in Introspection, Personal History

The Princess and the Pea

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. — Tolstoy

Nick and I just had a conversation about those incidents that scarred us in our youth. The crazy thing is that to adults — even to us as adults — these things seem trivial. Yet they’re the kind of things that shape our lives.

Fear of success

When Nick was in third grade, the church camp (Drift Creek) began to offer a week for kids his age. Nick wanted to go more than anything. At Bible school that summer, kids could earn a sort of scholarship to Drift Creek for accumulating points by memorizing Bible verses, etc.

Nick worked like crazy. He needed 1500 points to earn the scholarship, but he wanted to be sure. He earned more than 3000 points, far more than any other kid in Bible school. He was excited — he’d get to go to Drift Creek Camp!

But on the last day of Bible school, he found out that no scholarships were being offered to third graders. He’d done all that work for nothing. He was devastated.

As a result, Nick says, to this day he finds that he’s afraid to put all his effort into something. Somewhere in the back of his mind is the expectation that there won’t be any reward for the effort.

Dazed and confused

When I was about ten or twelve, our family made a visit to one of Mom’s aunts or uncles or cousins in Beaverton. We didn’t see Mom’s family very often, and both my parents were on edge. I think Dad always felt inadequate around them, as if he were being judged.

The house seemed like a mansion to me. I grew up in a run-down trailer house, and this place was enormous, filled with all sorts of expensive furniture. Jeff, Tony, and I ran around with the other kids while the adults sat in the living room, talking about adult stuff.

Because I was beginning to feel older, at some point I decided to join the adult conversation. In my memory, I went into the living room and sat down on the couch. I’m sure, however, that as most kids do, I plopped down on the couch. In any case, when I sat down, I dislodged an enormous painting that had been resting on the back of the sofa, causing it to fall to the floor.

Dad was livid. He took me outside and spanked me, probably one of the last times he ever did so. He was irate because I had embarrassed him in front of these people around whom he felt uncomfortable anyhow. I was dazed and confused. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. In my mind, I had just tried to sit down on the couch. I had tried to do something good: join an adult conversation.

“I think about that incident several times a month,” I told Nick. He was shocked. “I’m serious,” I said. “All my life, I’ve thought about that incident several times a month. It is a deep part of who I am.”

Lie down on the couch

As an adult, it’s a challenge to cope with all of this baggage from my youth. Looking back, it seems so inconsequential. I know that Mom, too, fights some of this. She has often shared stories about the things that happened to her as a girl, the things that messed her up. When I hear the stories, I tend to dismiss them as trivial, just as you’re probably dismissing my story above as trivial. But they’re not trivial. These little things do lasting damage.

But how can a parent or teacher actually know which trivial things are going to do the lasting damage? Is it possible for a person to grow up without any sort of psychological scarring?

“People are strange,” I’m fond of saying. “They’re no such thing as normal. Every person is strange. But we’re each strange in different ways.” It’s not just my family that’s messed up — Kris’ family is messed up, too. So is every family. So is every person.

As of this moment, I am technically debt-free except for my mortgage. I haven’t actually paid the final debt, but I have the money in the bank to do so. This is an enormous step for me. Defeating my debt is akin to defeating the demons from my youth. It’s a sign that the adult J.D. is asserting himself, is denying that the things that happened to the young J.D. will actually control his life.

I’m not out of the woods yet, of course. I may have my financial life under control, but I’m still a fat middle-aged man who eats like shit and who never exercises. I have some very real social anxieties. For some time, I’ve considered seeing a psychologist to discuss some of my poor behavior patterns. Maybe it’s time to actually do so.

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  1. Love the theme btw, I wasn’t around back when this was original.

    I think it is a weird and mean trick of the human psyche that our successes are often quickly forgotten (or at least, rarely continually remembered) yet when things happen to hurt us, they replay for us continually.

    As the debt burden is lifted off your psyche most likely all sorts of other issues will have a chance for the spotlight and to come to the surface. Finding someone impartial to sort them out with is an excellent idea.

    Good luck!

  2. Yeah, I also think that there’s no such thing as a “normal” person. Such a person would, in a weird way, be abnormal.

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  4. Great post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this stuff as well–and discussing it with my cousin who is exactly my age (39) and with whom I’ve recently reconnected after being very close all through childhood and adolescence. Neither of us has children, and I wonder if it’s partly because we’re a bit hyper-aware of the (surely) inadvertant impact of certain adult behaviors on our young selves.

  5. I was just talking about this topic with a friend. We all walk around with mental tape recordings – many of which started in youth. Her’s, “You are a failure”, was in part from a teacher who held up her drawing to the class as an example of what not to do. My own message, “No one really likes you”, stemmed from a couple of humiliating losses. It is possible to replace these tape recordings with new ones: “I am successful.” “I am worthwhile.” But it does take work. Good post-

  6. The power of the written word is so huge. I am struck by how differently this post could have gone if you had replaced “scarred” in the first sentence with INFLUENCED. I definitely don’t agree that the influences in our life are trivial. There is no degree to be placed on them. They just are the influences. Your recollections are amazing and so telling of many of us. I agree with Kristi that a positive attitude about our influences, or at least not a negative spin, is so important in allowing us to move on past them.

    For most of us, I think positive affirmations just feel weird, but they really work!

    In the last section, if you had replaced “damage”( a negative word) with influence ( a neutral word) I think you can see that it is not scarring, but just life experience. As a wise woman I know is fond of saying, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” But, it doesn’t have to be seen as negative. I don’t feel messed up, just living life.

    I am so excited for you in attaining your financial goals. What a great journey. I do enjoy your posts and this blog and am glad you are spending a little more time here on this blog, lately.

    You have so many successes, why beat yourself up about the things you still need to work on? Just put them on one of your lists and make it a priority. I know you can do anything you set your mind to.

  7. I have hesitated for a while on commenting about this entry. I have discussed it privately with J.D. and I’m not sure we came to any solid conclusions, although he did explain to me that I wasn’t the “Princess” of the title, which I was a bit paranoid about. He said we are all like the princess in the story, who was made so sore by the little pea.

    It is interesting to me to get J.D.’s take on what I’ve told about the experiences I have related that I feel were hurtful. Maybe someone else in my situation wouldn’t have been as bothered by them as I was. Individual personality definitely comes into play here. Also, I haven’t told the worst of what I experienced, as it’s just too painful. There was a pattern of abuse, as there so often is. I feel my parents didn’t know better, and my mother once commented that they didn’t have parenting books back then (yes, I’m that old); they just did the best they could. But the kind of emotional and physical abuse my siblings and I received (except for my youngest sister, who escaped it) have been difficult to excuse.

    As for going to a psychologist or psychiatrist as opposed to self-treating via books or positive repetitions (all of which I have tried), again, the effectiveness is likely to depend on the individuals involved. (I say “individuals” because counselors are people, too.) Those clients who have experienced serious abuse may not be able to improve their self-esteem via positive repetitions. It can depend on if the person is depressed and needs medication as well as talk therapy.

    There is a lot to be said for forgiveness, too, but that may not come until a lot healing has taken place. And sometimes negative feelings re-occur if negative behavior crops up to cause difficulty in a person’s life — resentment of the conditioning all over again can be the result.

    I may at some point tell a few of the episodes on my own blog that this entry has brought to mind. Right now, though, my concern is for J.D., and that he find the best way to put those old, hurtful memories to rest.


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