‘The Stories that Shape us’

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.best

‘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. 

all things quiet

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).

lynne-at-school-photo

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. 

img_2757

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. 

we-hold-the-rights-to-the-screenplay-of-our-own-lives-and-one-else-can-write-that-script

Time to start re-writing!

Christmas blessings,

Lynne X

Advertisements

The Cloak of Invisibility

Do I existDon’t you love it when weird things happen to you, and you look back and realise that hidden amongst the weirdness, life was telling you a bigger story?   A MUCH bigger story.
And you keep reading, because you don’t know exactly where the story is going or how it will end. Does that sound familiar?

Have you ever been so suddenly freaked by something that your heart started kicking inside you like a bucking horse and you literally felt your blood run cold?
It’s an awful feeling. As if your body has a will and mind of its own, and it wants out of there!   Fast.

It’s only happened to me twice.

The first time was when I was a child, and I thought I’d seen a ghost.

The second time (the one I’m going to tell you about here) was a few years ago, when I thought I’d become one!

This is what happened:

It was a very ordinary day and I was out shopping in my local department store.
I went to visit the Ladies Powder Room to use the facilities (as you do). There was a sign on the door informing us that the facilities were closed due to redecoration, but that we could use the ladies staff toilet on the ground floor instead. I duly made my way there.

The horror began to unfold once I exited the cubicle.

I washed my hands at the wash hand basin then glanced up as always at the mirror in front of me in order to tidy my hair and make-up.
That’s when my heart went ballistic and my mind turned to candy floss.

I had no reflection.

You could see RIGHT through me!

There was the reflection of the cubicle behind me, and the reflection of the wash hand basin in front of me, but of me? Nothing.

I felt sick. My legs turned to jelly. My stomach lurched downwards like a broken elevator. I can’t for the life of me tell you how long I stood there staring paralysed with horror and disbelief, desperately willing my reflection to appear. It can’t have been that long, but it felt like a lifetime.

Had the whole of my life been a dream, some sort of alternative universe, and I didn’t really exist?   How long had I been invisible? Could anyone see me?  How had this happened?  And even worse than this ‘existential horror’ was the creeping realisation:

WASN’T IT VAMPIRES THAT HAD NO REFLECTION?

Right then, just on cue, a staff member casually strolled in and seeing my obviously stricken face remarked,

‘Oh, it’s alright! They all do that, lovey. There’s no mirror there!’

Feeling excruciatingly sheepish, I looked again with a hard, practical stare. Reality was slowly seeping back and with it, a sharp sense of focus.

Sure enough, the room was a mirror image of itself. Cubicles pressed up against facing walls, and back to back wash-hand basins in a row across the middle of the room. No mirrors. No ghosts.

Phew!!

Overwhelming relief and deep embarrassment ensued in equal measure.  I abandoned the rest of my shopping list for the day and went home to hide under the duvet!

But then I started thinking….
or more truthfully, that inner narrative started unspooling in my head. Connections began to form and the bigger story began to write itself…

And this, dear reader, is ‘The Bigger Story.’..

Isn’t that’s just what it feels like sometimes as an introvert in an extrovert world..
..that we’re invisible? That we don’t exist? That no one can truly see us as we really are?

…..or perhaps more specifically, that WE don’t really know who we are, or what we look like…..there’s a problem not only with feeling invisible, but with knowing our own identity, and recognising, embracing it?

Bear with me if this all seems a bit fluffy and philosophical….

In the world of psychology, we now know that in order for children to develop healthy self-esteem and  a sense of their own identity and uniqueness, their parents or care-givers need to ‘mirror’ back to them as infants, that ‘they are lovely, and loved, just as they are’,  so that this knowledge and acceptance of themselves as ‘ok’, (albeit not perfect), becomes part of the child’s psychological DNA and helps them to be resilient and confident in the world, knowing who they are.

Mirrors are important.

What reflects back to us from others….and from the world out there, in some ways creates who we then become.

But it isn’t just parents and care-givers who act as mirrors.  it’s our culture and its unspoken biases and expectations as well.

Which brings us back to introverts…..

What if, instead of that ideal affirming mirror, you have a critical cultural mirror, that reflects back to you that you don’t meet the standard…
Or a silent mirror, that leaves you feeling ignored or sidelined … Invisible.
Or a distorted mirror, like the ones at fairgrounds, that makes you look ‘weird’, an object of ridicule?

What happens then?

You might feel you have to try and change. Not be yourself, but be like someone else, someone more extroverted, in order to be accepted…. To do that though, you first have to get rid of who you really are. The result of doing that could be that you’re not too sure of yourself, or the decisions you make. You might have a sense that you don’t really know who you are now.  You might feel that there’s something wrong with you. That you’re not ‘ok’.  It would be very hard to walk confidently in the world if you were always having to look at yourself through those kind of mirrors!

This may not be as far fetched as it seems…. This feels like an issue not just at the level of family dynamics, but of the wider social dynamic too. The mirrors that society has held up to introverts over the last few generations have not been helpful, either to introverts or to society as a whole, and that has to change.

These cultural mirrors might have less of an impact if you were accepted and nurtured as an introvert within your family. That would make you more resilient to the societal bias. However, cultural values affect and steer family values too, and families have to rub along in society….so it’s unlikely, if you’re one of life’s quiet people, that you’ve been totally unaffected.

So now for a little experiment… I’m going to be doing this, and I’m going to post up the results in the next blog post (Yay!).  I’d really like it though if you’d join me. It’s not hard, or time consuming (much). In fact, I think it’s quite a fun thing to do. Maybe that just makes me a little bit nutty!

But if you want to have a go, select four people. They can be work colleagues, neighbours, friends….but try and make sure they don’t know you really well, or are all card-carrying introverts, or they’ll guess what you’re up to and skew the results. This isn’t world class research, but it’ll tell you something interesting nonetheless.

Ask them to write down the first four adjectives that come to mind when they hear the word ‘introvert’. Don’t let them ponder it for too long…it’s first impressions! Collect them all, and see what you’ve got.

See you back here next time…  Can’t wait!

Blessings,

Lynne. X