My pediatrician told me I would grow up to be 5’5”.
At seven years old, how could I argue that? Despite knowing that neither of my parents stood taller than 5’3″, I had a woman who’d known me since I was a toddler, who had spent more than my lifetime within the four walls of medical school, standing in front of me telling me that I would one day see the world from the vantage point of 5’5″.
I remember when I gave up hope that my eyes would ever get that chance. At 12 years old, I stood at only 4’11”. And when 13 came, and I saw no more growth, I became resentful of my pediatrician’s promise. I started obsessing over being short. I was wearing heels to school every day, I stepped out from underneath the cloak of the shy girl I was; I was loud, and I was bold. I was overcompensating, in part, for the pieces of me I felt were missing. But somewhere along the line, I realized that it never really was about how tall I stood.
The truth is, I spent a lot of my childhood feeling small, and I never actually wanted to be small. Not reaching a predicted height only further sealed what I thought was my overall fate — both physically and emotionally.
I decided then, in middle school, to change who I was. I put on the facade of a girl who was big and was bold, and I hoped that one day, it would catch up. I hoped that one day, I would feel as big as I pretended to be.
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I showed a Ted Talk in a group that I run the other day. The speaker, Glennon Doyle, called her story Lessons from the Mental Hospital, and in it, she talked about her struggle with depression and self-worth, bulimia, and addiction. I didn’t have an agenda or a direction that I wanted to take after watching the video. I wanted the group to take in all the themes that jumped out within those 18 minutes — the importance of vulnerability as a catalyst for change, finding bold courage, taking off the masks that we hide behind, crashing into rock bottom, and coming back up for air. When I asked the group what stood out the most to them, the general consensus was these words:
“We feel so much pain and so much love and we sense that the world doesn’t want us to feel that much, and doesn’t want to need as much comfort as we need. So we start pretending. We try to pretend like we’re the people that we think we’re supposed to be. We numb, and we hide, and we pretend. And that pretending does eventually turn into a life of lies. But to be fair, we thought we were supposed to be lying. They tell us since we’re little that when someone asks us how we’re doing, the only appropriate answer is: ‘Fine. And you?'”
The common theme in the room was that, as children, we were told that our voices didn’t matter. We were taught that no amount of wanting to be big would ever make it true: we were children, and that instantly made us small.
When we cried, we were handed tissues — the message essentially screaming that your tears don’t matter. Wipe them up, sweep whatever hurt you are feeling under the rug and carry on. We’re told, at the sight of one tear rolling down our cheeks to stop crying. And often, when we were sad, it came out as defiance. We were never asked, “what’s going on? What are you feeling upset about?” We’re asked, “what’s wrong with you? Why are you being so bad?” We were taught that the only thing we could feel was fine. We were taught to quiet the sound of our voices, and to forget the feelings that were rattling our bones. And so as time passed, we assumed the role of the person who was never heard. And that’s how we grow up.
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I made a career out of the deep rooted desire to never let the people around me ever feel small. But all the schooling and internship hours and the textbooks and the professors and the mentoring could never set you up to tell you what it’s like.
I remember the first time I realized how big my job is, and just how small that epiphany made me feel.
I was sitting with someone who could only be described as a warrior. Her story is not mine to share, but I need you to know this. I need you to know that when she showed up at my door, she was hiding behind a hard shell. As time went on, I had the honor of watching her take her chisel and pick away at the pieces that she so intricately built around herself.
On this particular day, she was talking about where she thought the onset of her problem lied. She was fed, as a kid, the age-old adage: be seen, but don’t you dare be heard. Just like Glennon Doyle spoke about in her Ted Talk, this person was always told to hold her head up, to puff her chest out, to paint a smile on her face, and to always respond with, “I’m fine,” when asked how she was doing. I listened to her deconstruct all the lies she had ever been told, and I watched as she started to believe them.
You’re worthless. You’re a mistake. You’re a piece of shit.
And as she rattled them off — all the lies she’d ever been told, I noticed she was looking down, fidgeting with her hands: a clear sign of nervousness that comes from being vulnerable. It was in that moment that I realized how much I really connected with this person. I remember all the times I hid behind the small things out of feeling insignificant and small myself. And I remember how nearly impossible it’s always been for me to look someone in the eye and speak my truth.
Silence filled the room, and I knew she was waiting on me to change the topic, for me to ask another question, for me to divert my attention elsewhere.
I didn’t have any words to offer that would make an earth-shattering difference. She needed my silence. She needed to believe, in that silence, that her voice mattered.
The drive home that night was brutal. I regressed back to the adolescent version of myself. My mind was spitting back all the insecurities I thought I once weed wacked my way through. Who had the audacity to choose you to be the one who gets the hear their story? How could you be enough for them? How could I cower down to this small version of myself and have this job that I had to show up at and be big and bold and somehow make it work?
But something really important happened. That person kept coming back. She started to identify feelings that were suppressed by the liars and the voices that told her she was never enough. She started exploring more and with each passing week, that wall kept coming down. There was a pivotal moment, when I checked in to ask how she felt things were going. She told me that the moments that were most important to her were all the ones when I allowed her to just be there, with all of her heavy stuff. It was the moments I didn’t try to redirect, or to change, or to dig. It was in the moments she felt heard, and she felt seen, and she felt important.
That was my tent pole moment.
Hannah Brencher talked about tent pole moments in her November Writing Intensive. She describes these moments as the ones that plant themselves in the ground and mark a very obvious shift in your life. They’re the poignant moments that knock you off your path a little bit, and make you believe that you’re on your way to being different. This conversation changed it for me, and I’ve never been the same.
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It is such a privilege to be the one invited to sit right in the crux of someone else’s pain.
I don’t make many promises, but I do promise that if you ever get the chance to sit with someone while they tell you the whole story, it’ll be intense and it’ll be overwhelming, and it’ll hurt like hell. It will feel like a series of sucker punches to the gut. You’ll question why you were the chosen one. And when they keep coming back, and when they allow themselves to slowly take off their masks, you’ll ask yourself a million times how you were enough for that very important role.
That’s what I struggle with the most. The truth is, I don’t know how to be enough. I don’t know how to love hard enough, or listen intently enough, or be good enough. And to be the person who gets to collect all these heartbreaking stories and crack open a shell full of pain and build on the bits and pieces of hope and help stitch together recovery — well that’s the the stuff that makes what I do golden. That’s what makes it all enough.
I’m starting to learn that enough isn’t pretty sentences with words intricately stitched together that sound bigger than they really are. People don’t need that.
Amongst all the misconceptions about the field of counseling is the one where people think we, as therapists, have all the answers. People believe there is an answer key in a book somewhere, and that we can open that book and direct you towards the road you need to take. And my God, if that were the truth, I would give this all up. I would ask for a refund and throw in the towel and say that this isn’t what I want to do. Because if it were that easy, I’m not sure it would be worth it.
As much as we believe it to be true, people don’t need another map with a red X marking the destination.
More than answers, we just need each other. We need each other to show up to remind us that we are not alone. We need to be validated. We need to know that our thoughts matter and that our feelings matter. We need someone to ask, “how are you,” and stay with us long enough to hear the answer when it’s not just, “fine, and you?”
I guess I’ve been wrong all along. It’s not about constructing a life so big that you forget to be small. It has nothing to do with being bold and being loud and forgetting the person you are underneath your own shadow. It’s about heart. That’s the stuff that matters. It’s about having the heart that is willing to sit with someone when they need it the most. It’s about hearing other people and letting them feel known — letting them be seen, and letting them find it within themselves to believe that they are more than just that small child who was taught that their feelings didn’t matter.
It starts when you drop the facade; it starts when you stop trying to be bigger than you are. It starts when you stop letting the fear of being too small be the barrier the stands in your way. It starts with heart — because that’s all we ever really need.