. . . aka MY FAVORITE LIE
I feel I was a cherished child. My 1950’s post-war parents exemplified the classic norms of the era: Dad worked while Mom stayed home to raise us kids. As the oldest, I believe I got the best Mom had to offer. She was a kind and nurturing parent and a positive role model. She made me feel good about myself through praise and by letting me know in countless ways that I was worthy, smart and strong. Inevitably I suppose I felt compelled to please her and maintain my stellar image in her eyes.
And so it began; I started lying to myself. It seems Mom’s characterization of me as being “strong” took on a life of its own. Throughout my life I defined and redefined what strength meant to me, first within our family, later among friends, and finally as a woman. For reasons I am at a loss to identify, strength became equivalent in my mind to my ability to restrain my emotions. Of course all emotions are not equal, I thought. The “good” emotions- affection, love, sympathy, happiness- were safe to feel and display, as long as my behavior was acceptable to my family and myself. The “bad” emotions- anger, fear, sadness- were to be kept inside as much as possible. Since doing so is impossible, my tears, rants and rages became an embarrassment, a source of shame. They didn’t fit my definition of a strong woman.
So “I’m okay!” became my talisman, my little gold nugget representing the lie I told myself every time Life frowned my way.
Many signs over the years suggested my supposedly innocuous self-deceit was causing me problems. Acquaintances often pointed out that it was hard to get to know me. Once they did, some said I was cold, while others thought I was “too nice.” Many said it seemed I always had a smile on my face. Well! I concluded others just didn’t “get me!” Self-deceit runs deep.
Flash forward through LIFE: nursing, anesthesia, and anthropology studies; the deaths and dying of both parents; divorces; the excruciating death of my first grandchild; unavoidable life changes too numerous to mention. I WAS NOT OKAY! But I didn’t know what to do about it or how to change things. Making lemonade from Life’s lemons still seemed to be the best, most honorable, STRONG way to proceed. I struggled to keep my emotions tucked securely inside while showing only what I deemed appropriate. So why was I unhappy and dissatisfied???
While no particular event was a “light bulb moment,” certain insights began niggling at my well-fortified self-concept. Perhaps my strength is a delusion, I considered. Or maybe my definition of strength was overdue for revision. I finally concluded both were in need of deeper examination. In any case, invoking “I’m okay!” wasn’t working for me because it was a lie. I realized I had short-circuited the process of becoming okay by declaring to myself I was already there. I had ignored all the work necessary to emotionally achieve the goal to which I aspired.
At an early point in my nursing career, I read a book by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who described the Five Stages of Grief in her book On Death and Dying. (1969) They are: (1) Denial (2) Anger (3) Bargaining (4) Depression (5) Acceptance. Over the years, those stages have been applied to how people grieve many forms of loss in their lives, including events such as: divorce; job loss; major life changes; cultural changes; self-perception changes. Though each of us experiences change/loss in different ways, the key point is that grieving is a process which takes time. I finally realized “I’m okay!” is the end of the process. To put it at the beginning is not only delusional, it is asking too much of myself. The emotions in the middle cannot and should not be buried. But grieving is painful! Yet once I acknowledged my fear of grieving I found it to be informative and surprisingly refreshing! Hiding hurts worse than facing the fear.
It sounds like I’ve learned my lesson, but the lesson itself is a process. A lifetime of using my talisman as a coping mechanism can’t be changed with mere insight; it must be practiced to create a new perspective. Hopefully the positive benefits from a new perspective will be reinforced through consistent use. Then eventually, I will probably be okay!