According to American Psychologist Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr. in his book, Understanding People: Deep Longings for Relationship, every human being has three God-given inner needs: for love, significance and security. Apparently, if we as children incur some deficit in any of these three areas, we can feel compelled to fill the deficit in varying ways, as we grow older. For example, if you as a child were made to feel as though you were never good enough by your parents and siblings, you would likely seek to fill your need for significance by engaging in relationships and/or activities later in life that make you feel significant.
There were many aspects of my childhood that were wonderful. I had a single mother who loved me, took care of me, taught me how to love and laugh and always encouraged the gifts and talents she saw in me. We moved to California when I was 7-years-old, which was a decision I truly hated, but even there I knew my mom had my back. And then later, my little sister, Jennie was born just months before her dad—my step-father of three years—would leave our family (it’s a confusing story, I know). Close behind my mom and sister in terms of important relationships in my childhood were my St. Louis family: a collection of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and even family neighbors that remained constant throughout my childhood and adolescence. I also had a few key friendships in California that grounded me and gave me a “home base” outside of my own home. The older I get, the more I realize the importance of these childhood friendships, all of which were extremely positive and affirming.
Even with the support system God so graciously wove into my life, there were other influences that began to drain my accounts, specifically the Significance account. I will not go too deeply into this idea but I think it is important to create some context as to the overall idea of significance and how it relates to depression and anxiety in my life.
As a small child, I was adorable. As an older child, I was still cute. As an adolescent, I began to gain weight and during these years my mom struggled financially so I often wore shoes and clothing that were not “cool” by the standards of almost anyone. (For example, my mom had a sweatshirt that had her name embroidered into the front of it. It was really cute, actually . . . for her. Because it donned HER name . . . and I wore it to school). I always had everything I needed but beginning around sixth grade, “need” is replaced with the identities of teenaged super stars whose images are shone into the sky like bat signals over middle school playgrounds. In other words, I was not cool. And there were other young men and women who were able to attain the bat signal Debbie Gibson status that reminded me how far short I fell of their worthiness.
During these trying middle school years I had enough wherewithal to discover that there were ways to overcome mediocrity even in spite of uncool clothes and chubbiness: academic glory or athletic prowess. I tried to reach both heights. In fact, I remember a moment in my 7th grade science class when the teacher, Mrs. Jurris, was instructing our class on the Earth’s atmosphere. Embarrassingly, I do not now remember the exact lesson but I do remember understanding it at the time. So, when Mrs. Jurris asked for us to raise our hands for comments and questions I proudly raised my hand and explained the lesson back to her. What I understand now is that this is how I process information: I have to restate it to myself. I have to use the information in some real-life example to make sure I comprehend what I am learning. But, to my fellow 7th grade classmates, I sounded like I was showing-off (I guess). I began to hear giggles behind me. Then, the girl sitting next to me said, “Stop talking, Jill.” I felt a collective disregard for my moment of academic pride and I stopped talking. I would not speak up again in class for several years. Not only because of this one moment but I remember this one moment serving as a culmination of other snide, bullying remarks and attitudes pointed at me like a bat signal of rejection and dismissal.
When being the smart kid didn’t work out for me, I went the other way. I decided I was not smart. I believed the lie that others were telling me about myself: I believed that I was not significant and that I was not smart enough to be successful in school. So, my grades began to slip and I tried to become athletic.
I actually just laughed out loud when I wrote that last sentence, “I tried to become athletic.” It is not easy for an over-weight adolescent with little confidence to simply “become athletic.” There are gym shorts and tank tops involved in such endeavors and I felt much more comfortable in long t-shirts and baggy sweatshirts with my mom’s name embroidered on the front.
Alas, I began to do something I had never before done in gym class: I tried. And I kept trying. I was actually good at tennis. I was good at soccer. I began to learn that I actually had some skill in many of the sports our teachers taught us. So, I worked up the courage to try out for varying sports teams. Long story short . . .I ended up in a baton twirling class that I eventually quit right before we were scheduled to march in the Rose Bowl parade. I quit because baton twirling is stupid. (No offense to anyone who enjoys a good baton twirling but for me it was a last ditch effort to be a part of someone, ANYONE’S, club and I was thoroughly unimpressed with the whole thing). The sports world wasn’t interested in what I had to offer.
When athletics turned me away I had a short stint in the political world, which began when I gave a rousing speech in the cafeteria of Foothill’s Junior High School in 7th grade. I was running for the office of secretary in my school’s student government. Perhaps I don’t have to even tell you the results of the election because I assume you can see where this is going. I did not win the race for school secretary. Thus ended my 10 minute political career. To make matters worse, I was the only candidate in that particular race. I thought I was a shoe-in for Secretary given I was the only name on the ballot. Nope. The seat went, instead, to a very popular young woman named Laura who ran for Treasurer . . . and still beat me in my race for Secretary. [cue the song Send In The Clowns]
Eventually, in 8th grade, I did find one thing in which I excelled: theatre. I was just as surprised as anyone to learn that I was funny, talented and that all my years of standing outside and looking in helped me build a skill that is quite marketable in the arts: I am a good listener and an excellent observer of human beings. And so, after finding nominal success in drama class I tried out for the school play and landed one of the lead roles. That, ladies and gentlemen, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between me and the muse of Theatre.
So, how do these snapshots of my childhood relate to the struggle I faced with depression and anxiety as I stood before my Public Speaking classes in 2012? I still felt I had something to prove. I felt, by then, that I had attained some significance in life and I knew I wanted to keep it.
When I was hired at the university in Kansas City, I felt proud of myself. The university has a urban, cool vibe to it and the students are savvy. Among them walk future doctors, lawyers, chemists, businessmen and women, Broadway stars, pharmacists and other important people. I do not mentioned the importance of their studies to communicate a sense of being less than them but, instead, I wish to communicate that I felt proud to be in their midst. To think that I had something to teach these students made me feel good about myself. I am a darn good teacher and I felt a true sense of purpose fulfilling this role that semester. But then . . . something else crept in: perfectionism.
Right from the first day of class almost all of my students recognized that I was “The Price Chopper Girl.” For those of you reading who are not aware of this, I am an on-air spokesperson for a regional grocery store chain. This means that my visage appears in the weekly newspaper, on the sides of semi-trucks, on billboards, in grocery stores and on commercials. This particular job has been both wonderful and nerve-wracking for me. I would not change it for anything and yet there is a side effect to the job that no one could have guessed: during that particular season I felt that I always had to be “on.” When I was teaching, when I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge, when I was shopping, when I was walking my dog, when I was working my extra part-time job at Old Navy, when I was at the gym . . . I was recognized. Everywhere. Excited passers-by would shout, “You are the woman on TV!” Or, people would stop and ask, “Can I take a photo with you? My brother loves you!” This recognition was fun at first! Then, I started to internalize this awareness: you cannot leave the house without looking like the spokesperson, you cannot ignore anyone who recognizes you and you cannot say anything that would be considered unsavory for “The Price Chopper Girl.”
With this added pressure, I began to become perfectionistic in all ways: the way I taught, the way I looked, the way I shopped for groceries at my local grocery store as I heard recordings of my voice exuberantly talking about vegetables and gas cards over the loud speakers. When I failed at any of these self-imposed perfections, I was really hard on myself. I was not outwardly self-deprecating: I did not yell at myself or say mean things to myself in the mirror: it wasn’t that dramatic. Instead, I internalized this deep-rooted feeling that I was not really significant and that the things that made me appear significant (my professional acting career and my role as a teacher) better not slip, at all. If I slipped, I would end up in Mrs. Jurris’ 7th grade science class hearing cooler people than I giggling behind me. Or, worse yet, I would end up disappointing those who believed in my as an adult, my students, the grocery store chain, my family and myself.
Significance is vital. However, like any good thing that you make an idol in and of itself, significance also has a dark side: pride. I was being extremely prideful. I made my own image an idol and I did it out of fear that I was secretly not good enough.
The chasm between my public self and my private self began to widen and this is when my struggle began. Think about it: when you are striving to maintain an image you are constantly busy trying to guess what other people want from you. So, maintaining your own image is a series of small guesses and gesticulations: it is walking on a tight rope over New York City. You put yourself on a high pedestal and make adjustments according to the way the wind blows. You make adjustments according to all the external elements that could affect your balance. THAT IS EXHAUSTING!
This is why the panic attacks began. This is why I felt depressed and anxious. I was isolated from the people around me and myself.
While I do believe I began dealing with depression and anxiety at some point longer ago than 2012, it was my search for significance during this time period that brought my struggle directly to the surface. I was not only dealing with 2012, I was also dealing with a culmination of unhealed moments that occurred in the 1980’s and “90’s.
In conclusion for today, I would like to mention three things that helped me break through the monotony and pain of the back and forth between private and public self: Jesus, medication and counseling.
- I learned to find my identity in Christ instead of the fallacies of personal success, intellect and others’ opinions of me (sometimes I am successful in this endeavor, sometimes I am not).
- I utilized medication for a time (it was absolutely, 100% helpful for me).
- I met with my counselor about once a week for several months. I still meet with him from time to time as issues arise.
Next time I will discuss my experience with medication: the good, the bad and the ugly.
—Jill Szoo Wilson
Photo Credit: Treasury Today website