I never anticipated how compelling and destabilising these monthly themes would be.
As the days of March dwindle and my reading becomes more frantic, my mind is a tanglement of thoughts, memories, emotions and sparks of insight.
Each book and blog post read, each memory processed leads to initial discomfort as I reconcile the differences with my lived experience. And then there is the breaking point, where the insight becomes more powerful than the way things are done, or the previous becomes untenable in light of the new discovery. Change occurs.
Of all of the themes, authenticity promised to be difficult. I had initial visions of whether it meant I should go make-up free but my travels have taken me in a different direction.
In this blog, I find vulnerability comes relatively easily. In person, however, I am still often stuck in the cords of social habits formed over decades and react too quickly to any perceived hint of disconnection, loss of interest or judgment.
I’m better than I used to be. Monica recently admitted that when she first met me she wondered aloud to Alex if there would be anything she could say that I wouldn’t agree with. I was so annoyingly agreeable and friendly, firmly entrenched in the ‘nice Emma’ persona- afraid that if I let any hint of disagreement out, I would lose friends. Dave and I have an arrangement now- if he catches ‘nice Emma’ in conversation, he will make a not so subtle ‘gun to the head’ gesture. The threat has mostly been enough to kill her off!
When I was eight, it was discovered I had terrible vision. Dad was pointing out stars in the sky, a concept with which I was completely unfamiliar, being only able to clearly make out items a foot from my face. I was whisked off to the optometrist and chose my first pair of glasses. Mum tried to dissuade me, but I was firm on my choice. Thick, large, purple-rimmed frames. Add in some braces for my unfortunate fangs, a side-part slicked down and you get the picture.
Throughout primary school, I had many experiences of unrequited ‘love’. From leaving a Valentine on Mark Thomas’ chair in Grade Three, to my desperate wishes for David Patterson to notice me in Grade Six, it seemed that I was destined for despair. It wasn’t all doom, I should admit. In our weekly orchestra practice, I developed a bantering relationship with the trumpet player and we both began looking forward to what was otherwise a fairly long afternoon of slightly off-key instruments attempting to craft classical sounds. We placed a seal of destruction on the relationship when we made it official, however, as we were suddenly unable to string words in an uttered sentence as soon as there was a label attached. My preference for the written word began to blossom as we communicated in letters instead.
Fast forward two years and I replaced the glasses for contact lenses, shed my braces and sported a shoulder-length hair cut. Suddenly, it was like the lights had been turned on, and I began to be ‘noticed’. We were a small school and it was fairly common for year levels to mix. I began to hang out more with the guys in the year level above. I quickly learned who I needed to ‘be’ to be liked and accepted. A certain facial expression, an easy laugh, playing soccer every lunchtime. Before long, I exchanged the socially strangled relationship with Tim for a string of flirtations and an attachment to the aloof and popular Luke.
When I look back at my high school years, these events stand out in my memory. It was like I poured all my energy into figuring out who to be, and executing that with as much finesse as I could manage.
Not that I put all my eggs in that basket. Academic achievement was another seductive pull for me and I developed solid disciplines in order to ensure I was always competitive with the other smart kids in the class. In Year Nine I let my grades slide in preference to pursuing flirtations and I hated the experience at the end of the year when my best friend, Holly walked away with most of the awards. I vowed in my journal never to let that happen again!
These strains continued as I entered university- finding what I needed to do to be liked, and ensuring I was also seen as smart and dedicated. They became the armour that clothed me, my persona, container, the False Self.
Positions of influence reinforced the need to appear as if I had it all together. From the ‘Youth Leader’ of barely teenage girls to the devoted ‘Pastor’s Wife’ when I married Dave- I curated the ‘nice Emma’ mask with care and vigilance. I thought it was what people wanted, what they needed me to be.
I know I am not alone in my need to feel liked, affirmed and accepted. Yet the ways I’ve gone about it in the past have often just resulted in a bespoke portrayal of self crafted to the particular audience. And there is a hollow sense of fulfillment when people only like, affirm and accept the ‘you’ that is held out.
After school, I began to invest in a persona that appeared well-versed in current music. One day, my legitimately band-literate friend caught me out pretending to know more about the British rock band Oasis than was actually the case. The feeling of being exposed was excruciating and the holes in my approach became clear.
I have a long way to go until my True Self is the only reality that people encounter when engaging me, but I feel as if I’m deep into the wrestle and wanting to get there somehow. I’m driven by fear, terrified of being rejected and drawn to control as a way of maneuvering these uncertain feelings.
I count myself considerably lucky to have a patient husband and friends that know and accept the messed up, neurotic, tight-fisted version that emerges at times, and love me in spite of that.
Friends like Holly who has known me since we were nine- fighting over the rules to playing ‘Elastic’, singing into hairbrush microphones at sleepovers and pretending we were fast asleep when our parents came to scold us. Who stuck by me even when I became a facade of myself (and a shallow friend) in the ‘flirty stage’. A friend who I still catch up with as regularly as our busy lives allow and we just launch straight into the middle of a conversation without needing any pleasantries.
And like Monica, who endured eighteen months of living with me in my ‘dark zone‘, putting up with me pretending everything was fine until a torrent would unleash at our ‘house meetings’ and the grievances would all come pouring out in one ugly gush. If a relationship can endure that, it becomes like steel, and she is now one of the main recipients of my shameful confessions- always providing empathy, compassion and perspective when I need it the most.
Eventually, like an emergent butterfly, I hope to shed the cocoon-like personas that have ensconced me for so long and become who I am authentically designed to be. I suspect it may be a long and rocky journey!
Photo taken by Matthew Edmondson