“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” — Brené Brown
I have wrestled with myself about writing this post for several months now. It is unspeakably close to my heart. It is my heart.
Something inside has been pushing me to tell it, and other forces close it off again.
However, recently, I read an article by Becoming Minimalist author, Joshua Becker, called “The Stories We Don’t Tell”, and it struck a chord. In the post, he writes,
“… unfortunately, too often, we withhold stories from our own lives that could benefit others. The stories are not pretty. Otherwise, we would have already told them. But they have a place in our society and in our conversations with the people closest to us.”
He is so right. I have thought it for a long time. I preach it in workshops that I teach about suicide prevention. It is imperative that we allow ourselves to talk about the ugliness that keeps us from living our fullest lives. Talking about it makes space for healing and for who we are truly meant to be.
So this is my story. I have only told it to three trusted souls in this world. And now, I’m sharing it with you.
I will attempt to tell it with the kind of courage I don’t always feel.
We all have that little voice inside our heads. The one that tells us what we think, what we feel, and what each one means. It took me a long time to figure out that my little voice does not always know what it’s talking about it, and that sometimes it steers me very, very wrong.
For years, the internal conversations I had dealt more in questions than answers: Why don’t I have friends like other people? Why do I seem to make people uncomfortable? Is that real, or do I project that onto them? Why am I always uncomfortable around other people? Why can I be comfortable and confident in professional settings and feel like a social misfit after work hours? In short…
What’s wrong with me?
All those questions – and the negative feelings they dredged up – came to a head a few years ago when a light bulb went on. Maybe there really was something diagnostically wrong with me. I thought – correctly or not – that if I could figure out what was wrong that I could learn strategies to deal with it. I also thought it might help others be more understanding of my awkwardness.
Unbeknownst to those closest to me, I began a sort of quest, thinking through and researching what my problem might be.
I had read a story about a couple who saved their marriage when the wife was reading an autism questionnaire and realized that many of the items listed were things about her husband that she found most frustrating. They went on to diagnose his autism and found understanding as well as strategies so she could help him cope with his adult autism.
I went online and found a simple Autism Questionnaire. According to the quiz, I was not autistic. However, I strongly related to several of the statements on the quiz. They were things that I had long found frustrating, such as my extreme discomfort with small talk and light social chit chat as well as my complete lack of understanding as to when it is my turn to talk on the phone (I loathe talking on the phone and avoid it whenever possible.).
Later, I remembered a man I knew who had Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). He had quit his job to pursue a different career that dealt with fewer people. On the rare occasions he attended social events, he needed to leave early when things got overwhelming. Those behaviors rang true in my heart, and I found another quiz online about Social Anxiety Disorder. Long story short, while I am deeply uncomfortable in a lot of social situations, I don’t suffer any severe anxiety or panic as a result. I am not likely to be diagnosed with SAD.
I realized I was not wrong, just different.
During these periods of looking for a diagnosis, I slowly began to change the language I was using to describe myself. My challenges were not what was wrong with me, nor is there anything wrong with people who are autistic or have SAD. My challenges were what made me different. They were why I felt as if I stuck out in the crowd.
It was yet another quiz that helped me learn the truth, one I had known for a long time though I did not fully understand it. It was like a light bulb going on after a list of twenty questions in a book called, Quiet, by Susan Cain.
Here is a video of Susan Cain’s TED talk to give you a taste of what her book is about:
In a world where extroversion is much more widely accepted, I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert. That might not seem like much of an affliction, and in fact it’s not. However, though I had known for years that I was introverted, I had not understood what it meant for me personally, professionally, or socially. Quiet – coupled with the understanding and acceptance that have grown out of it – have changed my life.
The biggest change is in how I talk about myself to myself. For example, graduation parties… I used to force myself to go. Leading up to the events, my internal voice practically chanted how socially awkward I was, how I would have no one to talk to, how the small talk would swallow me whole. Now, my internal conversation goes a lot more like this: “Monica, graduation parties really cause you a lot of stress. You don’t have to go to the party, and the young person will likely appreciate a card with a heartfelt message in it much more than the few minutes you might get to talk to them.”
There was nothing wrong with me at all. I simply needed to learn to work with myself, rather than pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
I’m still learning.
Most recently, I nearly passed up an opportunity to see an old and dear friend. My internal voice told me that I wouldn’t be enough fun and that I would find myself in some situations where my social awkwardness would ruin the night for me and for her. That little voice is a powerful and negative creature. However, the bottom line was… I really wanted to see my friend, and I knew enough to distrust the thoughts in my head. I believed it would be worth any amount of trouble to spend time with her.
And do you know what? We had dinner, just the two of us. After that, we went to a couple of places to check out the atmosphere and ended up in a quiet(ish) bar where we could talk and catch up and laugh. She’s the kind of friend that I feel completely natural with no matter how much time passes with between our visits. That’s the most important feeling, the one I need to remember when the little voice does its worst.
Maybe next time, I will have built up so much self-understanding and acceptance that I’ll have the courage to tell her what I need rather than leaving it to chance.
During my lowest time, I looked for help.
Several years ago, before I learned all of this, I was at an all-time low in my thoughts and feelings about myself. Instead of finding a psychiatrist, I sought the help and guidance of a life coach, the friend of a friend. I was not sure what I would learn or even how the process would help me. I just knew I needed help.
The experience with my life coach is a blog post for another day. However, I mention it here as it was the start of something big. We did not directly discuss my social challenges, though I let her know it was a concern of mine. Instead, we discussed my interests, my goals, and my needs. Through the feedback she provided me and the discoveries I made about myself, I grew in confidence. I started my journey. My life coach would be the first to tell you I did the work of it myself. And I would tell you, it was so important to have her support in those first major steps.
Among other things, the quiz-taking adventure I described above grew out of the goals I set with my coach. And without the understanding and acceptance I have developed, I would not have had the confidence to overcome several challenges, start my novel, or this blog, or take any of a number of other positive steps I have taken toward my overall well-being.
“We have to not only get space from the self-critical mind, but also encourage the positive beliefs about ourselves that the critical mind has buried.” – Elisha Goldstein
My sincere wish for each of you this holiday season and the coming year is that you know you are not alone in your struggles, come to understand yourself, find acceptance for who you are, and develop the confidence to live your fullest life.
Happy holidays (whatever you celebrate)! Much love, and thanks for reading.