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.
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.
The whole fucking point of it is to express views without judgement.
This is the dial turned up to full blast. This is the space where creativity, compassion, spontaneity, playfulness, engagement, responsiveness, adventure, and discovery thrives. We thrive when we’re in environments like this. Our truest selves relish the chaotic deep dive into our souls. Into our terrors. Into our vulnerabilities. There’s no weakness in this. Only strength. The strength to take the breath, face what’s real, and embrace it. God, that’s only strength. Why the fuck does anyone think vulnerability is weakness? (To be discussed another day.)
And full blast isn’t code for volume. It does not mean overcrowding the space with opinions. Or shouting over others. Or righteous insistence in one dogmatic view over another. It’s not about being understood completely or the narcissistic need to be fully accepted for being crude, rude, overly demanding or overly needy. It’s not about power, or privilege, or having to be heard because of an injustice. It’s none of this. It’s the greatest letting go there is. It’s the flow of all ideas being welcomed. Of learning how to listen. Of seeking to understand, instead of the tiresome need to be completely understood. It’s the exploration of idea itself that ultimately matters, not the identity of the person, or the tribe they belong to, or the ideological drum they beat. It’s the hunt for truth wherever it may be. As I said, it’s the greatest letting go there is. It’s free of righteousness. Of rigidity. Of “I know”. Of “I’m right”. Of “you’re wrong”.
It takes letting go of ego to enter this prized, precious space. It takes generosity of spirit. It takes grace. It takes dedication to learning how to pursue an idea, even if it means giving up a precious belief you’ve held dear. It takes rolling with thoughts we find instinctively wrong and asking ourselves: Where is the merit in this? It takes suppressing our most base instincts to shut down what we don’t agree with so the idea can be aired, studied, considered, debated and perhaps, set aside. It takes the ability to be wrong… and admit it. It takes courage. This space is not for the faint of heart.
I’ve been hunting out these spaces with others for all my life. God how I love those spaces! I treasure them. I do my best to create them within myself. I have wonderful, carefree debates within me. In my head I chat with authors whom I admire. When I’m with others, I’ll do the dialed down version of me when the ridicule and belligerence make it just not worth it or unsafe. All other times, I love the dialed up me. My truest self. The me I am when my fears and insecurities and successes and flaws are hugged and loved and fully accepted. I really hope I do the same for those who sit with me.
When we meet, let’s keep our dials turned up.