I have an iconic memory from about 1966, when I was 7 years old. The traveling vision and hearing lab arrived at my country school for a day of testing, and I recall standing in line and paying anxious attention to the responses of the person in front of me. As it came my turn to peer through the lenses of the vision machine and indicate whether the apple was on the ground or the picnic table, I copied the reply of the previous kid rather than trust what was clearly quite the opposite.
“Are you sure?” asked the technician kindly, giving me grace to amend my answer as a rush of hot shame flooded my body. This story is deeply poignant for me, an early benchmark of self-estrangement and a distant mile-marker on a long journey of losing and eventually finding the courage to trust myself.
How is it that a child’s confidence in her own intuition and perceptions begins to erode? As I trace the trajectory, I find the first rupture in those early years between 3 and 6. As you know if you’ve read my recent posts, I lost my mom and baby sister in 1962. In 1963, my dad remarried and we moved from Connecticut to New Jersey. In 1964, my sister LaDeana was born.In 1965, I lived in five houses and attended two churches and three schools in two states, a whirlwind of change and uncertainty. I have clear memories of the 2,500 mile trek with my dad from Princeton, New Jersey to Nampa, Idaho pulling an overloaded trailer of our possessions. I vividly remember a mechanical breakdown and being left in the home of strangers who lived near the highway while my father hitched a ride to town to get parts to repair our disabled rig. In my sense memories are these sharp puzzle pieces: something foul-smelling burning on the stove; the sun is down and no one turns on the lights; an older kid is jumping out from behind the couch and laughing at my terror; no one there understands what I know: parents disappear and never return. By the time this extraordinary upheaval settled, I believe I had begun to lose some of my natural optimism and confidence. I remember feeling unsupported, tentative and vaguely anxious. I believed there were black and white answers, right and wrong ways of thinking and behaving, good sides and bad sides to be on. And one of my predominant perceptions is that no one was on my side and I was somehow on the wrong side simply by being myself. This explains, I think, why I copied the kid in front of me instead of feeling confident in my own perceptions.
Adding to my inner conflict was my deep desire to earn the praise, love and attention that seemed so illusive in my life after my mom’s death. The resulting assumption—that I was not good enough—conditioned me to place attention to the needs of others high above my own, tuning my inner radar to monitor everyone else’s frequency while losing touch for long periods with my own inner beacon.
This is the briefest of glimpses into my earliest recollections of losing faith in myself, but what seems most important 50 years or so down the road is not how I lost my self-trust, but that I eventually found it again.
My friend, Dr. L. Carol Scott, has an elegant theory about the seven childhood treasures we need for success as adults, all of which are capacities that arise for development during the first seven years of life. Carol calls them precious gems. There are no guarantees, of course, that we’ll get the tools and support we need to cut and polish our treasures at a developmentally-appropriate juncture in childhood, but Carol says it’s never too late.
Top on her list is trust. I consider self-trust to be my Crown Jewel, the key to self-actualization. I remember having it…I remember losing it…and I feel so rich to have uncovered it again, because it changes everything. Trusting myself, I believe, has been the key that allowed me to begin trusting others and trusting life.
At first as I began to look curiously into my own heart in 1995, all I could feel was the frustration of disintegration. My entire being was separated into endless compartments. I started by investigating and honoring my sense of disconnection from my true self, a tiny step in the direction of reintegrating. The day I created and colored this visual representation of my feeling was the day my inner child stepped out of the shadows and showed herself in detail for the first time. She needed to know, I believe, that I was serious about honoring our truth, no matter how difficult.
With the support of my therapist, I excavated deep into the darkness of my grief, fear and anger to find and polish my lost treasures. I discovered I had a creative instinct for what would heal me. Through journaling, art projects and personal experiments in trust, I finally recovered the gem that I consider to be of greater value to me than any other quality or possession.
In Carol’s metaphor, trust is a treasure, but I’ve found that trust is also a muscle. It strengthens only through repeated use, through conscious risk-taking. About ten years ago, I made a solemn promise to myself and have kept it even when at times I feel silly or uncertain: if I have an intuition I will trust it and act upon it. Oh, what a beautiful gift, this recovered birthright. There is no one on earth I trust more than myself.