I was one of those little girls who was always on the outside of the group. Through careful study and imitation of the group I could work my way ‘in’, but then I would say or do something that would put me right back on the outside again. I lived in a small town, which means no anonymity: once you establish a certain reputation, it sticks. I was a misfit.
We all have these kinds of emotionally impactful experiences, and because we are young and unable to cognitively make sense of what is happening (as we can when we are older), we make these events mean something negative about ourselves. We lock this away in the basement of our psyches, meaning that we emotionally separate ourselves from a vital aspect of our own identity, believing that who we are is somehow flawed. In those painful moments of trying and failing to belong to my chosen peer group, I decided that who I am, as I am, is not good enough. I don’t belong.
Throughout my elementary school years, I had one friend I would call my best friend. Truth be told, I wasn’t always a best friend to her, particularly in the moments when I had found my way ‘in’ to my coveted circle. She was, however, very important to me. I met her in grade 1, and stuck with her through to grade 4 or 5, when she essentially broke up with me on the schoolyard.
When I was 8 or 9, I was on a sleepover at this friend’s home. She was the youngest of five: she had an older sister and three older brothers, two still living at home. We were in the room she normally shared with her sister. I slept in the top bunk and my friend had the bottom. I woke up in the middle of the night hearing breathing close to me, and I realized that one of the brothers was standing over my bed. The room was dark.
When we feel threatened, we have three instinctive responses: fight, flight, or freeze. In that moment, I froze. He peeled back the covers, lifted up my nightie, and proceeded to sexually molest me. The whole time, I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be asleep. I dissociated, which means essentially separating awareness from the physical experience of what happened. He eventually left, and I got a brief glimpse of him from the light in the hallway as he opened and closed the door.
The next day, when my friend and I were walking home, I told her what happened. “Don’t tell your dad!” she said. “My brother will get into so much trouble!” She then asked me which brother (of the two possibilities) it was. I didn’t know. She asked a few questions, ending with “Was he big or little?” I told her he was big, because to me he was big.
I later learned that my friend had gone to her parents and told them what had happened. The oldest brother, who would have been maybe 16 at the time, was kicked out of the home as a result. The next time I was over at my friend’s house, the younger brother (who would have been 13 or so) walked into the kitchen… wearing the same red and white striped T-shirt I had briefly glimpsed in the hallway light as he was leaving the room.
I was horrified. For many years, the guilt over identifying the wrong brother overrode the trauma of being sexually molested for me. In the basement, I believed I was a horrible, bad, dangerous person. I am speaking of these mistaken beliefs as if they are simply thoughts, but because these thoughts (i.e., I am not good enough) are formed in a moment of intense emotion, they come wrapped in a painful feeling (i.e., shame). It is the feeling that gives these thoughts so much power.
In the very moment we take on these suspicions like this about ourselves in the basement, we also develop a defense system. We say to ourselves, ‘who I am isn’t good enough… what must I become to be loved, approved of, and/or to survive?’ We cycle through various strategies, and we keep the ones that work. We become strategic, instead of real.
I learned to overfunction in relationship. This means I would be the one adjust to make a relationship work. I learned to perform, to be a people pleaser, and above all else I decided I must never make a mistake. I became a perfectionist. Strategies like this are designed to get from the world around us what we now fear we do not have within us. I am not good enough, but maybe if I earn the love and approval of that person, or I accomplish that achievement, I will be good enough!
We all attach to very specific external things that promise our salvation. We refuse to look at what is happening in the basement, and instead focus on what we think we need to make up for that powerful feeling about who we are. What we attach to isn’t random. It is also intimately tied to our life experience.
Find out where I found my refuge in Part 2… see you there.
Catherine O’Kane is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, teacher, workshop facilitator and a gifted and entertaining public speaker with Clearmind International. She has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, and has been a practicing therapist since 1992, helping people evolve out of personal pain into purpose. She firmly believes that what we put out in all our relationships has the power to ripple out and effect positive change in our families, communities and beyond.