Remember that saying:
“Sticks and stones may break my back but words will never hurt me.”
I call BULLSHIT. What we say to each other matters. What we say to each other sticks with us, informing our core beliefs, fueling shame and leading us to constricting labels and judgments about ourselves that shape who we become.
I never really made the connection as a child to the way I felt about myself and the way my family and friends would talk to me. Words like “drama queen” and “bitch” were thrown around with ease. I was “too loud”, “too assertive”, “intimidating” and “dramatic”. I was always “making something out of nothing”. I even remember when I came home and told my grandma that I made it on to prom court that my grandma said “How?” with a look I perceived as disgust and confusion. How I acted or how others expected or perceived me to be influenced the masks I was handed every day.
And after awhile, I started to absorb those labels and put on the mask(s). I tried to wear them with pride but felt incongruent with my values and the burden of wearing these masks everyday carried too much weight to maintain. But, when I would try and put them down and act more like “myself”, new labels were thrown at me - “fake”; “manipulative”. I had to be bitchy and dramatic to be popular but hated the realities of it. I had to pretend to be impenetrable. I had to push others down to get to the top. And for what? To have terrible friendships? To hang out with shitty people? To feel like I always had to chase the ideas of being “enough”. But over time, I felt as if I had gone too deep. I could not change now without ascribing all of these other labels to me and I did not know how to play that role as well. So instead, I allowed my shame and fear to take the reigns, holding out hope I could start anew when I left Milwaukee.
And so, exhausted, confused and filled with shame, I continued to perform, every day. Morphing myself into the version of me others found more comforting and predictable. It was easier for others, and in turn, me, if I could just continue to be this version - if I could just be dramatic, loud and bitchy. The reality was that I was a teenager who had moved over 10 times. My mom was in and out of treatment centers, jail and prison and I moved around to various family homes throughout middle and high school. Friendships faded faster than the ridiculous fashion trends we adhered to. Connection became a myth and to say I lacked roots was an understatement. I was angry and scared and excited and empowered all at one time. I hated my life but felt a sense of excitement at how I could use my experiences to impact the world and evolve anew. I was someone with a story to tell and dreams of who I would become and didn’t know how to share it without judgment or loss. The therapists I saw would tell me how I felt rather than ask and my family encouraged me to hide it. My mom cared but only when she wasn’t high. My friends would care until the next edition of “Teenage Drama” was released and then they were immersed in the whispers of superficiality.
Over time, I began to question my identity more and more. Who was I? What did people think of me? I also learned to use the labels ascribed to me to my advantage. I, inherently, became more manipulative and deceitful as I felt increasingly more resentful of and disconnected from those around me. I hated that I did it but it gave me more power. I grew into the labels because I felt like I had to - they had been written for and too me, like this card from my grandma.
All for what? To make others “happy”? To follow the expectations of others or to brood in their own unhappiness? I continued to be this person well past college and into my early 20’s. And where I thought I would gain power and clarity as I got older and more independent, I found greater pressures for conformity. And with every small (or in some cases, big) decision or move I made that went against the grain of conformity, I felt so much backlash it felt like I would never stop swallowing the high waters of societal pressure.
Do I blame all of this on my family? Peers? This card from my grandma? No. Absolutely not. I know that the summation of the pressures of shame and the force of core beliefs is far greater than each individual piece. AND, they were seeds reaped in the process. The way others talked to me and about me directly correlated with my sense of self. The words used to describe me and my story stuck with me and informed my view of and connection to the world. And this is not to say I never did this to others. We, including me, do this all of the time. Our brain likes labels - it makes things easier. We look to sort people, places, things and experiences into buckets, neatly labeled and put up on a shelf. Sometimes we dont even stop to think about the weight of that label or if it “good” or “bad”, we just put it out there. But the problem is that we do not allow for the possibility of fluidity, of change, of growth. We cannot label something or someone from one experience and assume 1) it is correct and/or b) that it will never change.
I am not the labels others ascribed to me. I am not the person I pretended to be for so long. In fact, I reject the gendered and judgmental terms of “intimidating”, “dramatic” and “bossy'“. I experience a wide range of feelings and I express not only those feelings but my thoughts. Sometimes, I confuse assertiveness with aggression and passive aggression - I mean, I am human. But I care a lot about people, experiences and the world at large. Shame took advantage of the words given to me when I was younger and I spent over 2 decades living in the shadows of them. And if you are still reading this, it is because you understand that feeling all too well. What shadows have you lived behind or are currently living behind. What labels have been ascribed to you that no longer or NEVER DID fit you? Who are you really? Who do you want to be? And if you are honest with yourself, who, in your life, needs to stop getting a seat at the table of your life?
And beyond your own identity, where do you need to grant grace, patience and openness to those around you? Where do you need to force your brain to declutter, Marie Kondo style, and get rid of the labels, memories, and pain points that strip the joy not only from your life but from those around you as well. My family will never not see me as a drama queen. They will never see me for who I am, and not because they don’t want to but because their brain is so jam-packed with labels, negative attributions, resentment and fear that they dont even know how to start to make that move. And I have to let that go. I have to stop giving their words power and instead, find forgiveness for them and hope that they can free themselves of the shackles of shame.
Now, as you take this message and go out into the world, remember,
“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will FUCK YOU UP”.
As Ellen says, be kind to one another. And make space to flex your thinking. Comment below on one way you can commit to flexing your thinking and letting go of the labels people have placed on you AND the labels you placed on others!