Lately I have been combing my memories looking back at my childhood for instances that gave me cause to start putting on the armour that I wear. I saw a new therapist for the first time on Saturday, and Cheryl listened patiently to me ramble on, with no clarity of why I was really there, other than a sense that I need some help navigating the quagmire that I currently find myself in. It reminds me a lot of the scene in Lord of the Rings where Bilbo and Sam are trying to make their way through the swamp of the dead, and Gollum keeps telling them not to look down, and hurry up so they don't end up there forever. Right now, it kind of feels like my journey is stuck in that swamp, caught between what I am discovering, and the destination (at this point unknown).
For a long time, probaby as long as I can remember, I have been very insecure. I was an awkward kid, with Howdy Doody orange hair (adults commented and kids teased) glasses, and a head that hadn't grown big enough to fit my ears. I remember getting called "goggles piizano", "big ears", "carrot top" all of which seem pretty trivial to me now, but back then it was anything but. My therapist told me that children develop their sense of who they are between the ages of three and twelve, and I definitely would have internalized that I wasn't cool, wasn't good enough, wasn't a lot of things during those formative years. She also said that those years are when kids start to self protect, and I definitely did those things, namely started putting on the armour and the persona built around the act of "I don't care what anyone thinks".
My indifference was almost universal. While I knew I was smart, I also quickly came to an understanding that being too smart only invited ridicule from my peers as well, so I stopped trying, and started to coast, an unfortunate habit that has dogged me my entire life. Unless of course, someone could inspire me, and then I would go all in. I had a teacher in Grade Six, Mr. Norton, who found a way to inspire me, and frankly our whole class. He made us feel so smart, he told us we were smart, he tapped into something that made me want to try, to give it my all. I remember him teaching us about base 5 math - he told us that it was the math he was teaching to his university students. It was the only year during my primary eduction that I got honours. After Grade Six I went back to not caring. That pattern of not caring took me through eleven years of univsity culminating with a degree in Law. Sounds strange now, but looking back I see how much more I could have gleaned from my many years of attending school, if I had just allowed myself to care about the process a bit more.
Not caring was a great coat of armour, thick and strong enough to protect me from the hurt of rejection. Not fitting in was a pretty common theme of my life, and yet that is all I wanted to do. I tried so hard (too hard) and as a result came off desparate most of the time, which isn't a very endearing quality. I was always too intense, too talkative, too verbal. Even the seed of becoming a lawyer was planted early on, as I was always talking and arguing, and being told I would make a good lawyer when I grew up.
I retreated into books, I read voraciously as a kid, often staying up until three in the morning reading books (crazy big books) like Roots, Shogun, and all kinds of fantasy novels. What kind of twelve year-old reads Roots? Don't get me wrong, from the outside my life looked pretty normal, pretty average for a kid growing up in rural Alberta. I liked motobikes and horses, I was a cowboy in the making. But what I am beginning to realize now is that I wanted desperately to fit in, to be popular, to not be the kid that everyone mocked, to not be the kid that was laughed at.
The shame associated with those formative years, appears to be the thing I have to deal with now, at the age of forty-nine. My therapist told me, in a very matter-of-fact way that I am essentially emotionally paralyzed from the neck down. In other words, I just don't know how to relate on an emotional level, as I learned early on that living in my head hurts way less. And she is right. I have cultivated an identity over decades that is built around my brain. I am quick, combative, fearless, impulsive, intimidating, reckless, confident, brash, at times a bully, relentless (I have been called a Bull in a China shop more than once). All of which I have worn proudly, like the boy scout that I once was. Becoming an expert in coffee, wine, cooking (sort of) all of which gave me a sense of importance. Being perceived as fearless, an entrepreneur, someone unafraid to take risks is all part of the act too. I am beginning to see that a lot of it is just performance, and my body belies the act. While I may appear to be completely in charge, my body deals with the stress through intense perspiration, my armpits are like fountains whenever I am stressed, and lately it takes far less to stress me out.
So I am learning is that all of this has kept me from allowing the real me to see the light of day. The vulnerable, scared, insecure kid with bright orange hair and big ears, has been locked up all these years. I locked him up, because I was tired of the pain and the shame, and I opted instead to be the confident, dauntless Poul, that most people see today. Brene Brown talks about self compassion as a critical element of being wholehearted. I think that part of this journey will require me to look the awkward twelve year-old in the face and tell him that I like him, actually love him; although right now, I think I may still be embarrassed by him (obviously something that still needs work).
I have no idea where this is going to lead. While intellectually I understand what my therapist says when she tells me I am emotionally paralized, I have no idea what learning to use the rest of my emotional body looks like, let alone how to actuate it. The only time I cry now, is during movies, perhaps because it is dark, or it is safe, but it is the one place in my life where the emotions actually bubble to the surface. Sometimes so much so that even my son will notice it and ask "dad were you crying" with a quizacal look on his face. So I know that I have emotions, and occassionally they are allowed to surface. Truthfully the whole prospect scares me. I don't know what my life will look like without my armour. I don't know what my life will be like when I open the vault that keeps my emotions in check. What I do know is that I am tired of living the lie of "I don't care what people think" and look forward to retiring from my acting career, and settling into a place where I can just be myself. Until then, I will keep walking the dog and listening to thoughtful people. Turns out that my therapist lives in my neighbourhood and has a dog named Charlie too. Too bad I couldn’t just do sessions while walking the dog, it would be way cheaper, LOL.