Self-examination is necessary, especially when related to your behavior. It’s the first step toward healing, toward change. I’ve been doing quite a bit of it lately. I’ve listed some of my most powerfully persistent behavioral issues below:
- I’ve always cared what people think about me. It’s a charming trait I inherited from my father. No matter how often I read the adage, “What others think about you is none of your business,” I can’t seem to not care.
- I’ve always had to be put together. You know, hair, clothes, shoes, etc. As consummately composed as possible. Even if I’m going for the disheveled look, it’s perfectly fashioned dishevelment.
- I’ve always striven to be in control. I might be the perfect embodiment of a control freak. Sometimes it takes a lot of deep breathing to hold myself together and maintain the constriction that control demands.
- I’ve never really been able to laugh at myself. An exception to this might be if I were in the presence of people I absolutely trusted. Even then it’s difficult for me and can often takes days after the laughable experience has happened. That’s probably because in my youth other people did the laughing…at me. I was a target of mockery, ridicule.
- I’ve always been my harshest critic. My mistakes are not learning experiences. To me, they are failures. And I’m constantly afraid to fail.
Ugh…my issues exhaust me.
As a child growing up in a conservative, Christian family in a small, conservative, Southern town, I couldn’t present myself in any way other than my idea of perfection. Perfection was my armor. Is my armor. But as you know, perfection doesn’t exist, and it only takes one person to knock you down when you’re feeling good about yourself.
When I was in high school, I had a pair of dress shoes that were trending, totally of the moment. They were concrete gray, sleek and long with a toe that was more pointed than round. They laced up with color coordinated gray laces. They had a brown dress shoe heel. I loved those shoes. But I often got mocked while wearing them.
I remember specifically an incident that happened on a bus ride to school one morning. A student who was a grade, maybe two, behind me in high school called them nurses shoes. They didn’t look like nurses shoes. Nothing about them said “nurse.” But he was a bully and making fun of my shoes was his way of belittling me.
I remember pretending the shoes had been purchased at Macy’s on some mythical trip to New York City. Buying them in New York City sounded more exciting. It was out of the norm. And somehow I thought this fabrication would change his opinion of the shoes…and me. In my mind, it provided a reason for why I would have shoes that were different from every other male, even though they were purchased in the same mall where any of my classmates could have picked up his own pair. The lie I told did nothing to change his opinion.
He took away the joy I felt from wearing those shoes. I let him. I was intimidated—paranoid—every time I wore them after that.
Thirty years later, I connect that experience to my present. I’m broadening the way I express myself every day. I’m very gender expansive, which includes wearing makeup, statement jewelry, and fabulous high heels. And there’s always a little part of me that’s on guard waiting for the bully to mock my shoes and in essence...me.
No matter how much I learn about myself—no matter how much I grow and change—my past affects me every day.
When your early life is lived constantly on guard, that guard remains somewhat raised for the rest of your life. It doesn't matter how strong and courageous and brave you become. It's there. I have to fight my inner demons every day to be proud of who I am, to be brave, to not be ashamed.
I continue to express myself as perfectly as I can because it’s a way for me to maintain control and to protect myself. I was the sissy, the faggot, the queer, the butt of the joke. As a boy in that small, conservative, Southern town, I learned that having a sense of style did nothing but draw attention to me--negative attention. And style wasn’t something for which to be praised. At least not by my peers.
Sometimes the elements we use for expression, e.g. clothes, makeup, shoes, jewelry, etc., are more than mere expressions. Sometimes they are armor.
I was recently struck by the lyric “I’m stronger than I feel” from the Miranda Lambert song “Keeper of the Flame.” I paused to wonder: Am I?
That high school bully should have no power over me now. I mean it’s not like he can make me feel shame for the shoes I like to wear. But I kind of hate him. And honestly, I kind of hate myself for being unable to truly feel the freedom I should feel. If you don’t endure something like that you have no idea what it’s like. You don’t know the shame. You don’t know the fear. You don’t feel the residual effects.
A few days ago I watched the extras on the DVD of the film The Shape Of Water. In one of those extras, the film’s director, Guillermo del Toro, said that he finds three things terrifying: order, certainty, and perfection. He goes on to say that the film’s “Richard Strickland" character represents all three of these things. What struck me about this commentary--as if his words had actually reached from my television screen and slapped me--was that del Toro said of those three things, “They are completely impossible. And they are the torture of our life. ‘Cause no human can be any of them.”
And here I am seeking order and perfection with a bit a certainty thrown in for spice--rigidly trying to hold myself together. Am I merely torturing myself? Let me change that from a question to a statement. I’m torturing myself.
There has to be a change. I know that. I also know it’s not going to be easy. I don’t even know how to begin. But that’s all part of life, right? You figure it out as you go. At least I’m aware, and that’s a step in the right direction. So, I’ve challenged myself to the following:
- Accept that I exist in a world where perfection does not. Therefore, I will never be perfect.
- Believe that mistakes are not failures and give myself the freedom to make them.
- Understand that laughing at myself frees me from the weight of my blunders.
- Trust in myself—I am stronger than I feel.
- Allow vulnerability to pierce my armor.
- Stop being my own bully.
My journey continues...