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Turning Me Down

There’s a control panel, inside of me. I didn’t realise I had it until I was around 11 years old. That’s when I began to notice how I was different to other girls. More boisterous. Opinionated. I thought through ideas and wanted to talk about them. I wanted to talk about feelings and deep fears and hopes and dreams and flaws. When I noticed that a lot of other people didn’t want to talk about this stuff, I thought to myself: If you want them to like you, you’ll need to turn that down.

So I did.


I learned to turn me down. That little control panel has a dial on it. Turn the dial to the right, and I turn me up. I become boisterous. Opinionated. Unself-conscious. Open. Curious. Passionate. Turn the dial to the left, and I turn me down. I become understated. Reserved. Self-conscious. Watchful. Wary. Unguard.


I know I prefer the dial to be set fully to the right. I know that’s where my natural self lives, breathes and thrives. I know me there. I don’t know this other watchful creature who holds back for risk of offending anyone. Who isn’t sure she’ll be liked or accepted if she wants to discuss the existential crisis she thinks she sometimes has about what is her true nature.

And I meet people who prefer the dial way to the left. I know these people. They sit with me at the dinner table. Mock my curiosity. Ridicule my openness. Aim to stamp out my lack of conformity. As if I’m that unstable great aunt with her knitting, cats and a facial twitch, unwelcome but tolerated as long as she doesn’t get too demanding. I’m the reminder that their righteousness and certainty about how the world is can be challenged, and there is something deeply frightening, I see, about that.

These moments are when their fear of ambiguity, of being wrong, of upending the way things have always been for them… reach out to stifle me, the truest me. The me that’s inside, peering out, watching for the cues that tell her how to be. That tell her these people think you are a threat… They can’t handle you. They think you are too much.

I do my best, in these times, to keep the dial turned up. I protest the more belligerent putdowns. I defend my boundaries and won’t be silenced. I bring compassion and patience.

The sheer meaninglessness of it. I see the maddening, tiny cage that they invite me to enter, every time I sit with them. I see their preference for deference, for silence, for “respect” when the family spokesman offers his final word on all subjects. I see it and for the thousandth time, refuse to kneel and crawl into that cage.

But it comes at a price.


The exhaustion.

Then the self-doubt. If I’m not wanting to conform to their illusion of me, am I doing the same by refusing to play by their straight-jacketed rules of engagement? Am I also, by not acquiescing, over and over and over, rejecting their versions of themselves?

Of course, I’m not. I see this when I have the luxury of distance and perspective. I see that my being me is an affront to them. That there is only one way to be around them, and this rigidity hides their lack of connection to vulnerability. It papers over their lack of capability to pause and feel as something I’ve said has invited them to brush up against a raw emotion. It sacrifices expressiveness for power. Unself-consciousness for control.

It’s no surprise that I love to sit with people whose hearts sing when I am all me. Who revel in my curiosity. My desire to go deep. My hunger for emotional connection. And who bring all of themselves to the table. Their openness. Their curiosity. Their self-deprecation. Together we unpack our never-ending quest for deeper insights into ourselves, into each other, and into humanity. No subject is off-limits. It’s all greeted with enthusiasm and openness. No one is threatened by a difficult subject because the whole point of the discussion is to discover how we’re hiding, how we’re not embracing our truest selves, and how we can help that wounded part come to the surface and be heard.