it off the New Books shelf at the library yesterday.
Here's what she wrote, that I am thinking about:
"Some psychologists believe that everyone has an underlying thought that drives them - a sentence repeated in a person's subconscious like a mantra. It might be "Notice me!" or "Don't hurt me!" or "Nothing good ever happens, and if it does, it won't happen to me."
I remember reading something similar to this years ago, and thinking, I've got to stop running this tape in my head, this conscious thought process that goes something like "You're short, fat, and ugly, and nobody will ever love you."That was my self-punishing tape that popped out every time I went out with somebody and he rejected me, or when I compared myself to other women my age, or sometimes just when I looked in the mirror and fretted over my short, fat legs and big butt.
A friend of mine wrote me a long letter when we were seniors in high school because she was upset with me, and she said "You will never be happy unless you get married and have children." I cried a long time after reading that. For years, I thought she was right. And of course my father liked to say over and over how he wished he had grandchildren - which I took at face value and as a jibe about my unmarried state. No matter how much I struggled to be hopeful, I kept hearing
"You're short, fat, and ugly, and nobody will ever love you."
So that self-defeating tape in my head played on, for years and years. No matter how much I dieted and worked out, how many ways I fixed my hair, how funny I was, or how clever, I never got the guy and the house in the suburbs and the babies I wanted. I felt a crushing sense of panic throughout my late 30's and I know my sheer desperation must have scared off many a nice guy I went out with in those years.
Finally, I actually stopped those horribly negative thoughts, by a sheer act of will. Then I began to be able to accomplish things in my life. I started really making more friends. I adopted my kids. I wrote screenplays, poetry, and books.
What I'm describing was not an overnight thing, though. It was a slow process, and a painful one. I look back on some of the things I did and/or said, in my 20's and 30's and the memories make me cringe. One of the few benefits of getting older is the ability to see things with a clearer eye.
The minute I read that quote in the Carole King book, I thought to myself, I wonder what my children have looping in their heads all the time? [I asked Michael and he said he has no tape loop.]
My daughter has never thought she had any worth or value. Her learning disability was not understood in Russia, and teachers made it clear they thought she was an idiot. The other kids nicknamed her something like "the dirty one" in the orphanage. When she went in to bathe or shower it was terrifying because the other girls would often turn off the lights while she was naked and alone. I think she might have been beaten up in the bathroom, too. It took me quite a while to get her over those old fears. In fact I would sit in the bathroom with her while she showered, for the first 6 months or so that she was home.
I think that when you have a deeply held belief that you are not as good as everyone else, there can be many consequences, but the two that I am most familiar with are the ones I've observed in myself and my daughter.
She thinks, because in her orphanage the Russian girls were taught this, that the way to be happy is to simply find a man, grab onto him, and get him to support you. You reward him with slavish devotion. Thus the sight of little 13-15 year old girls in heavy makeup and provocative clothing becomes understandable.
Of course, I preached the opposite message. I told Alesia she needed an education and a marketable job skill so she could choose a boyfriend wisely, not out of need. When you choose out of desperation it never works. She clearly didn't believe me. I only had a few years to try and undo her first 13 years of conditioning.
She may have looked at me as far less than a stellar role model for the single woman. Overweight, working in a cubicle all day, dependent on my mother for financial help, never wearing fashionable clothes or makeup - I was not the picture of a glamorous single chick AT ALL.
She used to stare quizzically at the photos around the house of me in past years when I was skinny and dressed well and wore makeup. I could never really get her to understand that despite appearances, I was not very happy most of the time during those years.
Being sick the last 10 days or so has brought back some negative thoughts. I am still a bit hoarse. I had a coughing spell last night that prevented me from sleeping, for a while. I also overdid the housework yesterday and my back was killing me last night when I went to bed.
I am feeling 75, not 50.
And yet, I have been in much tougher spots in life and turned things around, by not letting the bad thoughts rule my life. It helps to have understanding friends. It helps to have my mom around to prop me up emotionally. It helps to have a strong faith in God. It helps that I get great joy from being Michael's mama. It helps to be able to write about my feelings every day. Those things are the underpinnings of my life that make it always bearable, and sometimes downright joyful.
So although I am still short, fat, and not too attractive, I have lots of folks who love me. I have basically a good life. It's not perfect. I have the same anxieties as most folks - health, money, job. But I KNOW I an a worthwhile person. I know I am blessed.
I pray constantly for my daughter to be able to locate and claim that same peace of mind. Her life has been so much more difficult than mine ever was, but my constant hope and prayer for her is that I want her to develop that grace to let go and accept the love of others, and to see herself through their loving eyes, not the pain of the past.
It's OK to remember the past, to grieve that pain, and to have the occasional pity party. It's not OK to keep listening to that old mantra of worthlessness and self-loathing. You accomplish NOTHING by holding onto those beliefs. You can waste years of your life doing that.
I want to say to her, if you can't quite believe in God right now, OK. Believe in LOVE. Believe that no matter how far away you are, or what you do, I love you and I always will. I don't love out of obligation, or pity, but because YOU ARE A WONDERFUL PERSON AND SO WORTH LOVING.