Leah delves into a deeply personal topic: how trauma and mental health have impacted her ability to show up authentically. She talks about the impact her demanding, charismatic father had on her psyche and sense of safety. In admitting her fear of being viewed as not good enough or too much like their father, Leah discusses the creation of a performative persona and the desire to shift to a more authentic voice.
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How to Stop Performing and Show Up as You Are by Kendra Patterson
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LEAH: Hey friends. Before we get started, I forgot to mention something in the main episode and I wanted to make sure I got it in. I’m adjusting the release schedule through the end of 2023.
The next episode is scheduled to come out on November 23, which is American Thanksgiving. So, I’m going to give myself that day off. A month later, the second December episode is scheduled to come out the day after the anniversary of my mom’s death, And I know that that part of the year is really difficult for me. So, I’m going to release the next episode on Thursday, Dec. 7th. That’s in four weeks. And then, I’ll see you again in 2024.
Okay. On to the show!
LEAH: Welcome to Good Girls Talk About Sex. I am sex and intimacy coach, Leah Carey. And this is a place to share conversations with all sorts of women about their experience of sexuality. These are unfiltered conversations between adult women talking about sex. If anything about the previous sentence offends you, turn back now! And if you’re looking for a trigger warning, you’re not going to get it from me. I believe that you are stronger than the trauma you have experienced. I have faith in your ability to deal with things that upset you. Sound good? Let’s start the show!
LEAH: Hey, friends. I’m deviating from the plan. If you were looking for the pop culture breakdown of Togetherness and Starstruck that I promised for this episode, I will get to it soon. But some other stuff that feels more important has come up, and I want to share it with you.
In my recent health update episode, I talked a lot about the physical stuff that was going on, but I glanced over the emotional fallout of what has been going on. And to be honest, it’s intense. And I also left a bit of information hanging at the end that I’d received another diagnosis that I wasn’t ready to talk about yet, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be ready to talk about it. But apparently, life has other plans, so here I am.
The other day, I was talking with a very dear and very, very brave friend who told me the truth about something that she was really nervous to say. And I want to say, I hope you have people in your life who are as brave as this friend has been with me. She told me that when she listens to this podcast or any of the other things that I do, she can always tell the difference between things that are pre-scripted versus regular conversation. She struggled to find a word for it. She talked around it for a minute. And she kept saying, “The content is always really good, but just the pre-scripted stuff, it feels so performative.”
And you know that someone has found exactly the right spot when you instantly start crying, which is exactly what I did. And I think she thought that she had really upset me, so she rushed on. And she was like, “It’s not that it’s bad. I just really prefer it when you’re talking rather than performing.” And I said, “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m not upset. You are correct. That is exactly true.” And she said, “To be honest, I fast forward through the stuff at the beginning that’s pre-scripted. And I only start listening when you start the conversation. And I’m listening to Leah as opposed to this performance that you put on.”
And she’s right. And I’m deeply grateful that not only that she told me the truth, but also that she was willing and able to sit with me as I processed through why that hit me so hard. I have a few notes, but this is unscripted. So, it may be a bit all over the place. And I thank you in advance for following me through this.
So, I’ve told you about the diagnoses that I’ve received going back a couple of years, started with ADHD, then this last year, endometriosis, and hypermobility. All three of those things are apparently a cluster of syndromes that can show up together. So, it’s not surprising.
The other diagnosis that I just received quite recently is complex PTSD. And it’s like the varsity version of PTSD. That’s what I’ve heard it called. And it makes sense based on the experiences that I’ve had in my life. I have talked some here and in other places about my father and how difficult and painful it was to grow up in a household with him. And I’ve had various practitioners over decades say, “Oh, do you have PTSD?” And I would always say, “I haven’t been formally diagnosed, but it stands to reason.”
So, to get not only a diagnosis of PTSD, but of C-PTSD, is actually a relief because it means I’m no longer shadow boxing with ghosts. But it has also hit me really hard because I’ve spent so much of my life trying to convince myself that what happened wasn’t actually that bad because that was part of my dad’s game. He would always say, “Oh, you’re making such a big deal out of nothing.” He would say things or do things that were incredibly damaging, and then turn around and minutes or hours or days or weeks later say, “I never did that. I never said that. You’re making that up,” which left me feeling crazy. I couldn’t trust my own experience of my own life.
And then, I chose partners who mirrored some kinds of versions of that. None of them were ever quite as damaging as my dad, but they certainly took a good run at it. And so, I believed that that was all that I was worthy of, that that was all that I was good for was to be somebody’s punching bag. And I had all of these emotional and physical symptoms that didn’t seem to correlate to anything.
And so, I just assumed that that meant that there was something deeply problematic about the person who I was, that maybe my dad was right, and I was weak and pitiful and morally lacking and just straight up crazy. My dad was also a real conundrum in terms of how he showed up in the world. He was bigger than life, big man on campus, always jovial, and this big, fun, smart person who could get shit done. And so, that’s how people knew him, but that’s not the person who came home to us.
The person who came home to us was sometimes fun and playful and all of that, but also was critical to the point of abusive. Nothing I did was ever good enough. I can’t remember if I’ve told this story on here before, but I was a straight A student because that was the only thing that was acceptable. And so, I would come home with my report cards. And my dad would look at it and be like, “This is so boring. You can’t even spell anything. It’s just A.” And then, the one time I brought home a report card that had a B on it, he lost his motherfucking mind and started screaming at me, I was a B+ I think, started screaming at me that I wasn’t any good, and I wasn’t worth the time and energy he put into me. And there was all of this drama about whether I should go to a good school or a bad school and that I wasn’t worth putting any energy into going to a good school.
So that’s the really confusing back and forth. He showed up as one person in public, and he showed up as a completely different person at home. And I know that there are going to be some of you who are sitting there listening and being like, “Oh my god. That’s a narcissist.”
And, yeah, he had a lot of what I can now identify as narcissistic behaviors. I cannot diagnose him as a narcissist because he’s been dead for 23 years, and you can’t make a posthumous diagnosis. So, that would be irresponsible, but he definitely exhibited a lot of the characteristics and the behaviors.
So, what I learned was the best way and often the only way to survive in my home was to be as perfect as possible. I became ultra-high functioning, which made the diagnosis of ADHD a couple of years ago really fucking confusing because I knew myself to be somebody who was ultra put together, so high functioning.
Now, never mind that I was also constantly depressed, and my anxiety was through the fucking roof all of the time, I was high functioning. And longtime listeners may know that my mom had cancer and I was her companion through that journey for a couple of years. When my mom got sick, my high functioning self disappeared. I remember one day, mom called me at work and said, “Can you stop at the drugstore on your way home and pick up something?” And I was like, “Yeah. Absolutely. See you in a while.” And when I got home, she was like, “Oh, did you pick up whatever, the Tylenol?” And I was like, “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I totally forgot.” And she started laughing. She was like, “I know how stressed out you are because you used to remember everything, and now you don’t remember anything.”
And she’s right. And I think what happened was that I had become extraordinarily good at masking the ADHD symptoms. It took all of my energy. I was constantly exhausted.
So high anxiety, massively depressed, but I kept shit together. And when my mom got sick, I lost the ability to hold it together because it had never actually been real. It had been me using every single bit of my energy in life to be as perfect as possible. And with the stress of my mom being sick, I was no longer able to hold that together.
And the truth is that that high functioningness was a trauma response to my childhood. It was a trauma response to trying to just stay under the radar and safe with my dad so that he wouldn’t find something to come after me about. Now, those of you who grew up in households like this know that they don’t necessarily need something. So, all of that trying to stay under the radar doesn’t actually work because they’ll find something anyway. But this was my coping mechanism, was to be as perfect as possible. And I got really good at it.
I remember one time I was in 4th or 5th grade and my dad was running for the school board. He gave me an envelope one morning. And he said, “When you’re at school today, give this to some adult.” And I said, “Okay,” and I put it in my bag. And when I came home from school that afternoon, the first thing he said to me was, “Did you give that letter to whoever?” And I was like, “Oh my god. No. I totally forgot.” And he just again lost his fucking mind. And he started screaming at me that because I didn’t deliver that letter, he was now going to lose the election, and it was going to be all my fault that he couldn’t be there to help the kids of the district, literally laying all of this on a fucking 10-year-old because she forgot to deliver a letter. Who gives a letter that important to a 10-year=old? Fuck you.
Anyway, that level of perfectionism was so deeply ingrained in me. I didn’t even know that it was a coping mechanism. I just thought that it was me. I thought that that’s who I was. I am a person who is supposed to be perfect, and I will do anything necessary to be that person.
Another aspect I mentioned that my dad was this big personality who everybody came to. He had a lot of charisma, and he used it. For those of you who live in New England, you may be familiar with the Boston 4th of July event. My dad was one of the three people who created that event, and he was the voice of the esplanade for years and years. I was 26 when he died, so for 26 years, because it started the same year I was born.
He had a really big presence, and he was the kind of person who sucked all the air out of a room when he entered it. And so, I have lived with this enormous fear. It’s the fear that I, as myself, have no charisma, that if I just show up as me, that if I am just me, that it will never be enough, and nobody will ever care. On the flip side of that, I’m terrified. I am soul crushingly terrified of being like him, of having the kind of charisma that he had and using it in the destructive kind of ways that he used it.
So, to come back to where I started this conversation without even realizing it, what I did to thread that impossible needle where I’m not enough as I am, but if I allow myself to be more, then I’m going to be a destructive, harmful, abusive person, the response to that was to create this persona, this performative voice.
And when my friend called it out last week, I knew immediately what she was talking about. It takes a lot of energy for me to put on that voice, and I don’t know how to do anything different. I don’t know how to sit in front of a microphone or stand on a stage and not go into that performance version of myself. It’s totally different when I’m talking with somebody, when I’m interviewing somebody, when I’m being interviewed, when it’s just a conversation, then I can be myself. But when it’s just me showing up in that monologue, I immediately go into performance. And that’s specifically true when I have a script in front of me, which is part of the reason that I did not script what I was going to say today.
Because now that I know it, now that my friend has shown it to me and I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it. In the aftermath of that conversation, I was doing some looking around online. I ended up on exactly the perfect page. It’s a woman named Kendra Patterson. She describes herself as a social scientist, writer, and podcaster. I don’t know who she is, though I will be reaching out to her. And she wrote a blog post in February 2022 called “How to Stop Performing and Show Up as You Are.” And I saw that, and I immediately started crying again.
Every bit of this speaks really profoundly to me. I don’t want to read the whole thing to you. So, I’m just going to read some excerpts, and then I’ll put the link in the show notes. She writes, “When we’re showing up in the public spaces of the online world as creators and or entrepreneurs, it’s easy to believe we need to perform. Public spaces are performative spaces, and a lot of people are playing parts. Many treat it like a game. But for those of us who have an aversion to being performative, that kind of interaction leads to misery and burnout. Unfortunately, we rarely feel that we’re good enough just as we are. We operate on the assumption that performance of some kind is required for us to be accepted or acceptable. We need to be peppy, flashy, and outgoing. We need to be attractive. Our work needs to be on point of excellent quality, engaging. We need to speak to the zeitgeist, just speaking our truth isn’t enough. All of these are really the same thing. They’re statements about how we need to be more and better to deserve our place at the table, we need to perform for our dinner.”
Part of what struck me so deeply about this is that when I was having this conversation with my friend last week, and I said, “I’m afraid that if I don’t go into that performance mode, nobody will listen. Nobody will care. I’ve got all this stuff that feels so meaningful to me to share, and what if everybody tunes out?” And that’s when she said to me that, “When you just show up and talk, that’s what I want to listen to. When you’re performing, I really don’t care. It just all sounds the same. But when you just talk, I’m hanging on every word.”
My brain finds that really hard to believe. And at the same time, I know that it’s true of other people. I know that there are other people who I listen to, who I’m absolutely riveted by not their charisma, but their willingness to show up in their raw authentic self.
So, I want to try to stop performing. I want to put a hold on that performing version of myself so that the more authentic version of myself can show up. In the process, I’m so afraid that people won’t like me. I am so afraid that I will disappear. I’m afraid it will create so much war work for myself that I don’t have the spoons for. Because speaking without a script means a lot more editing work. And, boy, god, that’s already taking a lot, but I think this is important.
It also brings up this questioning of if being high functioning is a trauma response, how do I stop? I don’t know anything else. I’ve never been able to get back to that pre-mom’s cancer level of high functioning, that disappeared. It’s no longer accessible to me. And I still compare myself against that version of myself so that I am today always wanting against that earlier version of myself who could do 10 things at once and who could do things on an accelerated timeline. I would have bosses who would tell me to slow down because I was working too fast.
I will never get back there. I cannot imagine a scenario in which I get back there. I also don’t know how to stop comparing myself against that person so that where I am today at moderately high functioning, it feels like a failure. So, how do I give myself permission to do even less?
I don’t know. I am not at all sure how to do this. And to be absolutely honest, I’m not sure that I’m brave enough to do this. But I need to try. And the act of saying this out loud and letting you hear it and putting it out on the Internet is really fucking scary because it means that I have to be accountable to it. It means that if I don’t follow through, people might notice. And that terrifies me, but I don’t know another way. So, this is what I can do. This is a first step into the unknown. And I’m not always going to get it right. There are probably going to be times when I will just drop into that performative place because it’s comfortable or I forget. But I’m going to do my best.
Thank you for being here. And then, one more thing before I go. I imagine that there are probably going to be people who are listening to this and thinking, “Oh, I have great suggestions. I have great coping mechanisms, all that kind of stuff.” And thank you in advance. I’m going to ask that you not send me advice right now. I am already tapping out my capacity for taking in new information. But I do really appreciate that drive and that care. I will certainly accept messages of whatever else you want to send. Just right now, please, not advice. Thanks.
LEAH: I’m not actually sure what else to say. There’s all this stuff usually at the end about like and subscribe and leave ratings and Patreon and coaching is available, and all of that stuff is still true. But really right now, I just want to say thank you for being here. Take care. I’ll talk to you next time.
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