My friend and former therapist, Bernard, once told me that being excluded from belonging to a group, to the rest of humanity, is what all people fear most. Bernard is a really special person, and I really admire and respect him. I add to his claim, and I am pretty sure he would agree with me, that we all contain within our hearts the desire to live from our true selves. The fear of being excluded, the feelings of shame that we are not worthy of love, and also the fear of showing how vulnerable we really are motivate the lives and choices of all people around the world and also drive politics, crime, culture, and just about everything else.
When I was a little girl, I lived close inside a protective shell, inside and out. I mostly liked to pretend that I was invisible, and I practiced this thought and feeling until I almost succeeded. I didn’t understand that my parents were so insecure that they could not encourage, love, protect, or nurture their own children. I did not know until recently, really, how fragile they were and how destructive their narcissistic wounds could be for myself, my brother, and my sister. I grew up feeling afraid, ashamed of myself, hating myself really. In a quiet way, I was very self-destructive too. I felt terribly lonely, and I withdrew into myself, into the dark corners of my imagination, for comfort. There were periods I could not find comfort there, but I learned to listen for the voice of my authentic self, and this is what ultimately saved me, kept me from killing myself. I have spent most of my life striving, just to survive, wishing I could find the blessing of my family…to get things right so that I could also somehow also belong and not be alone anymore.
The most terrible of all was the choice I ultimately had to make, for my own survival. It was a choice that no one should be forced into, and yet, I knew that when the time came, this is what I would do. I did not know that I would feel alone, and lonely, for the rest of my life because of this choice.
When I was about ten years old, I realized that my mother would not allow me to pursue my own life, my own dreams. My father would not support me either. They wanted all of their children to fail, to never become better or more successful than they were. They were that insecure. They neglected us physically, but also morally. We grew up feeling that no one would ever care for us or about us. That we were without intrinsic worth. In spite of this constant isolation – no friends, no social activities, we each had to find a way to survive and perhaps to thrive. The twisted contract my mother created was this: never be yourself, never strive to be in a relationship with anyone else but me, never develop your talents or individuality other than what I permit you to do, and I will give you my love and support. If you refuse to do exactly what I want, then you are dead to me and to the family. You no longer belong. We hate you. I had to choose between belonging and being myself. And even at 14, I knew that this is what it would come to and what I would choose.
When I was a junior in high school, my mother decided suddenly and autocratically, as always, that I would leave high school without finishing my senior year, and go to college early. I would go to the art school where she went, in Baltimore, and I would not pursue my own dream to go to the Art Institute of Chicago. Little did I know at that point that my mother had already crushed my desire to write by supplanting it in my own young mind by her own desire of my becoming a visual artist. It seemed as if being myself was an impossible dream. Yet, at that time of my life, I still thought that being a painter was my own dream, and I was ready and willing to fight for it. I did not want to go to my mother’s alma mater, but she yelled and threatened, and my father refused to stick up for me. I had no means of making a living myself yet, and so I reluctantly went along with the plan, but in my mind, I was already planning my get-away. By my junior year, I figured out a way to transfer my credits for a year abroad in Paris, France. I didn’t yet know that once I left for France (and I still don’t know why my mother let me go), that I was cutting my cord of belonging to my nuclear family. Later on, my mother said to me that I was dead to her.
The point of my sharing this part of my story is this: We all harbor terrible wounds and feelings of fear, shame, and vulnerability. Most human beings doubt that we are each intrinsically lovable. Some people feel that they have to accomplish great careers and achievements in order to be worthy of love. Others go through painful plastic surgery in order to reorder their body image into something they thing will garner more love and respect, and bring the happiness that belonging is supposed to make us feel. All of us struggle to some degree with feeling ashamed of who we are, how we look.
Our culture and political system are built on a hierarchy that excludes the poor and that is built on fear, which leads to anger, hatred, disengagement, and violence. So many people feel that they are just not good enough as they are. It is so hard to be in a relationship if you can’t show up and just be yourself without punishing the other person because it is so hard to be open and vulnerable. Many punish themselves and deprive their own hearts from living authentically by playing games, manipulating, deceiving – protecting themselves from the pain of feeling how ashamed they are, how unworthy they feel of love. Living wholeheartedly, being emotionally available are goals worth pursuing, goals which, if achieved, would solve the problems of terrorism, domestic violence, child abuse, social inequality, and so much more. So why are people not yet choosing to live in such a way? Why do we still feel so ashamed? Why do we shame our children, our co-workers, employees, students, spouses? Don’t we all just want to be loved for our true self?
The truth is, it takes great courage to be vulnerable. You have to be brave to look inside yourself and admit to your own fears. It is painful to feel lonely and alone, but we all do want to belong. The thing is, how can we belong to anything if we are not being our authentic selves? Is it worthwhile to feel like we belong if we are sacrificing aspects of ourselves that make us the unique and wonderful beings that we are? Belonging and being authentic don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I have lived my whole life feeling lonely because I don’t know how to belong, and because I don’t want to sacrifice my true self to the demands of the group. Most people sacrifice their true self to the peer pressure created by the group culture and lose themself somewhere along the way.
It is my hope and dream to help others gain awareness of the beauty of being human, of being true and vulnerable. It is not weakness, as so many believe, to be open-hearted. It requires great strength. And so, in this new year, I encourage each of you to be strong, especially when you feel fearful or uncomfortable. Growth is not easy, but all of humanity benefits when we care enough about ourselves to go easy on ourselves. When we let go of shame, we can stop shaming others. We can start appreciating our co-workers and stop judging them. We can stop the damage caused by perfectionism and enjoy our lives, simplifying and slowing down to appreciate the simple things in life. We miss so many wonderful details and the evanescent beauty of life when we are striving too hard.
You may be a victim of bullying at school, at home, in the work-place. You may have a parent who is an alcoholic, who abuses drugs, who is violent, or shut-down and uncaring. The world is full of beings who are in terrible pain, and who have shut down their ability to feel and be vulnerable. Taking the first step by caring for yourself will make a great difference. You may feel very lonely as you do so, because many will attack you when you have the courage to be vulnerable. Please don’t give up. Being vulnerable and open, being yourself is what will save the world and give a future worth living to our children. You are important, worthy of love, and you are not alone.