mental health

Turning the Volume Down

“‎You’re not the same as you were before,” he said. “You were much more…muchier… You’ve lost your muchness.”

~Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass

Odds are, at some point in your life, SOMEONE asked you to turn your music down. It didn’t even need to be your parents. Siblings don’t always share the same taste. (If you shared a room, that usually goes double) And just because friends get along well, it doesn’t mean all of you loved the same bands. I adored the people I hung out with in college, but any time I hear N’Sync or the Backstreet Boys to this day, I start twitching. (Yes, I realize that dates me – I’ll cope) That request to lower the volume represented a subtle remark on your choice of tunes. The person didn’t want to outright confront you on your poor taste, though, so they went the polite route. (Unless you happened to be my father who had no qualms – and still doesn’t – in pointing out I listened to “noise”)

Subtle, yes. Effective, yes. And NOT confined to musical taste.

See, we don’t think twice about reaching for the volume knob. Someone winces and thinks the music’s too loud? No problem; we can always grab headphones if they’re THAT irritated. We’ll roll our eyes, and we may even ignore the request (the first five times), but no one’s going to outright convince us to switch things OFF. Most of us identify so strongly with our musical identities that the subtle messaging slides off our backs. It’s one source of rebellion that seems to hold, regardless of the decade. (Don’t believe me? Go look at movie themes as far back as you want) The taste we choose in songs identifies our personality. And we’re not willing to compromise on it.

But when someone deploys the same subtle messages toward OTHER aspects of our lives, we aren’t as defensive of our personal identity. The tone of voice doesn’t change, nor does the language. Yet we throw in the towel and accept the judgment – no questions asked. They request we turn down the volume on our clothing, our voices, the messages we use in our daily lives, how we present ourselves, and we rush for the knob like sprinters. Then those same people see how effective their “hints” worked, so they deploy them again. And again. And AGAIN. Suddenly, you reach for that volume and realize you’ve turned everything OFF. Precisely the way they wanted.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to wear?” Hear that question, and your first inclination is to step to a mirror and check. As you stare at your reflection, doubt settles in. Even if you thought you looked fantastic when you pulled the clothes on, now the nasty voices in the back of your mind go to work and start picking you apart. No one needs to say anything more, either; YOU do all of the work. Before you know it, you’ve settled for something else – usually something less loud, not quite as “risky” or bold. And if your critic delivers a smile? Well, that reassures you. They turned your volume down. No derisive comments, no rude remarks, and no outright commands.

“Don’t you think you should smile more?” (Boy, do I love that one) You freeze like a deer in headlights. Does that mean you walk around like a serial killer all the time? (Or do serial killers smile? I guess it depends) Panic sets in as you start analyzing everything negative that’s happened in your life. Were all of your failures due to a lack of a smile? (By the way, your anxiety WILL find a way to blame ignored emails on not smiling; it’s THAT good) You start losing chunks of time as you practice smiling in the mirror – trying NOT to look like a psycho. And even though you feel like a complete fraud, you’re given praise for your cheerier demeanor. Once again – nothing more than a “friendly” suggestion. But you jumped to adjust yourself to capitulate.

“Should you say that?” It doesn’t matter if you’ve rehearsed, edited, or planned the words; they vanish from your brain. Maybe you feel strongly about a cause. You could want to leap to defend a friend. Or your emotions could demand a response. Doesn’t matter. A raised eyebrow and that phrase slam your brakes. Your anxiety goes to work, constructing apocryphal outcomes. And you close your mouth, delete the document, and sit down. You don’t want to stand out from the crowd and potentially draw the wrath of the masses. Turn off the bullhorn, switch off the loudspeaker. Turn the volume down.

In short, stop being YOU.

People learned ages ago that outright criticism doesn’t always work. (Granted, it’s occasionally effective. Plenty of minds suffer the emotional blows and collapse) But gradually chipping away by undermining self-confidence? Introducing subtle questions that worm their way into a person’s brain? Yeah, that works a treat. And when someone battles anxiety and depression, the method’s deviously successful. In no time, they withdraw and settle down into the ideal image whatever slice of society wants. It’s an evil genius everyone accepts.

I turned down the volume on who I am so many times, I went subsonic. I lost sight of ME. If you can believe it, I owned a closet of conservative clothing. I listened to inoffensive radio stations (we’re talking basic pop, people). My hair remained its original blonde, twisted up in a bun at the back of my head. And I refused to say anything controversial for fear of reprisal. (Admit I was struggling with my mental health? Are you freaking insane?) The people around me nodded and applauded, but I was MISERABLE. I didn’t know the person looking back at me in the mirror. I felt lost, suffocated. And I went through so many breakdowns – always in silence. (Fun fact: none of those people want to know their experiment’s failed)

Turning your volume back UP isn’t as easy as lowering it. Because until you’re willing to scream, “This isn’t me!” you can’t get anywhere. And then you have to fight for every millimeter on the dial. It’s experimenting with EVERYTHING, deciding what suits you and what doesn’t. Not to mention installing an alarm to detect those digs into your psyche (and they’re EVERYWHERE). You have to program yourself to hear them, smile, and come up with a response. (For the record, the answer is usually, “YES!”) And you have to own every part of yourself, walking around with your head held eye – even as people stare, sneer, or roll their eyes.

It’s the worst uphill battle in the world.

And it never ends. My fingers still hesitate on the keyboard at times. I find myself uttering, “Should I say this?” under my breath. The old programming lurks under the surface, and I have to shove it back in the closet where it belongs. You need to do the same thing. Claiming your personal identity means asserting your strength over the old patterns. Dig your heels in and declare in a LOUD voice, “This is who I am.” Find your muchness and embrace it. And then refuse to budge. And do that day after day after day.

Don’t turn the volume down. You deserve to keep it as loud as you want – no matter what we’re discussing. Yes, even if it means the latest boy band. (I’ll just step into the next room)

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