Many years ago when I was married, my husband would describe me as “an emotional contortionist who would bend over backward to please people.” Not sure how he came up with that, but, to this day, I still think of it as brilliant. It shone a light on my then overwhelmingly co-dependent mindset. I had been raised to be kind, polite and caring. “Don’t make waves. Don’t rock the boat,” were spoken and unspoken messages in my family. Paradoxically, I was told by my mother, “Walk in like you own the joint.” My father would remind me that, ‘They put their pants on one leg at a time like you do.” How I integrated those seemingly disparate instructions still confounds me to this day. It heralded challenges in relationships since being widowed at 40. Partners, friends, family and clients would be the witnesses to my feats of flexibility as I would say yes when I really wanted to say no and no when I truly desired what they were offering, out of a sense of uncertainty that I had really earned it. Rarely did I believe I was entitled to love, attention, affection, nurturing and praise ‘just because.’ There needed to be a sense of quid pro quo/one hand washes the other in my relationships. I would attempt to cement my place in the lives of those I valued by doing, giving or at least offering. Who wouldn’t love a caregiver?
At 57, I have the perspective that early versions of myself brushed past. Perhaps with age, really does come wisdom. I have discovered that, for me (and I would guess I am not alone) attention, affirmation and affection are essential nutrients, on par with air, food and water. Yes, I can tend to my own needs, love the woman in the mirror and still desire it to be mirrored back from others. Noticing when the tank seems to be a quart low. The temptation is to return to earlier, dysfunctional ways of being, scavenging for low lying nuts and berries that have fallen from the trees. Rather than doing that, I would much prefer to reach higher for richer fruits. I am also speaking up and standing up, not only for others who have no voice, but for myself as well. Still not a boat rocker, by I am a wave maker.
A few years ago as I was working at an outpatient drug and alcohol rehab, I facilitated a support group for women in recovery. I taught them the ‘walk in like you own the joint’ concept and actually had them strutting their stuff around the room. One of the participants laughed about ‘getting her swagger on’ in her daily life. This same woman happily shared that in certain relationships, especially with her ex-husband, she had not only been a proverbial door mat, but wall to wall carpeting. She happily announced that this was no longer the case.
This former ‘deer caught in the headlights,’ emotional contortionist who was almost always looking over her shoulder to see if the propriety police were watching, is taking all sorts stretches, on and off the yoga mat, standing her ground and strutting her stuff.