Reaching Beyond Your Grasp

 

Any day you don’t learn something new is a day you should 
have stayed in bed. ~Jerome A. Gottschalk

reaching-beyond-your-graspIf I heard that phrase once, I heard it a thousand times as I was growing up. It spoke volumes about my father’s commitment to education. Schooling was important, of course, but what mattered even more was the kind of education you get when you surround yourself with people who are smarter and more skilled and perhaps more talented than you. In my father’s worldview, every minute of every day provided an opportunity to learn something new. A corollary was that if you worked hard and “knew your stuff,” the odds were in your favor.

What that meant, as I was growing up, was that I was always reaching beyond my grasp. It began when my parents enrolled me in 1st grade at age five rather than six. At the end of 3rd grade, my parents arranged for me to go directly to 5th grade, where I arrived knowing nothing of the long-division and decimals skills my schoolmates had long since mastered. By the end of the year, I was at the top of my class. My parents expected nothing less.

That pattern continued into college and throughout my career.  I always seemed to be in over my head, always racing to learn what those around me already knew. Working as a financial consultant to Fortune 500 companies, I struggled, on a daily basis, to keep ahead of the sometimes breathtaking pace of innovation in the derivatives markets. I certainly stubbed my metaphorical toe several times along the way, but my successes were pretty incredible, particularly as a woman in a man’s world in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

And yet, I’ve spent much of my professional life locked into that 5th grade moment, terrified that I didn’t know enough, that I couldn’t keep up, that I wasn’t qualified. As I approach 70, I am still beset by a moment—very brief but still very real—of panic every time I walk into a roomful of strangers.

The memory of this persistent terror bubbled to the surface as I blogged on The Atlantic’s recent article on the confidence gap that assails so many women. At first glance, it seemed I could be exhibit #1 for their theory.

But upon reflection, it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, my lack of confidence never stopped me from reaching for that next challenge, from taking the next risk. I would even make the case that my self-doubts were a result of my insistence on putting myself in situations in which I was sure to go to bed at night having learned something new. After all, if you are completely confident that you know the situation cold, you probably won’t learn much.

And don’t forget the second half of my father’s dictum—that if you work hard and develop the necessary skills, things have a good chance of working out. According to Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, the authors of The Atlantic article, this is very much a man’s point of view (women assume failure is their own inadequacy rather than a result of inadequate effort). If I didn’t quite believe it in 5th grade, I certainly did by my early-30s, based largely on a heady string of promotions and salary increases.

Which leads me to my last but most certainly not least point: my parents never mentioned that the rules were different for females. I always operated on the assumption that if, after doing my best, my boss didn’t appreciate what I could do, I needed to find a new job and a new boss. It didn’t matter why it wasn’t working. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for that type of work. Perhaps he was a lousy manager.  Perhaps he just didn’t like me. Perhaps he was a male chauvinist. Whatever the reason, it seemed more important to find a challenging job where I could make a difference than waste time trying to “prove” that my boss was wrong.

Which brings me back to The Confidence Gap. I have no doubt that the confidence gap is real, although I do not believe that self-doubt is unique to women. But I do agree with the authors that the best antidote for a lack of confidence is taking action. It keeps you from thinking about your doubts and reinforces your belief in yourself and your ability to get things done.

Have you taken action in the face of your own doubts? I would love to hear your story.

 

I will continue to blog on themes from A Fitting Place (now out and available on Amazon and as an iBook) and I remain very interested in guest blogs from readers and writers who’d like to weigh in on any issues relevant to the book.

 

A Fitting Place – A Metaphor

 

A Fitting PlaceMay 1 was the big day—the release of my first novel, A Fitting Place. 

Since I began to use my book cover to promote the book, people have asked me about source of my title. The one that actually made me laugh out loud came from a friend who buys his athletic shoes at a local emporium called “The Fitting Place.”

I assure you, I didn’t have a shoe store in mind when I picked the title. On the other hand, a place where you can try something on to see if it fits is not so far off the mark.

So, herewith, some thoughts about my title, which serves as a metaphor on several different levels.

A Fitting Room – In the days when I still liked to shop for clothes, a fitting room was a great place to try on a new persona while I was trying on a new outfit. I’d never worn purple—how would it look with my skin? Would I feel sexy or tart-y in a sequined dress with a plunging neckline? Those dressing rooms coughed up some unexpected treasures that delighted me for years. But more than once, my “new-persona” purchase languished in a closet until I carted it off to Goodwill.

The dressing room is a metaphor for Lindsey’s love affair with a woman. The relationship offers an intimacy she has always ached to have, an opportunity to try a different way of living and loving. But will that same-sex relationship stand the test of time, or will it founder just as her previous relationships with men have foundered?

The Biblical Notion of Fitting. The term “fitting” appears frequently in both the Old and New Testament, usually referring to actions or events that are suited to the circumstances. It stands in contrast to events or actions that are seen to be “right” in some a priori or moralistic way.

For most of her life, Lindsey has been determined to do or say the “right” thing, based on the societal values, including gender roles, with which she was raised. She routinely subordinated her needs to the whims and desires of others, or to what she assumed was expected of her. This approach to life has left her with chronic anxiety and stomachaches that sap her energy.

It is only when Lindsey begins to take responsibility for her own actions based on her own needs—to do what fits the situation rather than what she thinks someone wants—that her anxiety level drops and her stomachaches ease. It is the beginning of  maturity.

A Jigsaw Puzzle – Have you ever had the thoroughly annoying experience of working on a jigsaw puzzle with a piece or two missing? Have you ever had the rather more distressing sense that there was a piece of information missing from your life, a crucial insight that would make everything okay if you knew what it was?

That’s exactly how Lindsey has felt for years. But the missing pieces were largely of her own making, a result of her effort to live by what she assumed other people wanted, a consequence of her tendency to withhold information about herself and to dole out only what she thought people “ought” to know.

The pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place as Lindsey began to acknowledge her own needs and, in the process, discover that what her friends and family really wanted from her was quite different than what she had assumed.

How does the metaphor of A Fitting Place apply to your life?

 

Old Bones: The Cost of Keeping Secrets

 

The cost of keeping secrets is the focus of my blog this week. This discussion has been contributed by historian and writer Frances Susanne Brown, who explores the impact of secrets for those who do not know quite what the secret is.

 

Skeletons in the Closet

SecretsThe phrase came into use in 19th Century England and originally referred to hereditary or contagious disease. Folks whose families suffered or even died from an illness preferred to keep the information private, lest they be shunned or judged in social circles.

From this, the idea of a hidden body found its way into Gothic fiction, such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Black Cat. Author William Makepeace Thackeray used the exact phrase “skeletons in closets” in his novel, The Newcomes: Memoirs of a most respectable family (1855). Occasionally, the skeletons of unwanted infants are still found hidden behind the walls of old houses.

Notice here the emphasis on the social repercussions associated with keeping secrets. The basis for keeping certain information out of the public eye seems directly linked to the notion that it will preserve a family’s reputation, or their status in society.  

But keeping secrets has a cost. Like rotting corpses, these secrets fester, lingering as never-healing wounds. And secrets, we all know, seldom stay confined to one person. If they are shared with other family members, particularly children, the repercussions multiply exponentially.

In January of 2013, Psychology Today published an article entitled “Keeping Secrets” by Frederic Neuman, M.D., Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains, N.Y.  He found that phobias in adults are commonly traced to a secret their parents told them to keep. These range from the trivial – we have wine in the house – to the more profound – don’t tell anyone Daddy has been treated for alcoholism. Dr. Neuman claims that by telling our children to keep secrets, we teach them shame, inferiority, vulnerability, and fear.

Other research reveals that a secret represents an actual, physical load we bear. In May 2012, Tufts University psychology researcher Michael Slepian concluded, “The more psychologically burdened the participants were, the more physical burden they experienced.” This study was based on cognition, the theory that the body and mind work together to process information. Slepian asked participants to recall a secret – either big or small – and then presented them with a picture of a hill. Those with big secrets perceived the hill as much steeper than those whose secrets were, in their own opinion, of minor importance.

Don’t Tell Anyone 

These three little words can actually affect our health, and make our everyday physical tasks more difficult. They can shape—or warp—a personality, cause phobias, and, ironically, impose as much damage on family members as the original public judgment or scorn they were trying to avoid. A particularly frightening realization is that a family “skeleton” can be passed down, like a genetic defect, even if the actual secret is never disclosed. 

How do I know this? I have lived it.

I grew up with a crippling lack of self-confidence and a poor body image, perpetually plagued by a fear of failure. It was as though a huge chunk of me was missing or inferior. Although I had no physical deformity, I felt emotionally disabled. It was not until I was in my fifties, had raised a family and buried both parents that I discovered the cause. My mother’s birth certificate, which I had never seen, allowed me to embark on an ancestry search. 

The secret I uncovered has explained me to me. My mother’s “skeleton” wasn’t even her own – it was my Grandma who said don’t tell anyone. I believe her family secret made my mother timid, self-conscious, and afraid to assert her independence. She never shared the secret with me, and tried all through her life to protect me from knowledge that she felt would be harmful.  Evens so, its effects, like the miasma of a rotting corpse, clung to her. Unintentionally, she passed those damaging effects on to me.

Every family tree is partially constructed of skeletons. We teach our children to treat others with honesty, respect, and acceptance, but how can they go out into the world and embody these concepts if we have also taught them secrecy? How can we hope for them to enjoy full, happy, loving lives if they secretly harbor shame, guilt, and fear?

The cost of keeping secrets can be profound, and can affect future generations, even if we believe the skeleton is safely, and permanently, hidden in the closet.

  

Frances.S.BrownFrances Susanne Brown grew up in New York State, earned her MFA from Lesley University, and presently resides in Massachusetts. Her historical articles have appeared in Herb Quarterly, the Family Chronicle, and Renaissance Magazine. 

 Her memoir, Maternal Threads, is due out in 2014 from High Hill Press. You can find her on Twitter @francessbrown, on Facebook, at www.francessusannebrown.com and www.maternalthreads.com

 Herewith, we resume the series of blog discussion on key themes from my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place. If you’d like to join the discussion, please contact me here.

Gender Roles and Your Comfort Zone

 

mirrorA recent article in The Atlantic Monthly explored the possibility that same-sex marriages are “happier” than traditional marriages between a man and a woman. It raised a fascinating question about the impact of gender on staying in or stepping out of one’s comfort zone.  

The rationale was that a same-sex couple cannot fall back on traditional gender roles for managing day-to-day activities such paying the bills, taking care of the kids, or doing the laundry. They have no choice but to negotiate each and every role within the relationship.

That notion stands in marked contrast to the many stories I’ve heard about talented and capable people, but particularly women, who felt they had disappeared or become invisible after a decade of marriage. I was one of them. Lindsey, the protagonist in my novel, A Fitting Place, is another. 

As I noted last week, most of us, flawed human beings that we are, choose partners who replicate emotional behavior patterns–the comfort zone–familiar from childhood. For the relationship to be successful, both partners need to break the habitual behaviors of youth and adopt more intentional behaviors relevant to the current circumstances.  

One of the key themes in A Fitting Place is the extent to which social norms about gender roles in marriage make this adjustment particularly difficult. Even in this post-feminist world, gender stereotypes persist. Men are logical, woman are emotional. Men are strong, women are weak. Men are the leaders and decision-makers, women are the facilitators. 

These stereotypes can have a powerful but all-too-often invisible impact on the day-to-day choices both men and women make in a marriage. In same-sex relationships, that invisible straightjacket is missing. It is easier—not easy, but easier—to distinguish between what you want to do and what you do because it is expected of you. 

This issue is at the heart of Lindsey’s dilemma. Having all-but-disappeared inside a traditional marriage, she is shocked to discover that she is disappearing once again inside a powerful and compelling love affair … even though it is with a woman. No longer able to blame gender roles and societal expectations, she is forced to look in the mirror.

 

This is the third in my series of blogs on themes in my novel.  I hope to provide a forum where my readers can offer comments and insights based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place.