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How the Labels I Was Given as a Child Affected My Anxiety as an Adult

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I’ve always been a procrastinator. And a “forgetter.” My environment has always been messy, chaotic and unsettling to a “normal” person. When I was a kid, there was no word to explain my condition. We’re talking about the 80s, so the saying was that “my head was constantly in the clouds.” I was a “daydreamer.” As cute and fluffy and romantic as those descriptions sound, it was actually hell.

I would be screamed at, shamed for and looked upon. I would be belittled because I would either forget something or someone, or I wouldn’t do something I was supposed to do. I would constantly be reminded about how forgetful and lazy I was. Because yeah, back in the days, you were not a procrastinator, you were lazy. You weren’t forgetful, you “didn’t care” or “you weren’t careful.” I was told I was making up excuses, that I just didn’t want to do what I had to do. No one would try to give me hints or strategies because the belief in my environment was it was supposed to be obvious. If you didn’t do it, if you forgot it, it was your fault. So, blames were the way to go. And if tips were given, it was from the giver’s perspective and “normality.” So it wouldn’t apply to me most of the time (being told “you need to have a place for each thing” made sense, even for me, but when it came to apply the tip, it was useless).

I would love to say I understand. That I would’ve done the same thing. And I guess I kind of do, understand. Those were the days. But the results of those blames and screams have been so deeply ingrained in my brain, they have affected my self-esteem at such a level I just don’t want to be understanding. I spent my life being on the blamed side of things. I am mad. Maybe this article is a way of soothing my anger.

Therapy helped me understand a lot of my current state of mind. Here is an overview.

When you tell a kid they are lazy, messy or uncaring, you create a path that will lead this kid’s way. You create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you hit on the nail, the more concrete and solid the shameful structure becomes. Kids are conditioned to believe adults. To trust them. And to trust their words. Your words become their realities. The vicious part is it’s subtle. There is no, “Yesterday I was confident, and today I doubt myself.” I cannot tell the exact time I started to feel I was not “good.” I don’t even remember feeling I was not good. Not clearly, not consciously. But my behaviors confirmed I actually did.

I became hypervigilant. Because my mind was often addled, because my problem was forgetting things, blames would come when I did not expect them. So did screams. I remember so many times being startled by those while doing my own business. So, I got to expect them all the time. I would constantly look for signs I was not in trouble. I would seek out approbation (more than other kids), constantly needing to confirm I was “safe” (mentally safe, because I have never feared physical punishments.)

Because I was often criticized for forgetting what I was supposed to do, or not doing it right, or doing it late, or not doing it completely, I didn’t trust my judgment. I’ve always felt the need to verify with others I was not wrong. I depended on others to make sure I had the right opinions, the right behaviors, the right beliefs. I had very good friends, so I didn’t end up doing (too much) stupid stuff. And with my hypervigilance came a huge dose of empathy (you need it when you want to anticipate people’s anger or deceit), and because I was bright, I managed to make it look as though those opinions, beliefs and behaviors were mine. But all in all, it had a crushing effect on my self-esteem, on my self-worth.

I had to make up for forgetting and procrastinating. I also had to feel valid. I had to compensate for the fact I didn’t feel I was an adequate person. So, I became everybody’s close friend. I decided to have an understanding personality. I decided to be patient. I decided others’ needs would come before mine. I gave a lot of time, advice and services. I was given a lot as well, but very rarely asked for anything. Like I said, I was well-surrounded. I made sure I was the person they needed.

Because being needed made me feel valid. And worthwhile. Because of my aforementioned empathy, I have always been a great listener. So yes, I would forget people, but I would be forgiven (most of the time) because of my nice personality. Yes, I would be often late for jobs, but I was forgiven because I worked hard and was good in public. Also, although I was messy, it was not as bad when other people were involved. So, my workplace was not as bad as, for instance, my room.

I could not keep my brain idle. I had to keep it busy, or more accurately, numb. There was no smartphone in my childhood. Nor laptops. I had my first computer in college. So, I was an avid reader. I would read before going to bed until I was too exhausted to understand anything. That way, I wouldn’t think before sleeping. Thinking always brought me back to fights or arguments I had. Most importantly, it brought me back to times I felt my humanity was dismissed. To words and looks and situations that made me feel worthless. Sometimes it was stuff that happened years, or even decades, ago. Sometimes it was things I wish I would’ve said. Sometimes it was fights I was anticipating and I was constructing arguments and counterarguments.

I didn’t know about all those points as they were happening. I spent most of my life excusing inexcusable things that were said to me. I was rationalizing and burying scars under layers of numbing sessions, logical explanations and whatever justifications I could come up with.

Until one day in my 40s, I realized I could not see other people (except for my girlfriend, my son and my work colleagues) without having panic attacks.

And although a process of understanding had started prior to these episodes, that is when change started for real.

Unsplash image by Wesley Tingey

Originally published: February 19, 2020
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