Ah yes, they were strong elder women. They had to be, you know, life was hard, then. Quick-tempered they were, and tongues that could wound very deeply. Then there was another generation of mostly girls (the story of the boys is their own to tell), and they too were ‘strong’. And that generation of beautiful women raised yet another generation of ‘strong’ girls.
Being ‘strong’ had different connotations in different generations, but always it meant being the perfect princess. Smile! Work hard. When your family comes to visit, show them you are in control by being the perfect hostess with the perfect home and perfect children, naturally. Feelings are irrelevant, not important, and must be ground down at any cost. It is the appearance of things that counts, and smile, smile for the camera. For if the camera records a happy, smiling family, then it is a happy, smiling family, right?
Sadness, fear, or anxiety are not manifestations of the perfect princess, and therefore will not be expressed, upon pain of punishment. Sometimes physical punishment, but more often shaming: look at her, she is being sad and clearly there is no reason to be sad and so we will push her to the outside of the family circle for awhile, that will teach her. Every family gathering for unbroken spans of decades begins with an argument, and hurtful rejoinders are flung about, but that is no reason to be sad. If it seems paradoxical that anger is expressed, why, just think of all those natural human feelings being hidden. Anger is strong!
Playing favourites among your children – letting the others know that no matter what they do, they can never be the favourite – that is another way to ensure control of the family. The dysfunctional family archetypes of the scapegoat, the lost child, the hero, and the mascot reveal themselves in personalities at a young age, for they are the means of coping with the bad feelings of the family dynamic. Everywhere and in everyone there is evidence of the feelings being suppressed and sublimated in a myriad of ways such as alcohol and substance abuse, overeating, overworking. Often, all of these. It is never anyone’s fault, what happens to them, always the fault of someone else. To own otherwise would have to be to own the pain and vulnerability of being fully human, of being imperfect, of making one’s way in an imperfect world. It is just too hard. No matter: for this is a strong family, a happy family, and the pictures say so.
For the small, sad little girl there – in the corner almost – there is no regard, she is not playing the game. It is to that small, sad little girl – and there were many of them – that I write. As gently as I can, I want to tell you that you are not imagining things, that everything is not okay, and that it is healthy to express sadness over what is bad. That vulnerability, expressing your innermost feelings is painful, but that vulnerability is “the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love…”
I know this is hard, but please watch Brene Brown in her Ted Talk. Understand that your emotional honesty will cost you, but that it is preferable to living a life dampened of joy and spontaneity. Emotional honesty may feel like betrayal to members of your family who have not gotten there yet; maybe they never will. Emotional honesty is not cruel or spiteful, not derogatory or shaming or belittling – it is honesty about your own feelings, not the presumption of speaking for another, and above all, it is not blaming. I just want to say it again because it is so important, and so liberating:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.
To that small, sad little girl: I love you. You will be okay, even though it will be terribly difficult. Contrary to everything you have been taught, it is the most vulnerable amongst us who are the strongest. Wholeheartedly, I wish you joy.