Dear Mrs. Bluth,
I hate Yomim Tovim with my family and, over the last few years, this distaste has extended to friends and acquaintances, social events of all kinds and even going to shul on Shabbos. I realize that I my problem is escalating, but I don’t know where to turn. Until now, I have been able to manage it and fake having a good time, while inside, I’m really seething. This Shavuos, at a family meal, I clenched my fists so hard to keep myself under control, I broke the skin in the palm of my hands requiring me to ball up tissues to stem the bleeding. I don’t think I can play the game much longer. As soon as I’m out of the social circle and by myself, I calm down. I can even go out and buy self-help books and, for a while, apply to my situation. But, as sure as night follows day, it reoccurs with a vengeance, even stronger than before.
My children have asked me why I am so tense when we go to family or social events, as I have not always been this way. I don’t know what to answer them as I can’t figure out how this evolved or when it actually got so bad as to take over my quality of life. My husband also realizes that something is wrong, as weeks before any kind of event I look for a way to get out of going. Family gatherings in particular, cause me to go into a down-spiral days, weeks before they actually take place.
Part of me thinks it has something to do with my parents or siblings, but I can’t figure out how or why. Although I was never a social butterfly, my feelings today go way beyond simple discomfort. My greater concern, however, is my children. My eldest daughter, who is sixteen, has begun to adopt my habit and now looks for reasons not to go out with friends as often as she used to and that frightens me. Am I now harming my children by my behavior? I would be devastated if this was true.
Please let me know, via your column, what your thoughts are and what I can do to help myself and not pass this debilitating habit onto my children.
Debilitating indeed! It is odd that you should have developed this phobia at such a late date. However, as you can’t recall when it began, it may have been there for a very long time before you became aware of its existence. A word said, or an action you witnessed may have triggered the recall of some unpleasant incidence that took place in a social setting in your childhood and festered in your sub-conscious until something woke it up. In the mind of a young child any degrading words – stupid, crazy, ugly, fat, or the like – that diminish his or her sense of worth and self, will be a seed that takes root and quietly grows with him or her into adulthood, where it may or may not reappear in a far more detrimental form.
I am inclined to believe that since you did not mention a particularly dysfunctional family dynamic, it may have been a teacher or another adult whom you trusted or looked up to, who may have damaged your opinion of yourself and fertilized the idea that you are not able to hold your own at family gatherings or in social settings. Though it is possible that it was a family member who embarrassed you in a public setting, jokingly or otherwise.
What may have triggered its resurfacing is the catch-phrase that was repeated, and suddenly, the memory of it in your “little girl” awoke and the hurt, embarrassments and pain of that event came forth full force to join you in your adulthood. This may or may not be the root-cause, and is something you need to discuss with a qualified therapist who will be able to chart the source of this condition and then help you to overcome it. I strongly urge you to seek help as you are slowly isolating yourself in a prison of your own making.
There is also no question in my mind that your children, in particular your daughter, may adopt your habit of isolation, as children often look to their parents for role-modeling. It is not a healthy atmosphere for them in which to develop good social skills. It may be wise to have your daughter see a therapist now while this habit is still in its infancy stage. You might also consider the stress you may be placing on your marriage by forcing your husband to pass up family events or social commitments because you refuse to go with him. Your phobia is no longer yours alone; it has metastasized to the other members in your family. Please get help as soon as possible so that the entire family unit can benefit and heal.
The take-away from this issue segues into the harm and damage that a demeaning word or action, uttered in jest or in earnest to a young, impressionable child can cause. It can lie dormant and then reappear with a vengeance in later life. Be very careful in what you say to a young child; be cautious with the tone of voice used, as loud and abusive screaming is threatening.