I recently saw this picture on Facebook and it really touched me. It’s something I’ve thought about many times over the past few years. Where is that little girl? What happened to her? How did I get so far removed from her?
My parents have always described me as being a happy, bubbly child. Unafraid and always engaging. I loved people and talked non-stop. As I look back I remember clearly one of my first days at school. It was break-time and I was playing with some of the other kids. I saw a girl walking on her own on the sports fields. So I ran up to her and asked if she wanted to be friends. She said no and that she was happy to play on her own. Despite her response, I decided to walk with her and I continued to chat away. That girl became one of my best friends in kindergarten. I remember another day when I publicly professed my love to a 6 year old boy in the class to much laughter from my class mates. I remember having lots of friends because everyone was friends with everyone – there were no cliques and everyone accepted me, and I accepted everyone in turn. I didn’t mind being the centre of attention – if the teacher asked a question, I was the first to put up my hand; I tried to participate in as many activities as possible; and liked to take the lead. At the age of 6 I was fearless and bullet-proof.
So what changed? A few years ago while working with my career/life coach I asked her to help me rebrand my department at work. I felt that we weren’t getting the recognition we deserved and that we were an easy scape-goat for other departments who weren’t performing. As we were exploring she asked me why did I sit back waiting to be recognised and instead of actively pushing myself and my team forward – singing our own praises in order to have our contribution better reflected. I don’t remember the details of the conversation that ensued; but like all good coaches she caught onto something I said and started digging into it. She tasked me with writing an essay about my childhood school experience particularly around the age of 10.
That essay was an eye-opener for me. I had never dwelled on my primary school years or the impact that they had had on my character development. Writing that essay opened up wounds that had never properly healed; that still hurt; but that I had learnt to live with in a state of numbness. For the first time I started understanding why I behaved the way I did; why I lost that little 6 year old girl.
“Often it’s the deepest pain which empowers you to grow into your highest self.“
From the period from 10 years old to 13 years old, I was a victim of teasing at school. I was subjected to quite a lot of name-calling. Because I did really well academically, I was inevitably called a “nerd” or a “geek”. Because I wore glasses I was called “Bennie Boekwurm” (Afrikaans children’s TV character – Bennie, the Bookworm) or “Ouvrou” (Afrikaans for Old Lady). Because my surname is foreign, rather than learning to pronounce it they called me “Mascovie Duck”. Even a teacher resorted to name-calling rather than learning my surname and he called me “Nokstokkies”. He did so in front of the rest of the class, and in doing so condoned the other children’s behaviour.
I never showed that I was hurt, instead I laughed along like it was water off a mascovie duck’s back. I was a tough girl and I wasn’t going to let people’s words affect me. I took the names and packed them away deep inside me in a small corner of my heart. But, what I didn’t realise was that no matter how deep you bury something it can still impact you. And the teasing changed me dramatically. My vibrant, fearless, bullet-proof inner 6 year-old was somehow buried beneath those cruel names; and with no air or light in which to grow she was silenced.
My family moved town just before I started high school. A new town, new school and new people – this presented an opportunity to reinvent myself. I became a master at not being noticed. My grades dropped; just enough to not be seen as clever but not enough to affect my university entrance. I never did anything that drew attention to me. I carefully copied what other kids were doing so that I wouldn’t stand out. I became invisible. If I wasn’t seen I couldn’t be rejected.
Entering university, in the pursuit of fitting in, I had a debaucherous first year; which regrettably my academics never recovered from. As a young adult, my fear of being rejected made me painfully shy which hampered my ability to engage in relationships. When I finally met someone with whom I had a serious relationship, I married him. I think the fear of being alone motivated me to attach myself and not let go. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t settling when I married him – he was attractive, intelligent, kind and we had a lot in common. There was genuine love. But fear did not allow me to let go and explore the world more before setting up house with him.
Every decision in my life revolved around what others may think – my need to be accepted was so strong that I adjusted my entire behaviour and personality to what I thought was likeable. I even fooled myself. I really believed that the person I presented to the world was real. As a result I struggled to properly connect with people – most of my relationships were superficial. But when it all crashed down in 2013 I had an identity crisis – who the hell was I – I didn’t know the answer.
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.“
The past few years has been an incredible journey learning to deal with my issues around rejection, my fear of being alone but also fearing real interpersonal connection; my constant need for affirmation and acceptance contrasted with my need for invisibility. And as I learned to deal with these complexes, new ones were uncovered. I started this ongoing journey of figuring myself out. In later posts I will share my more practical strategies on how I found myself, but for now I’d like to share how the Phoenix finally manifested.
In 2015 I latched onto this metaphor of a rising phoenix. As I was finding my true self I felt like I was rising from the ashes of my old self and beginning to soar across the heavens. My new self was put to the test in that year as I prepared for my first visit to AfrikaBurn. I was part of a group of 9 people camping together. I only knew one member of the group, the rest were all strangers. During one of our planning meetings, the group was discussing costume themes and one of the themes that was agreed on was “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. While I outwardly agreed to the decision, inside I was riddled with fear. While the theme allowed for a lot of opportunity to be creative, it was also an extremely flamboyant theme. It certainly did not allow for one to hide and be obscure in the masses. It stressed me to no end. About two weeks before the Burn I finally accepted the theme and decided to trust the path and handed myself over the creative process of creating a beautiful costume. I made myself a phoenix costume with fiery flamed boots and extravagant feathery headpiece. My costume turned out to be a hit. I was proud of my accomplishment and how awesome I looked parading in the desert as a Flying Phoenix. But getting the recognition came with risk – I needed to risk failing, risk being ridiculed, risk not being accepted, risk rejection – but the pay-off was amazing – as I donned that costume that reflected the true me, that fabulous little 6 year old inside me finally awoken.
“Hard times don’t create heroes.
It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed.“