The Root of Belonging, Pt 1

So I have been inconsistently trying to write about belonging for the better part of a year. I had “finished” an essay, and my friend and mentor told me to break into parts because each paragraph was just scratching the surface of the story buried beneath.  I bring you the first part of my story of belonging.

I have struggled with belonging my entire life, and as a consequence, it contributed in undermining my self-confidence into virtually nothing over time. Growing up, there was nothing I wanted more than to belong. Even if it was just a little bit. That didn’t happen. I had a much better relationship with my teachers than students my own age. Kids are cruel, manipulative, and traitorous as we grow into our skin. And it can cut deep, and those cuts can last inflict a lifetime of psychological damage, if we let it. Once we recognize the hurt and identify some the reasons we hide ourselves; it is up to us to alleviate that pain and grow into our best selves. It is no longer our role to be a victim. It is our role and responsibility to be a badass survivor.

two-options

The myth of the society we live in is that vulnerability and emotion are to be avoided at all costs, especially in public. I have adhered to that rule for most of my life, until about five years ago when I started to realize my own self-worth. I am not sure where the idea of being emotional and vulnerable equated to being weak, but that is the point of view I adopted early on in my life. I do not remember any specific conversations, either directly or indirectly, taking place in my house growing up. It could be that I thought with all the added stress of growing up with a special needs sister that my social difficulties at school were of secondary importance in my mind. I do not know. This is what I do know; I used my distain for vulnerability to create an armor around myself, because not doing so made middle and high school indescribably painful. I had been hurt too many times by letting people know me. I wasn’t about to let anyone else penetrate my armor of protection. I would never let myself be vulnerable again. It simply led to being hurt.

For the rest of my middle school and high school life, to say I was withdrawn and introverted, would be an understatement. For the majority of my middle and high school life, I went to school, later work, and I came home. I would hibernate to my room to escape into the world of sports, music, reading, and writing poetry. I had two after-school activities I participated in, one in middle school and one in high school. I was baseball card club, which is just what it sounds like. Yes that was the actual name of the club, and I had started following sports obsessively to fill a void in my life. Baseball card club especially was a refuge to the self-imposed isolation of my life in middle school. I could just truly be me there, because it was a bunch of other displaced kids who loved baseball cards and sports as much as I did. I think many of us were outcasts. It was an escape from the cruelty that can be middle school, and allowed us to bond in a non-judgmental way that eluded many of us. I loved it, and I was truly devastated when I graduated middle school because it was my one tether to other kids who didn’t judge me for being socially awkward and shy.

teenage hero jolie

In high school, I joined an environmental group called Students for the Environment (SFE). It was a club comprised of like-minded students who were environmentally conscious that organized and promoted environmental causes. Until sophomore year of high school, I still felt pretty isolated and awkward in the group. I had a few friends a grade below me join the group, and I almost developed real friendship there for the first time in years. I felt relatively comfortable, and this bizarrely scared me back into my shell, when I became aware of the connection that was occurring. I realized I could get hurt again, and I pulled back my real self. We were still friends, but I hid my real self behind self-deprecation humor and put my vulnerability armor on. This ended up sabotaging the friendship to one of superficial nature. Ironically, the detachment hurt. Except it was my fault this time, and that was the first time that I realized maybe this armor wasn’t as effective as I had constructed it to be. I didn’t understand what had happened to the friendship until many years later. I didn’t understand it was ultimately my fault that my ever-present armor caused the friendship to collapse. That is how apprehensive I was about connection, and vulnerability. I sacrificed my first connection in years due to my fear of rejection, vulnerability, and to let people see and know me for whom I was.

The concept of finding a place and people where I could feel comfortable just being me was elusive until I was in my 30’s.   My beloved Garden Elite being the exception to that rule at Union County College. I owe that group more than I could ever explain because of their immediate acceptance of me. I struggled to find my tribe of belonging, and it hurt until I turned off the emotional intelligence part of my brain. These revelations have taken place over the past few years due to a wonderful therapist, self-reflection, and finally realizing that I am worth knowing all aspects of myself, and others do as well. I became to understand more of why I acted the way I do, and the underlining why. And it was and is not easy.  The proverbial cliche of peeling of an onion is really apropos, and I’ve been digging deep into a lot of issues resulting in a lot of layers being peeled.  None of this is easy, but it is worth it. That is for another essay that is forthcoming.

shall pass kidney stone

I discovered more of the equation of belonging in high school while discussing it with a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a few years. Every time we see each other, I realize how alike we are in many aspects. It is one of the those rare friendships that deepens over time, and it doesn’t matter how often we see each other. She has also struggled with belonging. We are both smart, definitely high on the nerd scale, had similar childhood backgrounds, and can be socially awkward. We tried clubs, activities, and eventually I gave up in high school except for SFE. I ended up working a lot. She was much braver than I was, and did a variety of after school activities that I am still in awe of. I didn’t know much about this until recently, and our friendship has been evolving in the best way as I become more vulnerable and trusting. It seems the more vulnerable I become; the deeper the friendship goes. Vulnerability and trust go together like thunderstorm and a rainbow. It is sometimes volatile, but a beautiful thing to watch as the light comes shining through illuminating the invisible beauty within. It’s been a hard concept to grasp, and grudgingly accept as truth. Since I have an exceptionally hard time practicing both vulnerability and trust. Both are worth risking in order finding your true belonging, and your true self.

Advertisements

Redefining Yourself

There was a time not that long ago that getting dressed up with cocktail dresses and the whole ordeal of getting ready for a fancy dinner, formal affair, or just going with friends for the night almost made me have a panic attack.  It was not a pretty scene.

Standard cargo pants and fleece at Island Beach State park in New Jersey. Photo taken by Looie Voorhees

Standard cargo pants and fleece at Island Beach State park in New Jersey. Photo taken by Looie Voorhees

I am not exaggerating about the level of tension it caused me, and it filled me with paralyzing terror.  I didn’t know why it made me so uncomfortable until yesterday.  I didn’t feel like I deserved the attention, the appreciation, or even a compliment.  If I did get any of those, I was awkward.  The idea of being worthy of attention without that feeling like it’s narcissistic is something I have been working on this year.

I didn’t put the two and two together until I had to get ready for a formal event the other day.  I didn’t really feel any of that crippling anxiety because I have the self-confidence to realize that I can dress like that, and I look like I belong there.  More importantly, I FEEL like I belong there.  Even a few months ago when I wore a cocktail dress, I felt slightly awkward.

The dress I wore to Arbonne's nation celebration. Photo taken by Danielle Baldassare.

The dress I wore to Arbonne’s nation celebration. Photo taken by Danielle Baldassare.

I am still much happier in cargo pants, t-shirts, and sneakers.  The fact that I can go to these events and feel accepted, deserving, and free is priceless.  It’s also a feeling I never thought I would have.  Little by little breaking down these walls I have in order to reach my full potential.

Belonging, Terror, and Love

I have been pondering the past month about the many things that have changed in my life so much in three years.  Since I was in middle school, I have been searching for and also running from belonging to anything outside my family.  I’m fortunate enough to be comfortable with my family, which has always been my rock.  I’ve just expanded it a bit.

I didn’t belong to anything in middle school or high schooI, beyond an environmental club and to a certain extent my church youth group.  Even that was superficial.  I think everyone to some degree goes through bullying in middle and high school, and it affected me greatly-I know I am not unique in those aspects.  It was typical middle and high school tormenting, and it left deep scars of trust issues.  The groups I thought I belonged to, I really didn’t.  I felt awkward, uncomfortable, and painfully self-conscious most of the time.  So I retreated, and built reinforced concrete walls.

It was simple in mind.  Belonging equalled trust that inevitably lead to hurt, which led to me being terrified of letting myself get close enough to feel worthy of belonging.  It was one more thing to lose, one more heartbreak, and it was just easier to cut myself off emotionally.  It was damned effective.

At my community college was the first time in a very long time I felt I belonged somewhere, and it wasn’t superficial.  I found my beloved Garden Club, the Garden Elite.  I am not sure whether it was because some of them were older that I felt more at ease, or just because they were an exceptionally accepting group that made even an awkward newcomer feel welcome.  For whatever reason, I did feel welcome, and more importantly, I let myself feel that I deserved to be included.  As I am writing this, I am realizing what a defining period it was in my life.  I trusted people a little, and it didn’t hurt.  There was just acceptance, love, and I will forever be grateful to them.  I am still in touch with those people today.

Garden Elite 2002. Left to right: Monica, Taylor, me, Lauren, Dustin

Garden Elite 2002. Left to right: Monica, April, me, Lauren, Dustin

After college was a struggle to belong again, and I was back to feeling like I did in high school.  The scarcity mindset had returned, and I wondered if I would ever feel good enough at anything again.  Fast forward to three years ago.  I found friends, a tremendous group of people, and an organization who’s entire philosophy is to empower people.  I feel a true sense of belonging, love, and appreciation I never thought I would ever receive again, or let myself feel like I could let people in without fear.  I found my group, who is a part of my extended family, and to finally feel like I belong somewhere, and that I am worthy of it, is an indescribable feeling of gratitude.  I have surrounded myself with people who love and accept me for me.