Claiming My Place

Author’s note: fair warning that this post has been rattling around in my head for a couple of months, banging off the walls of my skull, chipping off the smooth edge of my politesse and reserve, leaving sharp, jagged edges of emotion that come out in some of the imagery and language I use. This post is full of big feelings and is odiferous of fear and anger. Feel free to skip this one if its raw, unpolished nature is intimidating.
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Part of the reason I struggle with coming out in my family has to do with “place”–as in the phrases “it’s not my place to”, or “put her in her place”. Also part of it is the concept of selflessness. I’ve touched on them in earlier posts. But these two ideological forces are converging with my practical reality now, as they never have before. The result is a huge pressure front building inside my head and chest, threatening to overwhelm me.

“Place” is a hard concept to articulate. For me, the idea is that each person in a given group has a place, a specific role to play relative to the others, and stepping beyond that role is seen as presumptive or transgressive. This rigid role dynamic can be the source of great stability and comfort, relieving the uncertainty that comes when boundaries are undefined or non-existent. But more often in my experience, it is the source of significant friction and discontent when the parameters of one’s role become dated or out of alignment with one’s personal identity.

Then there’s selflessness, specifically, “having a servant’s heart” (as in Christlike service) and being of service to others. These precepts formed the basis of my upbringing. My siblings and I were taught and were expected to seek what was best for others, to think of others first before ourselves. It was a blending of traditional Southern ideas of ‘elders and ladies first’ and fundamentalist Christian ‘Christ washing the apostles’ feet. And the resulting family ideology yields a social programming powerful beyond the sum of its parts. The fact that I recognize this as ideology and programming does not dissipate it’s effects.

Mine was a home steeped in guilt. Christians and members of our family clan knew our place and served others (particularly the family), eschewing anything that smacked of selfishness. Any time one of us stepped beyond our designated role or acted in our own self interests, the guilt was a rising tide that swamped the lot of us, so that we all learned the lesson of the guilty one. Guilt on steroids.

So, here I am, nearing the end of my 44th year, struggling with the necessary step of coming out to my family. I struggle because doing so means both stepping outside the role designated for me by the expectation of the others in the family, as well as taking what is an essentially self-centered action to claim a new place of my choosing, of my own definition.

Identifying and taking up the space I want to occupy in the world (both literally and metaphorically) without apology, as if by right, is an exercise of supreme selfishness. And it flies in the face of my family’s expectations and desires for my role in our family unit.

As I’ve alluded to in other posts, my family have a fairly narrowly-defined idea of who I am as a person, and that viewpoint is not entirely flattering or confidence-inspiring. As the youngest in the family, a female, overweight and unattractive, I’m a burden to them in many respects, from their perspective. But also, this makes me very low-ranking in terms of perceived influence. Ultimately, this place means that, to them, I really have no right to claim a place of privilege, of self care, of my desire over others’. Instead, I should submit to my elders (especially the men of the bunch) in their estimation of what’s best for me and for the rest of the family. Their expectations and wishes should decide my path.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s never as overt and black-and-white as I’ve stated it here. It’s a much more insidious campaign of peer pressure. Akin to a wolf pack or other collective organization, it’s a matter of molding each other to the will of the rest of the pack by negative reinforcements and passive-aggressive communication in the form of growls and snarls and nips. Despite this patriarchy, this binary system of privilege, I have a deep bond of love and gratitude to my family. But I’m no longer willing to squeeze myself inside the box they’ve built around my identity.

Hence the struggle.

As I’ve said before, I’m scared to lose them, scared of being shunned and disavowed. As imperfect as we are, we’re still a family and the love between us is 100% real. It’s just not 100% in harmony with my internal picture of myself.

My fear is of being shunned for being who I am. It’s fear of loneliness and trepidation at laying claim to the right to be free from their judgment. A rising sense of panic tightens my throat when I think of the choice I must make: conform to a false identity and resign myself to personal misery, or risk being outside the gates of my family’s community by claiming a place of my choosing.

And so, I’ve succumbed to silence. I feel like I’m living that line from Sarah McLauchlan’s song, I Will Remember You: “It’s funny how we feel so much but we cannot say a word; We are screaming inside, but we can’t be heard”.

I continually ask myself why it matters so much what they think, why is their comfort more important than my happiness? What if I want to think of myself first, for once? Does that selfishness make me a bad person, fundamentally? Can I survive the hurt that will come if my fear proves well founded?

I don’t have a neat, tidy ending. Just a raw, ragged tear in the fabric of my courage and resolve. But I’m not a quitter. I will accomplish this at some point. It’s just a matter of time…else the passage of time will do the job for me when one of the people who do know reveal the truth to them before I can muster the guts to do so. That would be a fitting capper to my cowardice, I guess.

3 comments so far

  1. […] try to keep it a short one today, because I’ll follow it with a much longer post of a different sort. I’ve been working through a lot of stuff this year, pulling my mental and emotional s&@t […]

  2. Femmi on

    You derserve a place where you get to be yourself and be happy. You only have one life. This is it… are you going to waste another day living someobe else’s life for other people’s comfort?

    At the end of the day what will it accomplish?

    You’re too wonderful to be anything less that your authentic self. Making space for yourself isn’t mutually exclusive to the comfort of your family. People adapt, remarkably well for the most part.

    • Searching4Self2013 on

      Thanks for that, gorgeous. I appreciate the reminder and the ego boost.

      Of course you hit on it: I need to live my life for me, not everyone else. But that’s also the challenge.

      I’m working on it. Finding balance is always a difficult thing for me, as I tend to be the go-flat-out-or-not-all type.

      Thanks for being my cheer-leader! 🙂

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