My whole life I have been a handful. Always strangely passionate and excited, and it has sometimes seemed exhausting for the people around me, especially when I was a kid. Of course, now that I work with children I can definitely see how tiring that energy can be. At school I was always told by teachers to be quiet, sit still, calm down. I always felt uncomfortable being scolded about my excitement. I was never sure exactly why, but I would go home with my heart tight and my mind churning. There were a million little things happening when I dealt with others that just made me feel that certain uncomfortable feeling in my heart.
When you’re young you have trouble placing your feelings (or in my case, even when you’re 25). I feel like understanding the way you feel is something that comes with time. Feelings start off in broad categories and you learn how to hone in on them and sort them more quickly as you grow. Those times that I was scolded when I was little made me feel a sense of discomfort, but I couldn’t figure out what category that discomfort belonged in or what it meant, until a peer finally called me annoying.
It was offhand, just the way a kid says an accepted fact, and it started my brain churning, attempting to make connections. All those times I was being too loud or energetic, was I actually being annoying? Was that tightness I felt in my chest all those days guilt? Is that the category that feeling needed placed in? Guilt that I had caused someone else’s day discomfort? Was I causing all these people negative feelings and that was why I had such a hard time making friends or fitting in?
My little head gnawed incessantly on that idea. It explained a lot. In fact, it seemed to explain everything. All of the events just fit together too perfectly to allow for any other conclusion. I must be annoying. I was mortified that all those years I had been acting this way and I had not known it. How would I fix it? How could I change myself to remove the burden I’d been placing on people?
The funny thing is, I never thought I cared what anyone else thought. I didn’t care if they thought I was a dumbass for running and superman flying on the swings. I didn’t care if they judged who I played with or how we played. I didn’t care if they thought I was a tomboy or a nerd because I liked to play with worms. But I did care if they thought I was annoying, because that meant my actions were affecting them. In my mind I was throwing a wrench into their day.
I wanted to fix it, so started to consciously tone myself down, especially in front of new people. At least if I annoyed the friends I already had I wouldn’t feel as guilty. I made myself uncharacteristically quiet. I observed silently before speaking. I locked up my boisterous excitement for fear that I was annoying every single person around me, and therefore was becoming a burden on their day. I was afraid to act like myself because of the effect I would have on others.
Over the years I have made subtle adjustments to myself, both consciously and not. Some of it was natural maturing. I totally did need to adjust to public standards and not scream like a crazy person in restaurants. I needed to tone it down a bit. But all the time underneath that natural growth there was still that little thing in the back of my head telling me that I needed to be aware of the way others responded to me, so that I would know if I was causing them annoyance, and it effected the way I made friends.
In high school I already had my established group of people. I met new friends, but it was usually through someone else who I trusted to tell me if my behavior was too ridiculous. My first year of college however, I had to start fresh. I was so afraid of finding friends in this new environment that I didn’t know where to start or how to talk. I spent my entire first year in fear that every single person I encountered found me painful to be around, and I started to lose the person I enjoyed being. I altered my behavior for the few people that I did have, and I didn’t feel good.
I had no idea how to build the friendships I craved, so I stopped trying. I think maybe God saw me struggling and sent a little help my way, because sophomore year He brought me the person that would become my best friend. I thought she was awesome, but if I acted the way I wanted to then she was probably going to bolt. I didn’t want to be too much. I spent weeks wanting to ask her to hang out to do homework or watch a movie or literally anything because she was hilarious (and she owned We’re Back A Dinosaur Movie), but I wouldn’t let myself do it. I avoided being authentic, because I didn’t want to scare her away. That process that seems so simple for others, making friends, was a terror to me, even when it was this person who was meant for me. The thing is, nothing changed. I’m not in college anymore, but that sensitivity to how others respond to me and my inability to feel like I am connecting hasn’t gone anywhere.
Recently a friend of mine did this team building activity at my former university, where she works and I can’t seem to stay away from. She had everyone write something they wanted to break through on the front of a board and positive words on the back written in the opposite direction. They then “broke through” the negative on the front, leaving the positive on the back in tact. I visited her office after the activity and she asked if I would like to break a board with my hand. Duh!
She asked if I would write words on it. I said I would, thinking it would be cleansing. That was the point right? Cleansing and empowering. So I sat down with the board and thought. I thought about what I wanted to break through. I thought about all the new people I had been meeting at the time, and how I felt around them. And then I thought, why? Why did meeting awesome new people carry so many negative feelings for me; doubt, and fear, and self-consciousness; where other parts of my life didn’t?
The word popped into my head. Annoying. I wanted to break through the feeling that I annoyed people. That word came to me so easily, and I knew that it blended a lifetime of misplaced feelings. I picked up the pen, removed the cap, and placed my hand to hover over the board for probably five minutes. I couldn’t bring myself to write it. Now that I was thinking about it, this was a feeling I had never expressed out loud. In fact, I wasn’t sure I had ever really truly acknowledged it internally. It was just this kind of abstract, behind the scenes thing that was always there; that I always accepted as true.
My friend noticed me sitting like a statue and asked what I was preparing to write. I breathed deeply and exhaled as I spoke.
“Annoying.” There. I said it out loud.
She raised her eyebrows. “What?”
I had to say it again.
“Annoying.” I responded, during an exhale again. At that point I think I might have only been breathing out and not in. My mind was buzzing, my heart was pounding. Writing this word on the dead piece of tree sitting on my lap terrified me.
“Why do you want to write that?”
“Because it’s something I have been told, and something I think I want to break through.”
“You have been told that you are annoying? By who?”
“Uhh, peers in school. And I built it in my head I think. I don’t know. It’s just something I feel.”
And then she lay down the showstopper. The final nugget on a scale ready to tip. “I can’t believe that someone would say that about you.”
This should have comforted me. It should have encouraged me. But this statement was how I knew that I was not going to be breaking through that feeling when I broke the board. All I was going to be doing was breaking down the door to all those cemented in behaviors. I knew this wasn’t going to be a day to break through because instead of looking at my friend and responding, “yeah well, people are assholes,” I wanted to say, “yeah well, you haven’t known me that long.”
I heard her disbelief, and instead of acknowledging and agreeing with her, which is what I would need to do to free myself from that feeling, I placed the blame on time. She hadn’t known me long enough to see how annoying I was yet. And besides, I wasn’t now because of the way I changed my behavior. If she had known me longer she would know how truly annoying I had been.
She would know it was true as much as I did.
I knew it was true. I had felt this way for so long that it had become imprinted in me. It was piled into my brain with other accepted facts like knives being sharp, fire being hot, and books being beautiful. It happened without me even having to think about it. It happened as automatically as breathing.
My hand broke a board that day. My friend placed it between the arms of two different chairs and taught me how to do it without injuring myself. She moved aside and left me there to look my fear in the face. I stood there looking at that word, annoying. It was taunting me. It knew the power it held over me. I shook my arms, I jumped up and down, I danced around, I said over and over, “this is way scarier than I thought it would be.” I made myself stop thinking about it, and I broke it.
I don’t know what strength let me do it. Maybe it was that I knew if I didn’t I would regret it, or maybe I just didn’t want to explain to myself and the others in the room why I couldn’t. But I broke that board. It was the first time I acknowledged it and I did it in front of people. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an emotional hangover. I felt super vulnerable. I had to work through it, but the start probably shouldn’t have been in front of a bunch of people, no matter how cool those people are.
It maybe wasn’t the best or easiest way to break down the door, but since then I have been trying to work through it. I have been trying to be conscious of the times that little thing in the back of my mind changes my behaviors to make me “less annoying.” I have been trying to let myself be.
I think the best part of the whole thing was just that it made me more internally conscious. It gave me the awareness I needed to start letting myself see more truths. It gave me something to strive for, when I didn’t even realize I needed to. I’m striving to break through that feeling of being a burden, and pushing to let myself feel truth in positive words. To see my qualities as gifts, and to feel that I can give those gifts to others. I’m breaking through feeling self conscious, unauthentic, and scared; and giving strength to words that will empower me, not those that will drag me down.
On that back of that board I wrote, “Passionate, excited, enthusiastic.” Those are the things I am trying to let myself feel. I am trying to show myself that the word on the front of the board is not true. What’s true are the words on the back. And the expression of those words, whatever that looks like for me, is a beautiful thing.