My love affair with my insecurities began long before I can remember.
Breastfed and weaned on whatever transpired in my earliest years, by age ten, I had for quite some time been digesting the solid morsels of “stupid” fed to me by my mind.
With most of my earliest experiences consciously forgotten, my nature and nurture combined to confirm my stupidity.
By age three, I was well into a courtship with my insecurities. I do have vivid memories of barely being able to see the top of my teacher’s desk as knuckles were pounded by the giant wooden pencil or ruler that always stood attentively on the lookout for violations, except, of course, when they were doling out deserved punishments.
Not getting one’s spelling or cursive form correctly with pencil-on-slate was the chief criminal acts back then.
By age six, I was engaged to my insecurities. By then, I knew well the teasing and torment of my sister, my senior by 16 months. Her words and hand and teacher’s wooden pencil weighed the same, stung the same, and reinforced the same.
By seven, I was married. As any wedding certificate recording a name change, mine may as well have read, “Stupid.” My report cards certainly did when they declared time and time again:
Does not pay attention
Cannot sit still
Talks too much
Distracts herself and others
The truth was I just couldn’t see. Many times, and even when I sat in the center front row, I was just asking classmates, “What’s that on the board?”
I wouldn’t get corrective lenses for another three years…
And in those three years, I consummated my marriage to my insecurities. In those three years, I came to know the good-for-nothing defect and shame that I was — according to a dear family friend anyway. That was the family friend who used my young body and mind for his pleasures when all I wanted to do was play with his daughter or pick up the cigarettes my daddy wanted. That family friend repeatedly reaffirmed our secret affair: “Don’t tell anyone. They’ll say you’re naughty. You’ll be punished. You’ll go to hell.”
By age eleven, my density, and dumbness were confirmed by my bottom of the class rankings, in a new school and in a class of 35 girls. My report card actually stated 20th but for me 20th meant failure. 20th meant last. 20th meant undeserving and stupidity substantiated.
At that time too, starvation in Ethiopia was constantly publicized via TV images of malnourished, underweight, threadbare, and hopelessly starved victims and also by the name calling I regularly heard, including the blatant statement, “You look like you’re from Ethiopia.” In my mind, my body, stupidity, and good-for-nothingness were portrayed in those images. Those words only declared the truth. I did not like it being said out loud by anyone, but more importantly, I did not like the affirmations of private knowledge they echoed. Secretly, my weakness and desperation were portrayed in every image of every starved child I saw, and I knew my brain was malnourished, underweight, nonfunctional and hopelessly starved of any intelligence whatsoever.
But somewhere inside of me that rank of 20, that starvation image of myself, and that secret shame birthed a warrior in me. I set out to prove all the external and internal declarations wrong. And for many years since, I’ve known the labor pains and struggles to nurture my warrior child into a victorious adult.
Back then, I just did not want to be ugly. I did not want to be stupid. I did not want to be last. I did not want to be punished. I did not want to go to hell.
I just wanted to be good and good enough.
So I started training.
At age eleven, I began getting up at 3:00 am to study. An ice-cold shower, dressing for school and breakfast of cheese or egg sandwich with a cup of tea would be complete by 3:30 am. I’d study from 3:30 to whenever daddy was ready to take us to school. I studied on the way to school, spent 7:00–8:00 am in the library, ate lunch during 10 minutes of recess, studied at lunchtime and studied on the trip home. Then, at home, I studied even more, usually while drinking ice-filled glass after glass of milk. I gave up all TV except for Little House on the Prairie at 5:00 pm on Sunday evenings. I even created a weekly schedule that accounted for every minute, including sleep.
That was my life for five solid years until my final trimester of high school, when my report card read, “1st.”
Four decades after my 10-year-old acceptance, I’m still undoing my insecurities born out of telling myself and believing that I was stupid, just plain dumb, worthless and a failure.
I’m still breaking up with my insecurities.
Love affairs today typically don’t last this long, and certainly not when fraught with so much fighting and push back.
But breaking up is really hard to do.
Years ago, I also began mentally transforming the ugly duckling me into a still rising swan. I don’t recall the exact moment that consciousness began. It was more like a slow awareness that came with increasing doses of mirrored self-accepting nods.
My stupidity, ugliness, last-ness, naughtiness, and good-for-nothingness became my identity during my first decade of life.
After that, my own thoughts, concurrent with life’s events reinforced those beliefs — even as I fought against them.
I’ve been entering the ring continuously through self-talk, reading, and self-help, research, education, journaling, self-examination, self-determination, prayer, contemplation, release… and through all that life has given me. Life is a good therapist.
It’s been an ongoing evolution. A good one. I’m no longer a lightweight in this battle.
I’ve definitely been overcoming. I’ve needed four times the length of time it took to internalize those negative self-beliefs to fight them. It took ten years to establish the relationship and thus far, it’s taken forty to break up.
I still need more time before I put crooked cursive to the divorce decree and completely sever the ties.
Originally published in March 2018, at medium.com