A Long Way Down

There is a scene near the beginning of Tangled where Rapunzel first leaves the tower, the place where she spent her entire life (as known to her).  The creators at Disney did an amazing job making us feel as she might have felt. I’m easily moved to tears I know, but I also feel an emotional connection with the story, Rapunzel’s plight reminding me, in some ways, of my own. I was hidden away, schooled at home, my mother withdrawing us from (or “protecting us from”) the outside world. I am out of that tower now, to put it in Rapunzel’s terms, but it’s not easy expressing yourself when you’ve always kept your thoughts inside, and it’s not easy to fit in, when even the most simple thing like the grass between your toes, strikes you as new.

Do you know what it’s like to feel a little out of place, a little new to everything? That first day on a job is always nerve-wracking. You don’t know yet which buttons to push, how to help a customer.  Like waves in a cold sea, the nervousness comes in the form of questions you don’t know how to answer, problems you don’t know how to solve. The social anxiety that I felt as a teen was strong and almost overwhelming, a tidal wave. I was afraid that my ignorance might be revealed, and I would be faulted for not knowing something my publically-schooled counterparts would know. I was afraid to ask questions, afraid to reveal my own ignorance.

I’ve discovered a couple groups that reveal I’m not alone in this feeling of being unprepared for the world from homeschooling. I’m not alone. But unbelievably, one of the first things that I see on the page is opposition to the group–the claim that some former homeschoolers (in a support group, no less!) should stop whining, get over their fears of inferiority, and accept that public schools and home-schools are both lousy. But isolation and educational neglect aren’t things that one can simply “get over.”  One must always walk through, not just push aside, their situation in life. Most anxieties, any psychologist will tell you, aren’t something that you can just “get over” overnight; progress is gradual. If you try to defeat all your anxiety at once, you end up with more than what you started with.

Being socially anxious is no simple matter.  What is it like?  In Psychology 101, I learned about something called the “spotlight effect.” Have you ever felt like a spotlight is shining on you? Like you’re being watched, and every little move you make matters, like everything you do could be judged harshly? Even though I realize it’s irrational to feel that way, people aren’t that interested in me, and most don’t judge me harshly, it takes a while to gain confidence around people. When out in the overwhelming spotlight, I’ve tried to make myself invisible, tried to speak up as little as possible, to keep away from mistakes. I got out in public but I could only handle it in degrees.

It’s only logical to keep quiet when you know that speaking won’t reveal your true self, anyway–just a flimsy version of yourself. When we’re nervous, we say things that we don’t really mean; which is to say that out of the pressure to say something, we might say anything.  It’s hard to know what you think, when you think one thing when you’re alone, and say something else when you’re in company of others. I used to relive the moments, questioning, “What should I have said instead?”  I know that self-criticism is a bad habit, but if someone loses their head for a moment, don’t they have a right to go back and find it?  (I think this reflective quality is part of what makes me want to become a writer. I can hold past conversations in my mind and I can make new conversations using fictional characters.)

There’s another element to coming into the spotlight, much like being starstruck. It’s a sense of wonder–and that’s something that Rapunzel had in full. You’re impressed by visions that were absent in your life in the shadows. When I began to get out to social events, I was impressed by just how much personality others had; teenagers seemed to know who they were–and I wondered at that. The curiosity was occasionally mistaken for a crush but it wasn’t really; I just wanted to know them, to be a fly on their wall for a little while and wonder what made them tick. I suppose something similar happens when we watch nature shows about the Amazon or “Blue Planet”: we wonder at what strange, beautiful creatures we see, and we wonder why they are so different in their unique environments.

I suppose I’m not so special in my childlike appreciation or in my nervousness. Many might feel the same upon visiting or moving to a new country. In a foreign culture, you can’t help but worry that you might do something wrong, that you might very quickly be spotted, and pointed out as a foreigner and laughed at because you’ve done something silly. My experience is common. My progress is good so far. I look forward to another year, in a place where I might not always feel fully at home, much like most everyone else.  Fortunately the more friends I make, the more I feel like I’m with people who speak the same language and make me feel at ease. Yoga also seems to help me release the tension and to breeaaathe. We all have ways of adjusting to tough situations. Most of all, I think, we hang in there and keep trying. Pretty soon you’ll be the veteran and someone else will be “new at this.”

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Story of a Narcissist

Imagine if we were to tell a young child things like, “You cannot trust the world. It will hurt you. You must only trust yourself. Everyone else will betray you.” Perhaps these things aren’t said in words, but they are said in the much stronger terms of experiences. In young lives, the narrative is told by the violence of parents and the cruelty of classmates; in personal, compelling, and deeply psychologically ways, young people learn that they cannot trust the world around them, but they must rely upon themselves.

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I believe that childhood experiences can shape us, quite powerfully, as many of us require therapy to unlearn things that we’ve learned from youth. I believe that my mother’s experiences in youth contributed to her narcissism. She is a survivor–her past is something that she is stronger now because of–but she is also strong to a fault. Strong to the point of being impermeable, being unable to hear where she might also be in some ways wrong.

In a word, a narcissist is confident—but troubles come along with that confidence: egoism, selfishness, bullying, dishonesty. A narcissist is not really a team player but someone is who will make themselves look good at all costs. Even the positive quality of confidence is only skin deep: narcissists are actually quite fragile, unable to handle criticism, and indeed they try very hard to keep this appearance of perfection up. They don’t trust others in their world because the opinions of others might differ from their own, narrow views. You must be careful not to contradict them.

My mother was one of those people whose upbeat, self-assured manner can change in an instant to down-beat and off-putting. My three brothers and I were home-schooled because she didn’t trust us to the school system–although she did trust her own abilities with little outside assistance. We spent little time with friends, and didn’t know our extended family–my mom always found something against them. She didn’t trust my father, accusing him of lies, collusion with her enemies, and secular/lacking morality. When my parents divorced, we had very limited visitation (I was twelve at that time and my younger more impressionable brother was 9).  We were encouraged not to call refer to our father as “dad,” but by his first name. We were encouraged to think badly or infrequently of him. A few times, when she was really upset, mom threatened to send us “away, to live with your father.”  “Do you really want to go live with John!?” she would ask. Of course, our answer was “no”!–because it would have completely changed our reality, being that we were homeschooled. (Though the small thought occurred that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, that was  something that we didn’t say aloud, in fear that we might end up in a public school and a grade inferior to others of equal age).

I’ve recently learned that parental alienation is a too common occurrence in divorce, where one parent belittles and often alienates another. Brainwashing children to dislike the alienated partner is a part of the abuse. In our case, the alienation we experienced from my father was a part of a larger pattern of isolation, separating us from the possibly harmful world. In my mother’s mind, she was just doing what was best for us; in all, she was being true to herself, doing what she felt was right–even if, in reality, it was far from the best thing. She was living based on her own fears and experiences, trusting that that would make us strong and confident, like her.

My mom has since let go of her control and softened her outlook. She has a college education now, so she has learned to be more open, both to criticism and varied ideas. She doesn’t see my father as a bad guy, and is glad he’s happily remarried. She admits that homeschooling shouldn’t have been so isolating, but she explains that “they didn’t know the importance of socialization back then.”

I’ve got a feeling that some others who homeschool might be narcissists too–and like my mother, they might have large blind-spots where their own confidence lubes them forward. (I haven’t seen any scientific studies to this effect yet but I have read some personal accounts.)  I wish I could do something to warn just a few.

If you are a little bit on the confident side, make sure you’re also cool with questions, differing opinions. It’s not harmful to consider alternatives, but it is harmful to be inconsiderate. Don’t shut yourself out from the help of others in your endeavors, in your difficulties. Sometimes we do things which feel right for our own survival but they are actually harmful in the long run. We ALL need ways to keep ourselves accountable–even the most put-together people are organized because they have a system for being that way. We all have different ways of learning, of succeeding. Perhaps homeschooling might be best for a child, or perhaps they will learn best outside of the home. It’s not a failure if your system doesn’t work; we all try things that don’t work and that’s only human; we grow by trying until we find the right balance.

I’ve worked to overcome my sheltered youth, learned to express myself, grown closer to my father. In a way, I’m thankful for my difficulties. I may always have some anxiety but I also have wonder and appreciation for people–and for human psychology. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so interested in people had I grown more accustomed to being around many at an earlier age. I’m part of the club–one of many who don’t always have it easy. I embarrass myself saying mindless things when I’m anxious. But when I find true friends, it’s a wonderful thing. I have a wonderful husband, four-year old daughter, and have made some friends in many places. (I know some might repraise their submissive role, but not me. I can’t find happiness by keeping quiet and holding my feelings down, even if at times I can do it quite well.)