Eight-year-old me was surprised.
I had just found out that my two friends called each other’s moms “Mom,” and that they referred to each other as sisters. They were already super close by the time I entered the picture, painfully shy and fresh out of homeschooling. I remember just standing there, looking up at my friend’s mom, who worked in the cafeteria at the small private Christian school I had entered probably two months before. She was smiling. My friends hugged each other, and I stood by, trying to smile or something—to take part in the moment, pretend I was amused or that my heart was warmed as I sought to ignore the implications of what was taking place here. They didn’t call my mom “Mom.” No one but my sisters had ever called me “sister”, and I got the feeling this nickname was reserved for just the two of them. Something I might never earn because I had been tacked on after the bond between them had already crystallized.
Later that school year, it was twin day. My friends and I decided to be triplets, and we had coordinated what we were going to wear over phone conversations and everything. I don’t remember the whole outfit, but we were going to wear a pink long-sleeved shirt and black pants, and I was so excited because I knew just what I was going to wear. My shirt was a deep magenta, with a few pink jewels around the collar. I was convinced it would be perfect.
But when I showed up to school, my heart sank. My two friends had the same exact shirt. They were perfectly coordinated, and I guess one could tell I was supposed to be a part of the group, but I still didn’t quite fit. I tried to brush this off too. I had simply missed the fact that they had the same shirt (which I didn’t have anyway so it didn’t matter). It was an innocent coincidence and my friends never meant me any harm. But the memory stuck. I still have bits of visual information from that day, but I remember most clearly what I felt enduring the rest of it, playing with them—more like following them around because I was really shy and didn’t talk or engage much—in a non-matching shirt, feeling like the third-wheel—again. And the response deep inside of me was a strange, sort of smothered sensation, like I simultaneously tried to ignore or rationalize my exasperation, and also that I didn’t quite understand that I was feeling hurt.
I didn’t have a large friend group at school (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Most people played “bump” in the gym, or jumped rope. I was more interested in playing exciting pretend games and climbing things. But when my few friends were absent, I was alone. This trend continued throughout grade school.
In junior high, I was highly insecure about being the third wheel, and it caused problems in my friend group. By high school, I had friends, but I was relatively closed off. As far as everything related to the school sphere, academics were all that mattered to me. I was on a different level—or something. Perhaps it was a coping mechanism, perhaps I was just perfectionistic and arrogant. Probably a combination of the two. I was very driven, and I considered friends a luxury, not vital to survival.
I didn’t realize much of this until my senior year in high school, when I began to look back and analyze what specific wounds I carried and possibly why. And it seemed all these random little instances of me standing by, feeling left out, looked over, forgotten, had built up and found their mark. Growing up, I never had any huge, catastrophic event that tore my heart open—it was these little thorns. Like constant, dripping water wearing away a hole in my sense of identity and how I related to other people.
Ultimately, it ended up with an intense self-reliance and persistent feelings of unimportance and loneliness, the scars of which I still feel from time to time—not out of any sort of grudge-holding, but just that they’re very deep and perhaps rooted in more than simple circumstance.
My first couple of years at college, I had to tackle these voices head on and force myself to fight them, to shake their hold, and to expose them for what they were. I had to look around me and have the audacity to admit that I have not been left to fade into the background. It was a key turning point in my sense of identity.
I thought this victory was final.
But every now and then, the pain shows up again. The hurt, the self-reliance, the ungrounded feelings of loneliness and of being forgotten. Thirteen years later, I feel like, deep down, I’m still that soft-hearted little girl with a mop of brown hair, a thumb-shaped overbite, and a pink graphic t-shirt, just standing and watching from a distance, being too shy to step forward or say anything. Persistently unpopular and more than a little self-righteous, who never felt she truly fit even when she knew she had people who cared about her.
I think even if I had led a perfect life, I would still carry these insecurities. Because fallenness does not obliterate our capacity to excel in our strengths, but enables the very aspects that drive those strengths to unearth weaknesses on the opposite side. My drive for creativity, connection and communication, for example, is plagued by an underlying terror of mediocrity and unimportance in the lives of those I care about most. My aversion to unnecessary conflict or forcing my own desires on someone else easily results in passivity in group decision making. And the list goes on.
Speculating about factors of my own personal character development fascinates me. I find it therapeutic to pick apart a flaw, insecurity, or disinclination, trace it to its origins, figure out what it’s associated with, and try to extrapolate if or how it might sabotage things if I let it go unchecked.
I do this all the time with fictional characters. I guess it’s only natural to do it with my own personality. With myself, it’s sort of like a systems check, blowing out dust, eradicating bugs, making sure I continue moving forward. It’s ultimately part of my ever ongoing pursuit to understand and accept myself and learn to be a safe place for people to embrace who they are as well.