I was raised as if I were on a stage. There was this expectation towards performance in my family, a family built of singers and actors and storytellers and creators. So, it made some sense, and that was all ingrained in me starting at a young age. But when I peel back the layers of voice lessons and improv workshops and musical performances with the family band, all I really remember was pressure. Pressure to perform, and not just for the audience at shows, but everywhere we went. There was a terrifying presence that lurked in the corners of every interaction with people, where my father expected a performance, and my sister and I began to feel like puppets. My father tried to mold us into what he felt was perfection: intelligent and talented, sure, but also obedient, and of course subservient -- we were female after all. We had to put on the show to impress the people around us, to make him look good, and then eventually to attract husbands, and make oodles of grandchildren. The role was simple: pleasant emotions only
He died when I was 16, and with it, the looming fear that came with the pressure to perform.. However, the scars remain and even now, I find it difficult to always feel authentic. Especially when it comes to feeling anything unpleasant. It took a lot of time and work to uncover myself from the years of abuse -- to untangle my own aspirations from the expectations put on me from a high control religion and overzealous father. It’s been 19 years and still, I struggle with authenticity within me. And almost all of that struggle stems back to childhood trauma, particularly religious trauma.
My parents were part of a religion that controlled a lot of aspects of the member’s lives. It uses a lot of thought control and magical thinking to keep people in control. And while my parents were definitely progressive members, that didn’t stop a lot of the more harmful ideologies from worming their way into the makeup of my family. In came the performances. The masking that was required with almost every interaction that I had with people. And I was desperate to please my father. I craved the praise and attention it afforded me, but also the protection from my father’s wrath. His large ego was suffocating at times, and embarrassing him was the ultimate sin in our home. Therefore, our choices and behavior and even our emotions were directly tied to his pride.
The biggest part of the performance was controlling emotions. It was important to come across as happy and put together, which neither of which actually described me or my family. Luckily for me, I was good at the performance. I was good at meeting expectations. But of course, once you meet an expectation, it isn’t long before those expectations grow. Eventually, I couldn’t handle it. And I remember more than one screaming match in my home, complete with fists through walls and broken furniture. What is, admittedly dark, but also funny about the whole situation, is that while he controlled our emotions with an iron fist, my father was the only one who was allowed to express the full range of them. And more often than not, he chose anger.
Now, I’m in my thirties, my father long dead, my emotions now in my full control, and yet, I can’t access them. They’ve been replaced with shame. The one unpleasant emotion I was always permitted. The moment i feel anger, I find myself pushing it aside and feeling embarrassed or guilty instead. I feel shame for allowing myself to get into a position where I’d need to feel angry. I end up feeling guilt for thinking bad thoughts about a person I should be feeling angry at. I feel this sense of dread and panic, and I’m back to those feelings I’d feel as a little girl. Like I’d disappointed my father, and when dad was displeased, there were legitimate reasons to feel afraid. As it turns out, fear was also on the list of permissible unpleasant emotions.
So, now that I’ve identified why I struggle, it should be easy to just do away with all that nonsense, right? Like, my dad is long dead. I have no reason to fear him and I sure as hell can stop the performance of expectations. Just be myself. Be authentic. Be honest with myself and my emotions. But folks, let me tell you, when you spend so much of your life being fed how you should act, how you should feel, who you should be. Trying to actually find you, the authentic you, it is not easy. It takes time and practice, and maybe above all things, courage. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true; It’s a long road, but I’m getting there.
That’s what that kind of control can do to you. Even with my progressive parents, it left me feeling like a husk of a person, struggling to find myself and feel my own emotions. So, I want to give you the same reminders I give to myself: The only person who should be in control of your life is you. You are in charge of your emotions and unpleasant emotions are just as valid as the pleasant ones. You deserve the space to grow and find your own ambitions, your own desires, your own identity. And, despite what all expectations placed upon you, you never have to prove your worthiness when it comes to existing and being who you are. I think these reminders help, and if you too are healing from a similar situation, I hope they can help you as well.