Sunday, August 9, 2015
When I first took the "New to UU" class at my church and began getting to know the minister, he asked if I had grown up Catholic. "No, but with my guilt, I'd sure make a good one, wouldn't I?" I laughed.
I'm nothing if not self-aware, I suppose, because that's precisely what he was referring to: my overwhelming guilt. And no, as I said, I didn't grow up Catholic. I grew up with an agnostic father, Methodist grandmother, and nominally Lutheran mother.
On the other hand, a friend suggested recently that I should have been born Jewish, because I have a Jewish sense of humor. The guilt wouldn't fit in with it, though. Maybe if I had been born Jewish the guilt wouldn't be there?
I do know where I picked up the guilt, and I do recognize how it grew. My own mother was really young when I was born, and she was used to always being wrong, wrong, wrong, and when something went wrong, she was used to it being her fault. It happened in her family - she was the middle child - and it happened in her marriage. She was sorry, for everything and everyone, all the time. I definitely picked up the initial words from her, and words are incredibly powerful things. Then, as life progressed, I learned that if I was sorry for something, it meant I could control it, or at least maintain the illusion of controlling it - if it was my fault, surely I could make it go away. When other things in my life were beyond my control, this offered some kind of perverse comfort. Finally, I felt that if I was guilty, it would take the guilt away from someone else, and therefore take away someone's potential for hurt. Because, you see, there is a really egotistical part of myself that says, "I can take it," while being maddeningly certain that someone else cannot.
This characteristic guilt is certainly exacerbated by my gender. Even though I'm an extreme version, the types of feelings I experience are considered, at some level, as fairly normal parts of being female. We're perceived - not by you, the individual, but by our overarching culture - as being the caretakers, the ones who must sacrifice themselves for the greater good of family and community. It's not really normal to simply accept a compliment. We must demur, we must bring up something else that's not as good about ourselves, or at the very least blame the complimented characteristic on someone else. We led Adam to the fruit, because he was too stupid to do anything except what we told him to do, obviously.
As my daughter has begun to talk, I've realized how incredibly damaging this tendency can be. If I don't start seriously watching what I say, she absolutely is going to pick up on this. I'm caught in a vicious cycle of self-rumination as I write, wondering about what contributions I've made to my family, my church, and the greater world - always coming up short. The thing is, though, no matter how crippling my own self-flagellation may be, and even regardless of how deserved or undeserved it might be, my daughter absolutely does not deserve to pick up on this language and make it her own. I cannot allow that to happen. I must do everything in my power to make her see herself in a positive, confident, light, and to do that, I have to at least pretend to see myself that way. Fake it 'til you make it, right?
I thought, with my latest round of what I'll call efforts at self-improvement, that if I wrote what I was thinking about myself down, instead of saying it out loud, it would be an improvement, a step toward the aforementioned pretending. I've always had a goal of being organized, and I was really inspired by a friend who makes these absolutely beautiful, elaborate charts and graphs about every volunteer project she undertakes. So now I'm sitting here looking at this ridiculous chart in Excel with every poor decision I've ever made staring me in the face. I'm obsessing over how to merge cells in spots so that I can connect three different screw-ups to one big screw-up. And I'm realizing, staring at this appalling illustration of self-absorption, that it is not enough to change my spoken language. I'm going to have to change the way I talk to myself, in my head, in order to achieve what I want to be: a positive example, not just for my daughter, but for both of my children.
It's so hard, though.