1995: The Trauma of “Don’t think you’re so great”

In this passage I see that I am essentially a creative person, but I’ve never been able to actualize more than a small percentage of what I was capable of. The reason is because of my mother constantly telling me “Don’t think you’re so great.” I had no idea how damaging that was, but I can see it here in my response to the little four-year-old running around, showing off her skirt. I was only able to do it at the Woman’s Way Retreat because I felt safe, and I wasn’t me, I was acting the part of a child. I also see how afraid I was of doing anything that might cause mother to “go away.” But that was how I was traumatized as a baby, mother going away and leaving me alone.

From my journal for October 16, 1995

I’ve been imagining an art project that I might work on.  I’ve thought about covering the cardboard dodecahedron with collage — with a whole “carpet” of cut & pasted images and bits of color.  I would need to reinforce the structure and I’m not sure how to do that.  … [lots of ideas for similar projects] …  so that’s a lot of possible cardboard-and-collage projects.

But I never did any of them.

The important thing about the session with Karen is that I was forced to see the way in which I am unable to receive my accomplishments.  I trivialize them or go numb.  When Karen asked if I could celebrate what I had done in Shenandoah, I burst into tears and said “No.”  I have no sense of my contribution as being something valuable enough to celebrate.    Karen pointed out how I trivialized Shenandoah — well it’s just a bit of community theater, not very meaningful.  Then I had to acknowledge that it’s about a man who is anti-war because he really cares about his children, and Karen reminded me of how important community art is for the healing of the planet, for the future.  Karen also reminded me of the four-year-old who ran around at Woman’s Way “Look at my skirt!  Look at my skirt!” and asked if I couldn’t find that energy inside me.  But I can’t, I feel like that was someone else, like she’s dead.  Karen began to speak for her, and it made me very uncomfortable and scared.  I told her to stop and called her a show-off and said she was bad, but she wouldn’t stop and I was desperate to shut her up and said “Something terrible will happen if you go on like that.”  I don’t have a clear catastrophic expectation, I don’t hear a voice in my head, I just feel a chill, a thickening tension, a draining away of all value, inspiration, exuberant energy.  I think that what I’m afraid of, what I in fact experienced that was so devastating, was the withdrawal of love, and that scared me so badly that I shut down anything that I thought might have caused Mother to “go away.”  And I know for sure mother wouldn’t have been able to tolerate me feeling good about something creative that I’d done.

This passage shows how my mother shut me down, and how I learned to shut myself down, in the fear of something horrible happening if I dared express exuberance.

Woman’s Way was a week-long retreat working on psychological issues with a number of different modalities. At one point we were told to choose a partner, and then one of you would be the child and the other a mother for a time, and then you would switch roles.  As a child, I imagined I was four years old, and I put on a gold lamé skirt that was among the many costumes available. The woman playing mother was very supportive. But now, away from that supportive atmosphere, I could only try to shut down that energy.

I had an image of that exuberant four-year-old, in her gold lamé skirt, at a vast distance from me, down at the end of a long dark tunnel, and I wonder about doing something in cardboard and collage — “The attempted murder of Tinkerbelle” or something.

Needless to say I never expressed this image in art.

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