It echoes through the years…a refrain, sometimes soft, sometimes loud. “What is the matter with me?”
It’s nothing medical. “I have this horrible pain in my tummy — what is the matter with me?” Nope, those words never appear when I am worried that I am sick.
They are put-downs. If I mislay my glasses, if I forget somebody’s name, if I drop a glass. “What is the matter with me?” Well, nothing, actually. Those things are perfectly normal. Everybody does them occasionally. There is no need to worry — I’m not becoming demented.
It’s an old tape from childhood. Adults said, “What is the matter with you, Jean? You know better than that!” when I did something that annoyed them. Their voices sounded critical and had a frustrated, angry edge. What was their problem?
The problem was that they believed that children learned when they were told something once. They don’t. It takes patiently repeating over and over and over until they do what you want automatically. Eventually they become like Pavlovian dogs, saying “please” every time they ask for something. But for years they had to stop and think before they said “please” — and what little kid has the self control to do that when they want something now! Right now!!!
In the best case, hearing those words made me stop and think and I remembered what it was they wanted me to do. In the worst case, I froze and tried to figure out what was the matter with me. I couldn’t come up with anything and I didn’t remember what they wanted me to do so I just stood there in silence, which annoyed the grown up even more.
Nowadays nobody says that to me. It’s only a little voice inside me. That little voice doesn’t sound like a frustrated, angry grown-up. It sounds like a younger me. How many times I must have thought, “What is the matter with me?” I was trained like that dog in Pavlov’s lab to question myself and now I think that anytime I make a mistake.
Oddly enough, it’s only little mistakes that call forth that voice. Big ones, like trusting an untrustworthy person or running a red light get an entirely different response. After an emotional storm, I react like a mature, problem-solving adult and do something sensible. (I guess when I was a kid I didn’t get to run red lights.)
I have learned to re-parent myself when I hear those words. I carefully explain out loud that there is nothing the matter with me, that I am normal and smart and trying my very best to do things right. Everybody makes mistakes, and it is no big deal. It would have been great to hear that when I was a kid and needed reassurance, but better late than never.
Did you notice that this has nothing to do with ritual abuse? Not every little neurotic thing stems from ritual abuse. The world is large enough that your mind can get messed up by something outside of the cult! Something normal, something shared by lots of people without a cult background. Amazing!