When I was about ten years old, I decided I was going to be a cheerleader for Halloween.
Sounds normal enough, ya?
Thing was, at 10 years old, I was a hard tomboy.
I wore the same baby blue soccer shirt and black Umbro elastic-waisted shorts to school everyday. I cut my hair into a chili bowl. I prided myself on my 1st place pedal tractor pull trophy. I was aggressively not feminine.
But for whatever reason, that October I snuck into my sister’s bedroom, stole her WMS cheerleading uniform, and put it on. I strode into our kitchen where my mom and sister were sitting and declared, “I’m a CHEERLEADER!” with my arms lifted in a V-for-victory pose.
My mom and sister busted out laughing.
Hannah in a cheerleading uniform was HILARIOUS.
At that moment, 10-year old Hannah decided that she was not the pretty girl.
She wasn’t the cheerleader. She wasn’t blue-eyed. She wasn’t thin.
And she never would be.
I don’t tell this story to make my mom, who I know is reading this, feel bad. In fact, my mom tells me I’m beautiful on a regular basis. Moreover, my mom and sister’s laughter was totally justified.
Have YOU ever seen a cheerleader with a chili bowl haircut?
I’m writing this story as an example of one of the THOUSAND things I’m learning I need to reassess with my adult mind.
When we’re children and even beyond, our mind gets hung on seemingly traumatic experiences. 10-year-old Hannah experienced my mom and sister’s laughter as negative. It was one of my first ever experiences of learning my limitations in this physical world.
It was a quick kick in the gut: I wasn’t going to be the most beautiful girl in school.
What happens after these kinds of negative experiences is that those negative emotions prevent otherwise normal memories from getting stored in our regular ole’ memory bank.
If you think of your mind as a dark hallway lined with bookshelves — present experiences on one end and stored, unremarkable memory experiences on the other — traumatic experiences are like piles of books lying in the dark hallway just waiting for you to trip over them.
Every time a similar experience comes up — I have to dress up for a night at a bar with my friends — your mind trips over all the negative-experience books piled up in the middle of the hallway — Oh, god! But I’m NOT A CHEERLEADER!!!
So how can you put away the piles of books? By bringing in a headlight (i.e. your awareness) and picking up each book and reading it, learning what it has to teach you, and then calmly putting the book on shelf where it belongs.
Riiight, but what does that look like not metaphorically?
First, pay attention to those moments in your current day that breed anxiety or discomfort. I started noticing recently that any time my friends wanted to go out, I had a mild panic attack in choosing an outfit, choosing whether or not to wear makeup, flats or heels, chapstick or LIP STAIN!?!?!
My brain would have a mini-lightning storm of anxiety any time I was heading out. So I always ended up in something super comfortable, safe, and ultimately unattractive.
I wore a lot of a baggy shirts.
However, at a recent fundraiser for my job, I decided to face my anxiety head-on: I bought a new dress. I wore my hair down with a flower in it. I wore make-up and I wore a bra (a rarity in my world).
At the event, I got a thousand compliments. In fact, I’m pretty sure my friend Maggie just followed me around all night long telling me HOW GORGEOUS I WAS.
The true test came when I went to talk to my friend Matthew. He’s a guy of very few words and prefers silence to small talk. As I went to stand beside him, he said simply, “You look beautiful.”
That was it.
Knowing he would appreciate my honesty, I replied, “Thank you. I’ve found out lately that I’m terrified of trying to look pretty. I’m scared to try. So tonight, I decided to be brave and try.”
He nodded and we stood together in silence and watched the event go by.
What you should NOT take away from this post: You always need to dress up and be pretty!
What you SHOULD take away from this post: What’s your discomfort about? Why do you have butterflies in your stomach when you’re about to cook a new meal? Try on a an unusual dress? Try to write a slam poem for the first time ever?
What’s the discomfort really about? Are you afraid you’ll fail and then people won’t love you?
You’re strong enough to ask those questions.
You can put away the books in your memory’s hallway floor.
My dress and flowered hair was 24-year-old Hannah putting on the cheerleading uniform.
As I walked into the fundraiser night, I could feel my shoulders braced, waiting for the laughter.
But it didn’t come. And even if it had, my action was a brave one. Dealing with hard things is a brave thing to do.
I am capable of brave things.
And that’s much more important to me than being pretty ever was.
(P.S. No need to send me comments about how pretty you think or don’t think I am. I didn’t write this piece to fish for compliments. I wrote it to express something scary that I know a lot of us have felt. Maybe your fear isn’t not being pretty. Maybe it’s not being smart. Or not being kind. Or not being wanted. Fill in the blank with your fear and see where the questions lead you. You’re capable of this, too.)