I had a conversation with my son Jake today. A conversation that I am particularly proud of. It all started out as my usual pep talk. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Jake, let me give you a little background.
Jake was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome (TS) at the age of six, and OCD at the age of eight. He “outgrew” his TS around the age of 14, but his OCD went into overdrive. Fast forward eight years…eight difficult years for Jake.
At the age of almost 22 (Feb. 16) Jake is struggling with social anxiety. His OCD mainly takes the form of repetitive thoughts, mostly centering around his anxiety of being “behind everyone else” in terms of where he is in his life. He has held himself accountable for a timeline that has been hi-jacked time and time again by anxiety and OCD.
He regrets that he didn’t have a “normal” high school experience. The local high school was awful, so we home schooled. I wish things had been different. Better choices available. But, at the time, it felt like the best option. And yes, I beat myself up on occasion about this choice. Hindsight, yada, yada.
He continually compares himself to where his peers are, as opposed to where he is. For example, at his age, according to society, he should have a bachelor’s degree by now. He should be surrounded by close friends. But because he doesn’t have those things (yet), he feels less than.
As a result of being home schooled, and struggling with OCD and anxiety, Jake has had a difficult time socially. He has struggled making lasting friendships, and interacting with his peers. Another factor in this has been that his interests are vastly different, and hyper-focused, unlike many of the students in his classes.
You see, Jake is extremely intelligent, and has educated himself over the years. His interests are math and physics…like quantum physics. He wants to answer big questions like “why is the universe?”. He’s been thinking like this most of his life, and has found it difficult to find others who share his intense passion.
But here’s the thing. Over the past few years, I have seen Jake make so much progress. He is currently enrolled in school and is in his second semester as a Freshman. He sees himself as a failure.
Here’s what I see. I see a young man who has walked through the fire, and while he may be covered in soot, continues to get up each day and try. I see someone who has gone from rarely leaving the house to having a job and attending college. I see my son overcoming all the things that have brought him down, and some days still do, making strides each day to change those things.
But I also see this on his bad days. I see him telling the story of an awkward kid who has no social skills. A kid who “doesn’t do anything” and “didn’t even go to high school”. A kid who “has wasted his life”.
But that’s an old story, with only a slight bit of truth written into it…very slight.
Yesterday was a bad day, as I sat and listened to Jake tell his story-the same story he has been telling for years. And I said, “Maybe parts of that story were true at one time…but that’s not your story anymore.”
“You are in school. You are starting to make friends.”
He countered, “Yeah, but it’s not that hard for everyone else.”
“You don’t know that. People are good at wearing masks, making others think they know what they are doing. I think you’d be surprised at how many people struggle socially. Especially in this day and time when everyone is talking to a screen instead of a face. You’re not giving yourself any credit for the things you have accomplished.”
“It’s just hard when I see everyone else surrounded by friends, and making it look so easy.”
“Do you remember what you told me on your first day at Armstrong? You told me that this was a fresh start. That no one there knows you. No one knows your struggles. You said that you could go in and act like the most confident guy in the world and no one would know the difference.”
“Stop it, Jake. You were about to say that you haven’t had the same experiences – or any experiences like the other people. OK, so your life has been different. More difficult than many. More roadblocks. But that was then. You have to stop living in your old story, Jake. You have to put that book away, and write a new story. And that’s what you’re doing, even if you don’t see it.”
“But it’s so hard.”
“I know, but you’re doing it. You’re getting up each day and going out there. You’re putting yourself out there. You’re weighing yourself down with your old story. Let it go. Focus on where you are now. What you’re doing now. When you stop acting like the old you, people will stop seeing the old you. That’s the person you’re showing everyone and that’s not you anymore.
You’ve been telling yourself for so long that you have no social skills, and that’s just not the truth.You have a job where you interact with your co-workers and customers for hours at a time. You’re taking classes and working with other students, raising your hand in class, talking with professors. That’s not what a person without social skills does. I get that it’s not easy for you, but you’re quoting a story that has ended. You are not a person without social skills. You’re in a brand new story now, that you’re writing every day.”
I’m proud of that conversation because it made me think of the stories I’m still telling myself, that are no longer true, if they ever were. For years, I’ve told myself I’m not enough, I have never been enough, and I never will be enough. I’m putting that piece of fiction on the shelf. I’m writing myself a new story.
I think we all create mythologies surrounding ourselves, our identity. Who people have told us we are, who we’ve convinced ourselves that we are. And we’ve told ourselves these stories for so many years, we’ve come to believe them.
What stories do you tell yourself? Are they accurate? Do they reflect who you are now?
Maybe it’s time to consider writing yourself a new story in this brand new year. You deserve it. We all do.