mental health

Breaking Boxes

Broken Box
Image by neo tam from Pixabay

What better way to kick off the family holiday season than with a bit of controversy? Isn’t that what family togetherness is about, anyway? (Seems like the usual foregone conclusion) Get more than two people in a confined location for over an hour, and conflict will inevitably break out over something. It isn’t because you don’t love each other; you do, of course. It’s simply a matter of differing opinions and viewpoints. And if you can’t be yourself in front of family members (biological or otherwise), who can you let your hair down for?

Let’s try YOU.

Have you paid attention to the way you write, speak, and even think? The language you use when considering new ideas or certain points? (Say, controversial topics?) Do words flow freely from a passionate stance? Or do you add in clarification, such as “just,” “I think,” “for me,” or “perhaps?” You know: the kind of phrasing that allows you to back away from the edge. You voice your opinion, but – at the last moment – you step into a comfortable box that keeps you safe. No one can turn daggers on you because you added in a few “softening” blows.

It’s like gearing up for a long jump, racing down the stretch, and then stopping at the line. You have the passion, the momentum, but not the commitment. You’re too afraid to make the jump. (And I’m not even suggesting you leap off a cliff!) Too many people are watching, waiting to see how far you’ll make it. Or maybe they’re waiting for you to fall flat on your face. You can’t take that chance. So you perform a graceful little bow or curtsy and return to the bench.

Sound about right?

I didn’t realize I behaved that way until recently. (So don’t feel like I’m calling you out) This tip-toeing around, wanting desperately to shout and raise my fist – provided no one noticed. Even in the safety of my personal thoughts, I trimmed away the ragged edges of my speech. How crazy is that? I made myself small, safe, and easy to tuck into a box. And I never paid attention to the habit until someone else ranted over the common behavior. (Not in me, but in general) Suddenly, I saw those words popping up EVERYWHERE. An entire plague of language designed to keep me quiet and contained.

So I started looking for the source of the infestation. Such dialogue comes from SOMEWHERE. And I found the roots in my childhood (of course). Not from my family – ironic, I know – but from my peers. My parents and siblings never minded my outspokenness. (Immediate family, anyway. Once you get outside of that circle, you’ll find plenty of relatives who break out words like “outspoken” and “liberal” and “over-the-top”) But in school, kids looked down their noses. I was too loud, too passionate, too smart, too [insert adjective here] for my own good. And NO ONE liked that. If I knew what was good for me, I’d button up.

Thus, the box appeared.

I wanted acceptance. I didn’t like eating lunch alone, or spending recess huddled in the shadows. So I obediently climbed into the corner they offered. And I stayed there. Because more and more people reinforced the message. Don’t speak up. Don’t stand out. Don’t show a spine. Any time I ventured out of the box, I received a slap on the hand. And even the most primitive creatures learn to recoil from punishment. Voila – those nasty little language devices entered my vocabulary.

But things go deeper than that. We allow the messages to penetrate our behavior, our thoughts. We don’t see ourselves the same anymore. Those boxes are cramped and cold and dark. And climbing OUT of them creates horrific anxiety. People out there will HATE us (everyone says so). It isn’t safe. We’ll face ridicule, ostracization, mortification. Isn’t it better to peek out, hedging our words with qualifications?

It’s this vicious cycle implanted into the psyche. And the real mortification is recognizing that you allowed it to happen. You crawled into the box willingly – and stayed there. When I broached the topic with my husband, he told me it drives him crazy that I do this. He wants to shake me each time I add those words into the language I use, or when I step back from the fiery edge of something. Talk about humiliation! Something I thought only I knew was visible to the outside world this whole time!

Time for a shake-up.

I’ve started combing through the language I use each day. And I catch myself when I start the “waffle” game. If I back away from a stance, I call a halt. Because I HATE living in that box. It’s not who I want to be, nor does it represent the life I want to have. It’s time to break it beyond repair and get out of the bounds set on me all of those years ago.

And that’s the challenge I set for everyone this holiday season. No cowering in the corner. No biting your lip, fearing what someone may think of the words coming out of your mouth. You obviously feel THAT strongly; so say what you mean. How long have you trimmed down edges of yourself? Do you want to keep at it until there’s nothing less? Until there’s a sliver in a box in a forgotten corner? Come on! That isn’t healthy – for anyone.

Yeah, it’s going to shock and startle people. But, in the long run, it’ll make for better mental health for YOU. And they’ll come around. Maybe you’ll even inspire THEM to stop confining themselves.

After all, what’s a family gathering without a lot of yelling?