It’s nearly Christmas! Time for mulled wine, mince pies, twinkling lights and time to retell the greatest story ever told – the coming of the child who is King and Lord of all.
As a child, I loved stories. I still do.
‘Story’ was the most exciting word ever – more than toys (or Christmas) or sweets!
I loved new stories, especially stories about overcoming incredible odds. (‘The Silver Sword’. ‘The Incredible Journey’).
And I loved to make up and write my own stories too. (They weren’t so incredible!)
I’m babysitting. My granddaughter brings me a pile of books, asks me to read a bedtime story. The conversation goes like this:
‘Me: ‘This one?’ (Hopefully)
Granddaughter: ‘No, that’s not the right one!’ (Tosses book aside)
Me: ‘Is this the right one?’ (More hopefully)
Granddaughter: (Thinking) ‘Mmmm….No!’ (Clearly not Granny!)
Me: ‘How about this one. Is this the right story?’ (Third time lucky??)
Granddaughter: ‘Yes! That’s my right story!’ (Relief!)
There is a ‘right story’ about each of us….
The stories we hear about ourselves when young, in some sense define us. They may inform who we then become. If these stories major on problems and weaknesses, (without the story arc that ends with overcoming) … then ‘our story’ can become a damaging road map. Sometimes the stories we inherit are just plain wrong, and we need to stop living from them, and learn a new story. A redemption story.
So, I’m going to say a bit about my story…. The one I inherited, and how I had to re-write it.
My story starts here …
Most of my life I’ve believed there was something intrinsically wrong with me.
Not physically – but something wrong in my brain, some ‘glitch’ that meant I took things in too slowly. Took too long to learn and process things. I believed I had a ‘stupid gene’.
There’s a reason I believed this…
When I was eight years old, I was pulled out of my school class to be assessed by the first of three child psychologists. Up until this point I had been fairly happy at school.
I was quiet, a bit of a daydreamer, but I had friends and I liked sitting with them up against the playground fence and making up stories. I was doing ok (or so I thought).
Then they rolled in the first child psychologist.
I remember that he wore a dark suit, and looked a bit like a crow. I felt scared.
He asked me the difference between 18 and 30.
I told him that they were two different numbers (astonished that he didn’t seem to know!). It didn’t go well from there….
My parents were called in, told I ‘wouldn’t amount to much’ and that the school would be moving me to the ‘remedial stream’. (It was called something more brutal back then).
They moved me the very next day. I stopped talking, curling back in on myself. Suddenly, the world seemed a frightening place, where I had no voice, no control, except to remain silent. So I did.
I was saved only by the fact that my parents refused to believe what they were told without a second opinion, so they engaged two further sets of psychologists – nice, friendly ones this time.
I remember going to be assessed at an old red-bricked Georgian house, windows festooned with copper-red Virginia Creeper, manfully trying to grow through the cracks in the brickwork.
I liked this psychologist. He pretended to sharpen his finger in the rotary pencil sharpener on his desk. I asked whether the Virginia Creeper was really a triffid. (I’d heard ‘The Day of the Triffids’ on the car radio).
We did puzzles and picture recognition cards and he eventually reported back that there was nothing wrong with me, that the school were doing me incalculable harm, and that I should be withdrawn immediately, and sent somewhere smaller and quieter where there would be
… Less pressure to perform.
… Less competition to be heard.
I was enrolled in a small village school, and so began the long journey back to confidence, hugely helped by the quieter, smaller environment and some focused attention. I began to succeed, more than succeed. I did very well. My confidence grew, and I found out, when the pressure was off, that I loved to learn.
However, what never left me, all the way through high school and university, and on to work, was that gnawing, malignant fear, that one day, that as-yet-undiagnosed flaw would re-emerge, and I’d be exposed as a fraud.
I believed that I had to work harder than everyone else, not to do well, but just to keep up.
If I slacked off, I’d be back there in remedial, where no one could hear me scream.
Any love of learning was almost sucked dry by performance anxiety and drivenness.
I didn’t know this poisonous cocktail of feelings had a name. It was years before I heard of Imposter Syndrome. I assumed everyone else felt as confident as they seemed. Shame meant I kept my feelings hidden.
My confusion and lack of confidence around my own ability meant that despite gaining a 1st class Honours degree, and even being offered an Oxbridge scholarship, I walked away from many opportunities I might have had, because my ‘story’ told me they weren’t for me.
I’d always wanted a family, so when my children came along, I threw myself happily into a world filled with dressing up boxes and kiddies’ stage plays, trips to the library and museums, morning swim times and kitchen tables covered with craft glue and tissue paper. It was my safe place, as well as theirs.
When my quiet daughter started school, my safe haven fell apart.
Almost from the start, I was having to defend her right to be quiet and still be ‘OK’.
I was constantly having to reframe stories of her as ‘withdrawn’ and ‘uncommunicative’ in terms of her need to have quiet, uninterrupted thinking time; space for her imagination to work amidst the hubbub of the classroom.
Almost from the start, marched in the recommendations for assessment: Maybe she had hearing problems? Maybe she suffered from petit mal or some form of autism?
I fielded them all, inwardly screaming.
I knew my child.
Outside of school, she could be deliciously quirky and funny, sensitive and perceptive. Inside school, these ‘queries’ made her uncertain of herself.
I found myself looking backwards into a mirror.
I knew I was losing perspective. Plunging into a dark, familiar place.
I found a good counsellor to talk to, who taught me that my fears were ‘phantoms’ from my own past, that my daughter was NOT me, she was her own person and that in any case she had me and others to lead, guide and protect her, should she need that. I had to deal with my anxiety so that I didn’t contaminate her with it.
That, of course, was just the beginning. My daughter (and my other children) have grown up to be strong, loving and (it seems to me) fearless and assured adults.
What my daughter and I have in common is that we are both introverts.
Not always quiet, or necessarily shy. Certainly not anti-social. But often observing life from the sidelines first before we plunge in.
I was no stranger to introversion. I’d done Myers Briggs. I thought I knew all there was to know about introversion and its ramifications. But I was wrong.
Recent findings in neuroscience research, cited in Marti Olsen Laney’s ‘The Introvert Advantage’ reveal that the differences between introverts and extroverts are not simply at the behavioural level.
They are hard wired into our brain circuitry.
Introverts ‘need to reach back into long term memory to retrieve information. This requires reflection time without pressure’, because we use a different neurotransmitter to extroverts (acetylcholine rather than dopamine) and this requires a longer neural pathway. Introverts then (particularly right-brained introverts) can seem, on first acquaintance, slow. Stupid even.
I know now that as an introvert I am hard wired to need time to process information. That and the tendency to shut down when overstimulated or in noisy environments, daydreaming and being often content to sit back and listen provided the perfect storm of symptoms that set the wheels in motion for a psychological assessment that pathologised my introversion.
I’ve made peace with myself now. There is no undiagnosed fatal flaw.
No longer will I let others’ stories of me define who I am, however ‘qualified’ they may be. I’ve learnt (like my granddaughter) to choose the ‘right’ story…. My story.
And so can you.
We hold the rights to the screenplay of our own lives, and no one else can write that script.
Time to start re-writing!