Little Miss Nice
An interesting thing happens to children who grow up in conflicted families. Their personalities are shaped by the demands of their floundering parents. I was no different. Moulded as I was by my mother’s desperation to keep up appearances and retain familial bonds, I learnt to be unrelentingly pleasant, and unfailingly nice.
As a result, when my relatives passed their sanctimonious judgment on my parents, I never challenged them. In fact, I even agreed with them. It was the same when my friends took toys and other things that were precious to me. I neither refused them nor interfered. Soon, my inability to say ‘no’ became a disability.
For example, in 2007, the company I worked for, as a counsellor, changed my work shift from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. to 10 pm . to 2 a.m. I had to make many adjustments to my daily schedule to accommodate even the earlier shift. The change in my timing without asking me required a painful process of rethinking my entire day. Later, they had me work in two continuous shifts, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., and subsequently from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. I towed the line for three years without saying a word in protest. I needed to please anyone I thought was an authority figure and never found in me the gumption to question a boss, or even have an open discussion with him or her.
I was not much different from as a mother. I restructured every single activity of mine in order to fit my girls’ schedules, ensuring I was front and centre at every school event. When they were older, each time they left for their boarding school in Ooty, just half a day’s drive away, I would hold on to them and cry copiously, unknowingly enacting the same drama as my mother had. I would tell them that they didn’t have to go, they could stay back, they could ignore all the money spent on their school so far and just come back. My daughters laughingly tell me now that they were quite happy to be in school among all their friends. The homesickness was never so bad that they wanted to leave school and come back. It came from my need to be wanted. The meek inherit the earth, and everyone’s affection.
Soon, I had effectively lost the respect of everyone around me. Dilip, I felt, wrote me off. Because of everything I had gone through as a child, I had a fundamental need to be well thought of, well liked. More so, I needed to be needed and needed to be irreplaceable as a wife. Though Dilip turned to me for material comforts, he did not seek me out for my opinions, for conversation, and for intellectual or emotional support. I was the archetypal Indian housewife.
When I felt written off, I was devastated. Because it meant inevitable abandonment. I sensed the slow death of my marriage, and felt helpless to stop it. I was consumed with such overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and inferiority that my entire persona changed. As I grew large in size, I simultaneously grew large and intimidating in anger. I screamed at the domestic help, I scolded and bullied my children. Anyone I saw as my subordinate quaked in fear when I stood in front of them. I had found an effective mask for my feeling of worthlessness. I was lost and alone. None from my extended family was speaking to me. My own mother had cut me off. My daughters were growing up with no support systems or loving cousins and aunts to mollycoddle them. I was surrounded by people who graced my home and praised me, my marriage, my children but not available to me for emotional support as I never shared my grief with them. I was lonely: Without a single friend I could share my deepest feelings with. I had no real intimacy with anyone. My inner and outer person were not at all in sync; the life of a party one minute, and crying into my pillow the next.
Just three days after my father-in-law’s passing away, my vision went black. I was seized with the worst abdominal pain I had ever known, and as I clutched my belly in fear and confusion, I felt the earth sway as I fainted from sheer agony.
I regained consciousness to the feeling of a soft hand stroking my forehead. ‘Amma?’ I thought to myself with delight. But when I opened my eyes, the hand belonged to an acquaintance: The wife of a friend of Dilip’s, whom I had met just a few times until then. For ten days, Indira cared for me, never leaving my side in the hospital. For all of those ten days, not a single member of the family came to see me or even enquired about me. Such was Indira’s compassion and sensitivity that she never once asked, ‘Where is your family?’ She unquestioningly cared for me, allowing Dilip to stay with our daughters, then just six and nine, ministering to their needs.
Each day that I awoke to Indira’s kind face, I suffered from crippling anxiety. I felt exposed. Wasn’t it obvious to her that there were problems in my family? Couldn’t she guess by now that I was as good as orphaned, and ostracized by my own people?
This time, my internal agony was a blessing in disguise. For the first time, I started to question what family meant. My most valuable lesson was that in times of crisis, help comes from people it is least expected from. Many of us hold on to familial bonds because we will have someone in our time of need in the future. But sometimes, the ones who step forward to help expect nothing in return and have no other connection with us.
This was the beginning of my journey to finally dropping the expectations I had carried for so many years.
Through the deafening chatter in my mind and the debilitating pain in my body, I discovered a new resource: deep insight about familial bonds. I let go of my fundamental belief passed down to me from my mother: that family will always be around to lend support. I realized that there is a price for belonging; that belonging meant to continue to participate in mind games, to never challenge the existing family code, even though it causes you personal distress and you are actually living in pain.
Anna Alexander had finally turned from embers to ash, and Anna Chandy was beginning to rise, strong and empowered.
The Life Script
A life script is a life plan based on a decision in childhood, reinforced by parents, justified by subsequent events and culminating in a chosen alternative. (Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello?,1972)
We all develop a life script in the first seven years of our existence. This script, similar to a movie or a play script, is a blueprint by which we live our lives. We are afraid to veer from it because of our own imagined worse-case scenario of what might happen if we do. It is an early template that we as children build as a coping strategy to gain recognition, avoid pain, and an ongoing effort to make meaning of the events that happen to us. Depending on our unique script, we then interpret an event in a number of different ways.
So, the things our parents say to us, out of love or, perhaps, a need to protect us from the harsh realities of life, such as ‘you are not pretty, you have to get by your brains’ or ‘you won’t be able to handle the high life’ or ‘this is my intellectual child’, very often become a component of our script.
Where would we all be without a life script—that system of beliefs about ourselves, early decisions we make and goals we think we have to achieve? Everyone has a life script. We write it as small children because we have to survive in the environment we are born into, and follow it all our lives until we become aware of it and realize that it may not be working so well for us any more. Like the little boy who lisps his way into adulthood because it was considered so cute as a toddler or the little girl who grows up to be a whiner because the only time she got attention when she was small was when she cried.
Hence, it is really a programme we design when we’re little to make sense of the world and to protect ourselves from the unknown. It is a map we draw for ourselves, which we then proceed to follow our entire lives unless we make a conscious decision to change direction and follow a more authentic path.
Mine was: ‘You’re pleasing and compliant, you’ll make a good wife,’ ‘You lack the grit to do well in a career’, ‘You are the good daughter who will stay back to look after us,’ ‘You will uphold the family name.’
My life script decreed that I was not meant for success; I was not meant for fame; and I was to shy away from any form of public acknowledgement. I, Anna Alexander, was meant for wifehood and motherhood, and nothing more. I neither deserved, nor had the ability, to achieve or strive.
With some therapy and a new knowledge of TA, I realized that the work was just beginning. I had a long journey ahead of me. As I began digging deep into my subconscious, discovering new things all the time, certain words came up repeatedly:
I am unfit for my children.
I don’t deserve my children.
Soon I was seeing, as if looking through little windows, insights into my own personality. The journey of understanding my own narrative through the TA lens began to make me realize that I didn’t feel good about myself. The risk of opening my heart, exposing my vulnerability and allowing someone in was too high. If I didn’t like myself, they, too, would naturally not like me. I couldn’t share intimacy—authentic intimacy—with anyone.
Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Books India from the book Battles in the mind: Conquering and winning over emotional pain’ by Anna Chandy.
You can buy the book here.