No, I’m Fine, Really
There’s No Reason to Reject Me

By Jan Denise

My mom says that when I was a baby, they could pick me up, and I was fine and happy. They could put me down, and I was still fine and happy. No crying. For decades, I thought what a perfectly delightful baby—so pleasant, no matter what. I wonder now, though, if I was ever really fine and happy. Maybe I just intuited that everybody around me was sufficiently taxed, and that I had better be fine and happy!

To this day, I don’t like to ask for anything somebody isn’t prepared to offer me freely. I want to be unimposing and carry my own weight. When that’s not enough to win acceptance, I suppose I resort to being helpful or pretty or smart or giving, or all of the above. And, yes, I think it all started when I was too young to reason, but old enough to be very sensitive to rejection.

So, I wasn’t surprised to read the findings of the well-published study “A Strange Situation,” “One-year-olds had learned at their tender age to bottle up their feelings.” A child can look fine and not be crying, yet still be distressed. The obvious problem is that when there is no distress signal, the damsel in distress is unlikely to be saved! A half a century later, apparently I’m still not so skilled at sounding distress. Either that, or nobody’s listening! Wait a minute; I’m supposed to know this, right? Everybody around me is sufficiently taxed … and many of them are giving off their own distress signals.

Memory of anything before five fails me, but there’s another story my mom likes to tell. When I was about two, I used to walk around the house picking up “fuzzies” from the carpet, and then walk them over to the trash can. Hey, rather than be a burden, I was doing what I could to clean house. Even now, I feel better in a clean house, but doesn’t everybody? Come to think of it, I probably heard my mom explaining to my two older sisters that they had to do their chores before they could play. By the time I was their age, that message was permanently lodged in my psyche. Work was not an option; it was a prerequisite to being a viable part of the family. I was a quick study—probably had it down as a toddler.

One of my first memories, without any prodding, is of getting my picture taken in first grade. I still have the photo of little Jan, looking rather sweet I think, with big brown eyes and long brown curls in a pink dress with one of those fabric flowers pinned at the neckline. Okay, now that I think about it, maybe I looked a little forlorn. Anyway, the part I remember best without looking at the photograph is Gail Reece (not her real name) telling me that my dress was ugly. She was the tallest girl in first grade, and I was standing behind her in line when she turned around and said the words that sent me running from the school bus and crying to my mom, “Gail said my dress was ugly.” Mom said, “Honey, it’s a pretty little dress; maybe she was just jealous.” Nice try. But Mom had already unwittingly taught me to worry about what everybody else thought. There was the well-meaning, “Honey, do you want people to think you don’t have any manners?” and “I want you to be on your best behavior.” Maybe what Mom was trying to teach me was to avoid rejection. But it felt like the everyday me wasn’t good enough to win approval … and that even the “picture-perfect” me risked rejection?

Now that I’m “in charge,” I prefer not to do anything special for company. I turn the lights on … and, okay, I’ll put some makeup on, but only if they’re announced. I explained to dinner guests one night—maybe to their chagrin—that I planned dinner based on what I had on hand. We live 14 miles from the nearest grocery store, but mostly I just want to be me. I want to be accepted the way I am—pink dress, dinner, and all!

Granted, this is new territory for me. With the “ugly dress” encounter, I got more self-conscious and tried harder to be pretty enough and smart enough and nice enough, to be good enough. Because let’s face it, I didn’t just think my dress was ugly; I thought I was flawed. Of course, I can’t blame Gail for that. She probably just confirmed a notion I’d already bought into. I didn’t know then that feelings of inferiority were universal, and we were biologically programmed to be sensitive to rejection—acceptance of the tribe being our protection, and survival. I was not that smart; in fact, maybe I wasn’t that smart, period. I didn’t know what “normal” was; I just thought it must be different from my life. I thought it must be something more like what I saw in fairy tales. Who knew fairy tales weren’t normal? Don’t tell me, the smart kids.

When I was sixteen, a guy who finally got up the nerve to approach me told me that he used to think I was very pretty, but stuck-up. That’s when I first realized that my insecurity could paint me as aloof or snobby. In retrospect, I was probably a little relieved. Also in retrospect, I didn’t quite feel pretty unless somebody told me I was. Sure running to the mirror every fifteen minutes to see if you still look good is part of adolescence, but I think it was more than that. We all tend to think we’re more different from others than we actually are, but I didn’t know this until I read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (and he didn’t publish it until 2005).

I just went on trying to act like I was okay and, apparently, all the practice paid off. To this day, everybody seems to think I’m fine, whether I am or not. I grow weary of being strong and holding my head up. Sometimes I am spent and still coming up short … and nobody seems to notice. I want to scream, “I’m a person, too.” But I know it’s not really a cry of worthiness; it is a cry of insecurity. It’s as though I want to be a person. I want to be worthy of time and attention, and I want somebody to acknowledge that I am.

In Joshua Kadison’s “Invisible Man,” he sings: “Then I heard my self shout out the window, not really talking to anyone. I yelled, ‘Here I am, here I am, here I am ... but why do I feel like the invisible man?’ Lights went on, people started yelling, ‘Will the crazy man go back to bed.’ And there I was, laughing out my window, feeling much better now, somebody heard what I said.”

The problem is that sometimes I’d rather maintain the I-have-it-all-together stance than join the ranks of the “crazy,” or risk asking for support that somebody’s not prepared to give me. That would mean feeling rejected. When you’re not willing to risk rejection, though, you don’t get a lot of warm fuzzy acknowledgment, either. Even when people do offer help, I’m apt to say, “Oh, I’m fine.” But God knows, I appreciate the question! When I first started turning down help, I thought I had better manage without it in order to be accepted and loved. Now, it’s a habit I’m still learning to break.

It’s really the scared little girl who wants to scream. I, the all-grown-up Jan, have long ago discovered my authentic self, my divine essence of love; and I know love is enough. Probably like you, I have wooed the little girl, the wounded child within, and assured her that there was never really anything wrong with her, and that she really is fine. And I’m still grateful to John Bradshaw (in Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child) for teaching me to do that! Evidently, when there’s just too much fuzz on the rug, though, the little girl still has her doubts about fine and happy. Things don’t get tough that often, or maybe they do, and I just play tougher. As a child, that’s how I learned to win approval.

My mom was 72 years old when—for the first time in her life—she asked for my help. She was driving to an assisted-care center to throw a homespun Christmas party for the residents when a semi-truck drove into the side of her passenger van. Catapulting from the van, she landed on the asphalt with a dislocated shoulder, a fractured collar bone, broken ribs, and a punctured lung. A few days later, when the hospital was about to release my mom, she called and asked me if I could possibly come and help her when she arrived home. This was a first. She had called me now and then saying, “Honey, can I ask a favor?” But then she’d proceed to read me some legal mumbo jumbo and ask what I thought it meant, or she’d ask me if it would be too much trouble to type a letter for her. Now, she was asking me—taking me up on my offer, really—to stay with her until she could take care of herself.

During my stay on the couch outside my mom’s bedroom, I would hear her call my name. It didn’t matter what time of day or night it was. I could hear her breathing. I was like a mother. At the age of 45, I was caring for the child I never had; and she was my mom. I didn’t feel imposed on; I felt privileged, despite the fact that I was already “sufficiently taxed.” It was a divine gift, a blessing from God Himself. Finally, I could see my mother as vulnerable, and I’ve never seen her as more strong or beautiful. She had asked for my help! And, with all of my heart, I was there for her. When a wrinkle in the sheet felt like a lump in the mattress to her bruised body, I smoothed it. When she wanted white grape juice instead, I went back to the store.

“If you think you’re so enlightened, go and spend a week with your parents,” says Ram Daas, a contemporary spiritual teacher. Perhaps like nobody else, my mom triggers the wounds she helped create, and is no longer responsible for. She is not grating on me these days, though. Instead, she reminds me that I have come a long way, as she has; and that we are uniquely qualified to empathize with each other. I can be vulnerable now; I can ask her to listen even when it seems like she’d rather talk. And you know what, she has never, ever refused a request. To the contrary, I can think of many times over the years when she offered to help, and I let my pride (read: fear of rejection) get in the way.

My tough mother taught me to be tough. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. I respected teachers and bosses for their tough demands. They taught me to deliver the goods. I remember a favorite line from one boss, “Spare me the excuses and do it.” I only had to hear it once. Never had to hear it directed at me. Hey, I was a quick study. Actually, I was in my twenties and desperately afraid of embarrassment (also read rejection); and my boss had a very loud voice and liked to hold conference calls. I was highly motivated to do what needed to be done. For every problem, there was a solution; and I learned to find it without fanfare, or excuse.

Just practicing religion, or spirituality as I now prefer to call it, having waded through the dogma to love, is supposed to make everything fine, right? Well, yes, but first it’s supposed to help us face what’s not fine. It sure is tempting to jump the gun, though! We want to think we’ve made it. And when we only think we’ve made it, we want everybody else to think we’ve made it (very telling!). That’s when something, or somebody, blows up in our face, and we lose it, bringing us back to the reality of what it means to be a spiritually evolving human being, what it means to face what makes us feel threatened.

The mother of all that threatens us, all that scares us, and all that triggers our negative emotion is the fear that there’s something wrong with us, or that we are unworthy of love. If you believe in the God within, it’s easy enough to invalidate the fear that you’re not good enough, right? At least intellectually.

“The seed of God is in us,” said Meister Eckehart. “Given an intelligent and hard-working farmer, it will thrive and grow up to God, whose seed it is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature. Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God-seed into God.”

Consider this, though: When we get scared, we lose some of our God-given ability to reason. Brain scans show that when we experience feelings of fear, large areas in our lower brain are activated. Makes sense because that’s where “fight or flight” is triggered. What’s interesting is that when we’re scared, brain scans also show that areas in the higher brain get deactivated. The higher brain is responsible for: Creativity, problem solving, reasoning, reflection, self-awareness, kindness, and empathy. No wonder we just want to fight or run. What else can we do when we get stuck in the reptilian brain? Actually, there is a third, lesser discussed, option when we are faced with an overwhelming threat. Physiologists call it the immobility response. It’s an altered state better known as playing possum, in which no pain is experienced. The problem with that option is that unless we find a means, as wild animals do, to discharge all the energy we “freeze,” it’s bound up in our nervous system setting the stage for trauma! Maybe the key is not to get stuck choosing fight, flight, or immobility, but rather to recognize fear before we yield to it … before we deactivate reason and love.

With the super woman syndrome still going full force, it’s easy to get scared and resort to, “I had better be fine and happy,” rather than risk rejection. The implication is that I had better be different, more, and better than I really am! Ah, and given the economic and global climate, it’s easy to feel like I better tough it out. This is hardly the time to cave, right? I had better step up to the plate and feign, if necessary, having it all together. At a minimum, I had better eat well (which may mean I also have to earn well, shop well, and cook well), exercise well, rest well, pray well, and stay up on what it means to do all of that these days. That seems like a full plate already. But, hey, if I do all that, without getting too bogged down in impressing other people or going numb, I begin to know and appreciate what’s inside. That’s when I find my worth and begin to stop trying to prove it to everybody else! And that’s also when I begin to truly love others well. God requires nothing more of me; nor should I.

Recently, I was having a heart-to-heart with my friend Mary Ann. Usually, she talks a lot, and I talk a lot. We explore deep things; we interrupt each other, ask questions, analyze, and change the subject. This conversation was different. I was talking more; and she was listening more. She said that she was seeing a part of me that she didn’t usually see, the part that’s not fine.

I don’t want to pretend that I’m fine because I’m afraid of rejection, or act as though I’m fine because intellectually I know that I am. I want to feel fine and happy with nothing bottled up to distress me—no dissonance in my thinking, or between my thoughts and my behavior. My only job in life is to grow up into God, or love. To pull it off I have to step away from my ego—or my defensive façade—and be me. The only thing that stops me, the only thing that has ever stopped me, the only thing that can ever stop anybody is fear. Ultimately, it is not what I say or do that determines how fine I am. It is what motivates my words and my actions … and that is always fear OR love, love being my authentic self.

Author's Bio: 

Jan Denise is a self-esteem and relationships consultant, the author of Innately Good: Dispelling the Myth That You’re Not (Health Communications) and Naked Relationships: Sharing Your Authentic Self to Find the Partner of Your Dreams (Hampton Roads), and the columnist who penned the nationally syndicated “Inside Relationships” for ten years. Denise conducts workshops, speaks professionally, serves on the faculty of Omega Institute, and consults with individuals and couples nationwide. She is silly and deeply in love with life and her husband Sam Ferguson. They live in McIntosh, Florida, where their home in the woods is open to others as a sanctuary and retreat center.