The "Un-Mute" Button

My family doesn’t know me to be a quiet person. Even when I was a kid, my footsteps were heavy and my voice was loud. They always knew when I was around.

I was stubborn and opinionated, at times too much for my own good. I wasn’t shy about letting it be known, either. Sometimes these things, and my temper, got me into trouble at home.

Still, I was intellectual and smart, and I enjoyed things that made me think and use my mind. I was clever, creative, and artistic. I loved music, drawing, and writing. I had a quirky sense of humor and was always a goofy kid, one who would constantly go out of my way to make my sister and her friends laugh.

Whatever the word “normal” means (although truthfully, there’s probably no such thing), writing all of this, retrospectively, I would almost say I was a pretty “normal” kid. The thing of it is, though, that I never felt that way. In addition to all of those things, I also had OCD, and only my most immediate family knew about it.

Not my friends, not my classmates, not my teachers. Nobody knew. So, at the same time as I was being all of those other “normal” things, I was also hiding a huge secret from the rest of the world.

That’s a pretty heavy weight for an 8-year old’s shoulders, as broad and hefty as they might have been (I was a big kid).

As I’ve written before, I’ve been in and out of therapy several times throughout my life. From ages 8 to 18, I was regularly medicated and attending cognitive behavioral therapy CBT sessions with a number of different therapists throughout the years. I’ve been unmedicated since, but in my late 20s I returned to therapy and am still part of a weekly anxiety and eating disorders group.

To this day, very few people have known this about me.

Several times during those 10 therapy-less years I suspected that I may need some support for my OCD and anxiety, but my hesitation to return to therapy was very strong. I was conflicted with ideas that going back to therapy was some kind of regression or failure on my part. There was a part of me that wanted to be seen, and another part of me that was afraid of what might become of being seen.

I think about this from time to time, and have recently come to the realization that this particular struggle is something that has been going on within me for years.

I mentioned many traits of mine from when I was younger- stubborn, outspoken, smart, creative, and artistic. When I think about younger me as these things and then about myself now, I don’t really feel that much about me has changed. But after my diagnosis with OCD I began to withdraw, especially at school.

My opinions were still strong but I stopped sharing them, and my stubbornness to vocally back these opinions became a stubbornness to keep them to myself. My temper still got the best of me at times, but I would stew silently and suppress my anger. I still got good grades but stopped showing people that I was smart, keeping my hand down and avoiding answering questions in class like the plague. I still enjoyed music, singing in particular (I can actually carry a tune halfway decently), but never, ever let anybody else hear it. The same went for my drawing and writing- these were for me and nobody else to see.

Quite literally, I became a muted version of myself.

I came to this realization recently and when I recognized it, I decided that the best way to address it was to try my best to be open about it (you know, the opposite of muted). I’ve talked about the comfort I find in numbers, how they help me make sense of the things around me and how calculated the risks I take tend to be. That said, there’s an emotional and social component to all of this that simply can’t be explained or quantified by numbers.

I often have trouble expressing myself freely and completely; not only are the risks I take calculated ones but I tend to choose my words very carefully. I sometimes find that I envy (in an admiring sort of way) for people who are able to speak with raw, unfiltered emotion about how they feel. It’s something that I can absolutely relate to, but when it comes to expressing myself that way, I hold back.

I know I’m not alone in this, either. For all of the people who are able to speak candidly, I believe there are just as many of us- if not more- who hold back and filter ourselves more than we might need to. If you’re like me, we do this because we’re not quite sure that what we say will be understood or well-received. Instead, we try very hard to word things just the right way, just so we may not stir up any controversial feelings in other people.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have a filter. There are some things that we shouldn’t be saying to people, especially when they’re purposely hurtful or offensive. But still, there is probably more wiggle room for emotional openness than we allow ourselves to have in conversation with people.

On a personal note, much of what I say is carefully thought out. I often try to speak in such a way that comes across as positive. Even when the emotions feel more negative (anger and frustration in particular), I’m usually very cautious about how I phrase things. I’m pretty sure this comes from my deeply rooted insecurity about being misunderstood dating back to when I was 8 and started learning to keep my OCD a secret.

There are several results that have come from that time in my life. For one thing, I’ve surprised many people when I finally did open up and share with them that I have OCD. Apparently I was that good at hiding myself. On the flip side, in learning to hide my struggles I also hid my strengths to the point where it’s equally as surprising to people the first time they actually see all of those other traits; my sense of humor and wit, my creativity and artistic ability, my thoughts and opinions and the many other things that go on in my mind, my charisma and personality as a whole.

Again, I know I’m not the only person who experiences this on a daily basis. But somebody has to speak up about it, no? The fact of the matter is that as uncomfortable as it might be at first, it’s important to be true to yourself and show your true self to other people. Hiding who you are can wreak havoc on your self-esteem when you feel like you’re not worth being seen or heard.

If this is you, trust me, I understand and I’m with you.

I’ve come to realize that most of my social relationships have essentially formed as though I’m dipping my toe in a pool to test the temperature of the water, only advancing if the water feels safe to step in further. I gradually introduce my thoughts, my humor, my emotions, carefully gauging the reactions I get from other people. If they accept what I offer, I offer a little bit more, and over time, I’m able to let them see me more fully.

I’ve been trying to identify what it is I might need from others in order to feel comfortable speaking more freely and showing my true self. Almost immediately, the word “permission” came to mind. While I was never “forbidden” from telling anybody about my OCD, the underlying message that I interpreted was that I shouldn’t be so open about myself, and that it was best to keep a low profile. I never made the distinction between what to share and what not to share. I just hid everything.

So, when I interact with people and finally start to open up, I do so in a way that’s as though I’m seeking their “permission” to fully be who I really am. Dipping my toe in the pool to find that the water is warm and inviting. Not too cold, not too hot, but just right. Kind of like a social Goldilocks.

Some people have been more reassuring than others, even offering actual verbal “permission” to me to just be myself. They’ve insisted that they can handle both my strengths and my flaws. Many times I want to believe them, but it’s more complicated than that.

There’s a difference between believing them and actually putting that into practice. In hiding for so long it’s become my “default” setting to deflect such willing attention from others towards my real self. It feels like the line from The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

The truth is, I don’t want to be this way. I’m trying to learn how not to hide myself so much. I want to share myself with others, both my flaws and my strengths- and yes, there are many of each.

But this takes time. I can’t just undo the last 23 years overnight, as much as I may want to. Unfortunately, most of us can’t do this for ourselves. And that’s OK.

It’s absolutely, completely, 100% OK.

So here’s what I suggest, from my experience:

Recognize your desire to feel free to be yourself. Because no matter how reassuring someone may try to be, only you can give yourself the “permission” to be yourself. It may be scary as hell, but if the desire is there, let it fuel you to find your way.

Embrace the fact that your flaws exist, and own them. As ironic as it may seem, your flaws can actually be invaluable to making a connection to people. Because believe it or not, they’re relatable- nobody is perfect. It’s cliche, but it’s true.

By the same token, be proud of your strengths and highlight them. Being proud of them can be massively helpful to you in sharing them.

Not everybody will accept or understand these parts of you, neither your flaws nor your strengths. They don’t need to, but I believe it’s important that you accept and understand yourself. Your self-acceptance and self-understanding will be the road map for others as they get to know, accept and understand you, too.

I’m tired of living my life on mute, and I’m trying to find the “un-mute” button. I’m still figuring it out, but I’m getting there. It has been, is, and will continue to be a process, but it’s one that I’m determined to see through. The things I was once shy about sharing, I’m starting to open up about, this being one of them. I’ve started to embrace my strengths, especially the things that I like to do that make me feel good.

I hope that in opening up with the stories I've shared here and throughout my blog so far have in some way resonated and struck a cord. There can never be enough support for these types of things, and it’s important to me to try and provide it, as well as seek it for myself. If this is your journey, too, let’s help each other.

I’m with you.

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