This is me waiting to go through security at an airport: long before I get to the metal detector, I’ve got my jacket off, tickets and shoes in hand, pockets emptied of coins and keys, and bag positioned to pull out my laptop. I try to think ahead so things go as smoothly as possible, but of course, there are sometimes complications, especially when traveling with small children. There are two fears behind all this prep—missing my flight and holding up the line, annoying my fellow travelers.
When I stay in a hotel, I tend to keep my belongings in my bag, only unpacking what I need at the time, like toiletries or clothes for the day. I’ll hang up work clothes that might get wrinkled, but I never use the provided dresser drawers. If I do have loose items, like books or snacks, they end up stacked neatly next to my purse. Type-A behavior to be sure, but I wouldn’t say I’m a type-A person. It has more to do with anxiety that if I spread my stuff all over the place, I’ll forget something when I check out, or, if I’m rooming with someone, I’ll hog too much space and annoy them.
There’s a theme here—social anxiety about annoying people—but the other part of this is a desire to be self-reliant. To keep my crap together, so to speak. Self-reliance was a message drummed into me from the time I was young, but it’s also part of my personality. I love being independent, and I hate relying on other people. I want to be seen as competent. I think it also has to do with how kids, especially girls, are socialized. “Don’t make a fuss. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Keep your head down, and toe the line.”
I was a cheerleader in high school, and we performed stunts. I was a base, which meant I was the one with sneaker hickeys on my neck from letting another girl climb on my shoulders, holding her ankles tight so she could tower over the crowd. Sometimes we’d throw a girl into the air and join hands, forming a basket to catch her. It could be hazardous, both for the person being thrown and the people doing the catching. I had bruises to prove it. I never wanted to be the girl on top. It was partly a fear of falling, though I doubt anyone would have dropped me, not on purpose at least. Part of it was this savior complex I have—no one was going to fall on my watch. I knew, as a base, I had the strength to hold someone, and I’d let them crush me before I’d let them land on the unforgiving gym floor.
That attitude has served me well as a parent. I’m overprotective, but my kids have survived childhood thus far. The savior complex has gotten me into trouble a few times too, walking toward bad situations instead of away from them. I did stupid things when I worked in mental health. I was a naïve young woman who wanted to save the world, and that translated to volunteering in bad parts of town, providing therapy for homeless men. It’s amazing nothing awful happened to me, because I spent a lot of time alone in windowless rooms with addicts and parolees. Somebody must have been looking out for me, because none of the guys I worked with treated me badly, though I’m sure they doubted my competence. Sometimes I think about that girl and wonder what wisdom she thought she could offer people with far more life experience than she. Maybe they were kind because they knew more than I did about how vulnerable I was, in spite of my bravado.
Strength is a point of pride for me—I try not to look vulnerable. I’ve been known to brush off injuries for fear of appearing weak. When it comes to helping other people, I’ve gotten better about saying no, but at times I still take on too much instead of letting people know I’m swamped. When I get in a tight spot, I tend to keep it to myself, only sharing how bad things are with those in my inner circle.
Most of the time it’s good to be strong, to help others. I’ve never seen myself as a damsel in distress. For one, I’m not exactly dainty. Two, I favor boots over heels, and I’ll carry my own sword, thank you very much.* Usually, when I get in a sticky situation, I save myself. But what happens when I can’t?
The problem with working to look like you’ve got it together is people can’t always tell when you need rescued. If you’re like me, you don’t actually have it together all the time, but it’s hard to ask for help. I’d rather suck it up and suffer than expose my vulnerabilities. There have been times when I’ve needed saving, and I kept that fact to myself. Sometimes it was because I had a problem nobody could fix. Other times it was because I was so busy keeping up the illusion I didn’t need help, that I didn’t take time to connect with people so they’d be there to ask.
I’m trying to be better about this. I recently read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, and she makes valid points about giving, receiving, and letting people see you, scars and all. One thing she said that resonated with me was about the act of receiving—allowing people to help you is a gift you give. We need these exchanges, because none of us can get through this life on our own. She also said it’s easier to ask for help for others than it is to ask for yourself. I have found this to be true.
I’m lucky. I have loving friends. I know the closest among them would take me in if ever I showed up on their doorsteps in the middle of the night. But even among my most trusted friends I could stand to show a little more vulnerability, to be brave enough to ask for help instead of trying to save myself.
*I do own a sword. My dad made it for me. See Exhibit A.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016