I’ve always been fascinated by how sibling order and core family dynamics impact personality development.
I don’t buy into astrology stuff much, but birth order stuff? Hoo boy. I am a middle child down into my bones.
Not only do I feel myself to be intensely affected by being a middle child and the “only girl,” but also by the age differences between us– 18 months between my older brother and me, while the little one didn’t come along until like 6 years later.
While birth order, sibling sex, and age differences can certainly create different outcomes in different families, it always felt to me that I am the direct product of these facts, and that they affect every area of my life, from personality to hobbies to goals to relationships. (Interestingly, many of my significant partners have been only-children.)
Anyway… can you tell I recently got back into therapy??
I haven’t had a therapist in years, for a variety of reasons, but I’m thrilled to recently find one again. Unsurprisingly, within just a few sessions I find myself writing about core family dynamics and how I became the way I am. 😉
Specifically what’s been coming up for me is the effect that birth order had on my need for attention, and the relationship that need for attention has had on my need to constantly express myself in words.
First, a quick story about my little nephew and niece, who are also born about a year and a half apart.
Before my niece recently learned to walk, she was carried around in her little car seat carrier. Often, one of her parents would come into a house to drop off the two kids, and all the adults would greet each other, hugging amidst the chaos of taking off coats and boots and passing off of children. My nephew, who is almost 3, would immediately be invited into another room to see something cool we thought he would like, and a few minutes later someone would wonder where my niece is… only to realize she got set down in her little carrier and was still just chillin quietly by the door.
Mind you, this never really seemed to bother her.
But as I saw variations on this scene play out repeatedly, I realized that the needy exuberance of having a toddler big brother was regularly overpowering and overshadowing her, and that as a result, she wasn’t getting her rightful ration of adult attention.
I felt a deep, old hurt about this.
I remember being the kid who felt overpowered and overshadowed by her older brother. I remember feeling lonely and left out.
I was the classic second child: I rarely had the undivided attention of my parents, because there was always needy toddler running around. This led me to discover at some point that if I want going to get my share of the attention, I was going to have to earn it.
I remember seeing kids who got attention indirectly and unconsciously, through acting out and causing trouble, but that neither seemed effective nor appealing to me. My parents were perfectly willing to give me what I wanted, I would just literally have to ask for it, so my instrument of choice became… words.
I was verbal early.
As an adult I’m very proud of my ability to verbally process an issue (or to write about it), so this isn’t a disparagement of my hard-won skills. I’m simply observing that this skill sprang out the feeling that there was a scarcity of attention to go around, and that since I couldn’t compete physically with my older brother for that attention, I had to sharpen a skill he wasn’t as good at.
I became very good at both expressing myself with words, and getting the attention I craved.
By being articulate, direct, talkative, outgoing, dramatic, and confident, I discovered that I could simply commandeer the amount of attention I desired from whoever was available. People paid attention to me, because I made myself very difficult to ignore.
Is it any wonder I went on to be an actor, an exhibitionist, a writer, a speaker, and an advocate for empowering other women to get their needs met?
Early on I loved books, and stories, and articulating my thoughts into words. I was a writer even back then, obsessed with crafting the exact right meaning using grammar and syntax and poetic license.
Words became my instrument, my weapon, and my bargaining chip.
I remember following my mom around the house while she was doing chores, ceaselessly describing the books I was reading and what I thought about them, as we moved from room to room.
I remember in acting school when I developed debilitating blisters on my vocal chords, as if my voice couldn’t keep up with the volume of words my mouth was saying.
I remember watching a video my friend had taken after we had done MDMA and went swimming in the ocean, and how the steady stream of ecstatic words pouring out of my mouth barely stopped long enough for me to get hit by the waves. I literally came up from each wave halfway through a sentence about how beautiful everything was.
More recently, I work from home all day, so the moment my boyfriend comes home from work I want to tell him about everything I did and everything I’ve been thinking about all day.
Not only that, but when we’re working through a difficult issue in our relationship, his preference is to take some time to sit with it and process it silently and separately, while I feel a burning need to talk through everything immediately.
There is a hint of something aggressive about my need to express myself in words (and the force with which I feel like I need to talk), at times. It’s as if, for fear of being steamrolled, I end up steamrolling others.
It is now those exact moments of intense desire to share my thoughts that I am using an an opportunity to challenging myself. I’m pushing myself to hold the words inside myself for a while, to sit with them burning and writhing unspoken, in an effort to see what happens and feel what comes up.
This isn’t the first time I’m working on this, either. To be honest, I thought I had healed this part of my inner child long ago, and yet here I am, tackling it again in a deeper and more subtle way.
It’s not that I want to talk less exactly– although that may be a side effect for a while.
Instead, it’s that I want to be able to tolerate the discomfort that arises when I feel the urge to offer my words in exchange for someone’s attention.
I want to learn how to be more quiet, notice and develop non-verbal forms of communication, increase my tolerance for silence and stillness, and really live my life as if there is enough attention to go around.
It’s been really interesting (read: hard, but rewarding), so far.
Yay, therapy, amiright??
Happy Tuesday, my darlings.
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