Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Cautionary Tale: Watch Your Words

Let me tell you a story about a little girl. We'll call her "Annie."

Annie was a precocious child. Some said she marched to the beat of her own drummer. Her sense of humor was quite developed for such a young child, and she had a knack for sarcasm that sometimes bordered on inappropriate for her age. She enjoyed playing with friends, but sought out the company of adults more than other kids did. She enjoyed listening to them talk, and even tried to add to the conversation most of the time. At first, Annie considered herself to be a normal kid. Then her self perception started changing, slowly but surely. 

As far back as she can remember, Annie's mom had said the same things to her... "Don't be so annoying." "Annie, don't be obnoxious." "Don't wear out your welcome." "You're being overbearing, you need to tone it down."

Eventually, the words that Annie came to use to describe herself were annoying, obnoxious, and overbearing. Those words came to define her. She always worried about how people were perceiving her. She was always hyper-sensitive to any sort of sign, whether verbal or nonverbal, that she was irritating someone. 

By fourth grade, Annie was struggling with depression. She was incredibly good at hiding this, however. She learned early on that being "sad" wasn't really an option for her, so she learned how to fake a smile with her eyes. The eyes were the dead giveaway for a smile... If you could fake that, then you had it made. So she did. But Annie cried a lot, too. At night, when sleep wouldn't come because all of her failures of the day swirled around in her head, she would cry quietly as she prayed desperately for God to change who she was so that she wasn't so annoying, such a disappointment.

This secret world continued through her middle and high school years. There were two different Annies. The public Annie and the private one. The public Annie smiled and pretended that everything was great. Every now and then, she dropped her armor, only to pick it right back up again while brushing off any concern that the breech may have caused. And the private Annie? Well, she continued to berate herself for being so immature, so annoying, so obnoxious, so overbearing. She struggled to be truly present in her friendships because she was self monitoring so obsessively. 

Now Annie found herself in college. Away from all of those who knew her... A perfect opportunity to reinvent herself. She was determined that she would become a new person. One that people would actually like to be around. This was her chance, but she blew it. She showed her real self, she spoke too loudly, stayed too long, said something annoying, drove people away. Thankfully, she did have a group of friends who stuck by her side, that still do, but that didn't ward off the depression. It began growing and consuming her with a vengeance. Finally, in her junior year, she was brave enough to get some help.

As treatment for her depression began, Annie started seeing little changes in herself. She wasn't so paranoid that people hated her, she didn't think that every laugh was making fun of her, she no longer felt like there was a spotlight shining down on her that aimed to show her every imperfection. The depression no longer controlled her every moment, and she was able to relax and enjoy life a little bit.

But the broken record still played in her head... "Don't be so annoying." "Annie, don't be obnoxious." "Don't wear out your welcome." "You're being overbearing, you need to tone it down."

You see, from her earliest moments in life, someone Annie trusted and loved told her that she was broken. Annie knows that her mom loves her, wants what's best for her, and that she was merely doing what she thought was best in trying to mold and shape Annie into a "good person." But the damage was done. The constant reminders had become how Annie defined herself. How she still defines herself. 

Annie still struggles with her self image. She still worries about how annoying and obnoxious she is. She still pushes people away for fear of being too overbearing and that that would eventually lead to rejection. She continues to hold people at arm's length so that when they decide they don't really like being around her, the hurt won't be quite as intense because she's protected her heart. But the real damage is that Annie is living in semi-isolation, keeping herself from being in true fellowship with others. She longs to have that fellowship, the intimate friendships that she sees others enjoying, but it has been such a "no-no" for so long for her, that she's not even really sure she knows how to form them or keep them. She has essentially become an island. 

Moms and dads, teachers, mentors, counselors, adults in general... 
Let me just remind you of how incredibly important your words are. They will either be life giving, or life breaking. They will either affirm the preciousness of a child, or they will begin shaping them into something broken. What you say to a child now sticks with them for life. 

I encourage you to dig deep into yourself and find the words that your parents gave to you. I encourage you to listen to what you are saying to the children in your life. 

And please, I beg of you, don't set your child up to be an Annie. It's a long, hard road to walk.

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