“We each have a “madwoman” in our psychological attic. She has the impossible job of managing the chasm between what we are and what [we expect ourselves] to be.”Nagoski, Emily; Nagoski, Amelia. Burnout (p. 212). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
When I was in preschool, I had an imaginary friend named Sam. I’m pretty sure my parents thought this was an early-onset mental disorder, but really, Sam protected me from loneliness. I was painfully shy and friendless, and I remember experiencing joy when I got to play “tea party” with Sam. For the record, I can’t recall Sam’s gender, but it didn’t matter to me at the time. (Go Stefanie!)
Lately I’ve been thinking about the inner self-deprecating dialogue that’s only gotten louder since my divorce. It’s said things that some assholes in my life have actually voiced to my face:
- “So tell me about the world’s shortest marriage.”
- “Why did you even stay in this relationship for so long?”
- “Isn’t it a little too soon after your divorce to be dating?”
I’ve only started exploring the concept of identifying and reinforcing boundaries with friends and family, especially when someone claims to make a statement out of love but is actually disguised shame. Standing up for myself in these situations inspired me to look in the mirror. If I’m not okay with others saying these things to me, why do I say them to myself?
This incredible book Burnout (recommended by my therapist) encourages readers to figure out where this madwoman voice comes from and how to befriend rather than demonize her. Basically if we stop whipping ourselves for one second, we’d realize this madwoman is just trying to protect us. She’s our imaginary friend.
Where My Madwoman Came From
Without getting too deep into my childhood, I believe my madwoman first appeared in high school when I was sexually assaulted by a classmate. Because it was the month before graduation, my “friends” abandoned me and wanted nothing to do with the situation. And likely due to their own unresolved traumas and triggers, my parents withdrew. I’d never felt so alone in my life.
If this major attachment wound didn’t cause (or exacerbate) my dismissive-avoidant attachment style, I don’t know what did. Since that day, I’ve grasped at every opportunity to regain some sense of control in my life. My distrust of others and fear of uncertainty grew. Even if it meant being emotionally detached (despite seeming extroverted) I wasn’t about to let myself be disappointed or betrayed again.
What My Madwoman Tells Me
My current (and healthy) job and relationship have revealed tons of toxic behaviors I’ve exhibited for YEARS but no longer serve me. Because I genuinely wanted to rebuild my life post-divorce, it was time to come to terms with my madwoman and the things she’s been saying to me.
My madwoman is convinced I’m living in a minefield of red flags. To prove myself right, I’ll subconsciously “test” my relationships and see which “flaws” could spell the end. If it still seems healthy, I’ll dig deeper. The faster I can find the red flags, the faster I’ll save myself from inevitably becoming hurt or disappointed.
My madwoman will drag me down rabbit hole of all the possible consequences of a given situation to protect myself from shock in case any of them actually transpires. This gives me the illusion of control and attempts to mitigate my fear of uncertainty by fabricating the future.
My madwoman is convinced that I should stop caring and start being more apathetic. To avoid disappointment, keep low expectations of others. Remember that no one will truly be there for you when life gets difficult. (Don’t forget what happened in high school.) You will always be alone.
How My Madwoman Has Helped Me
One thing I’ve been working on in therapy is reframing attributes I’ve historically viewed as negative. I could look at the toxic mentalies above and tell myself I’m not worthy of love or hope (what I’ve been doing for years) but I now realize how much my madwoman has actually helped me become more resillient.
Because I’ve explored the depths of suicidal ideation, I’m unafraid of the dark. I’ve developed an unfathomable capacity for emotion (especially negative or difficult ones) which helps me be empathetic and dive headfirst into working with shelter animals, human trafficking survivors, and the incarcerated. Whereas many of my friends claim their hearts could never handle these populations, I welcome the challenge and opportunity.
No one should have to experience what I went through in high school. These types of injustices fuel my desire to affect positive change in the world, putting myself in leadership positions to mentor and uplift others. My catastrophizing helps me plan, prepare, improvise, and think critically. My intense desire to feel belonging allows me to quickly build rapport with strangers in an authentic way, putting my true thoughts and feelings at the forefront of these interactions.
While I might be a reckless serial dater (or whatever you want to call it) one of my friends in high school admired the fact that I could keep picking up the pieces of my heart and move on after any breakup. It was one of the nicest compliments I’ll never forget. Even if it started from self-sabotage, my dating experiences made me brave enough to take risks and helped prepare me for polyamorous relationships.
Since learning the history of my madwoman and how she’s served me throughout my life, I’ve started to be kinder to myself. In situations I’d usually whip myself over, I’ll instead thank this madwoman for trying to protect me, then decide to move past my negative knee-jerk reaction.
Knowing I can stand up to this voice and to the people in my life has given me confidence I never thought I’d build post-divorce. For once, I can start to honor my own progress and acknowledge how proud I am of this desire to always keep growing.