Footprints on Our Faces
When I was in high school, I gave my best friend, Jane, the nickname “Footprint” because she allowed her boyfriend to walk all over her. I’m sure I deserved the name, too, for the way I behaved with some of the boys I dated. My friend and I felt vaguely uncomfortable and powerless, but this was the 1950s and early ’60s, when girls were encouraged to cater to boys. In many respects, times haven’t changed all that much.
In lieu of honest and heartfelt talks with an adult, I remember reading as an early teen a series of little YWCA books on dating, menstruating, and the art of making a proper phone call. The booklet on dating actually said that in order to be popular (that summit of adolescent values), a girl should let the boy talk about himself. The booklet advised girls to ask the boy leading questions that would get him started talking about topics of interest to him. To build a boy’s interest in me, I was to feign interest in cars and sports or whatever that particular boy liked.
Surely those books had been reprinted from volumes discovered in some moldy Victorian attic! I remember thinking, Isn’t that a stupid game? What if there’s a subject I’d like to talk about? My doubts manifested themselves in an interesting way: I developed a chronic frog in my throat. Especially when out on a date, I felt that I would choke at any minute. Often I’d need to excuse myself and find a private place to hack and cough. I was literally choking on the sincere words I held back and the game-like words I spoke. More basically, I was choking on the underlying message from those one sided, how-to-get-along-with-boys suggestions: You are not as important as they are. I carried that semi-hidden belief that I was second-rate with me into adulthood. I also carried my throat frog.
Several years ago I filled in an assertiveness inventory in a magazine. I was prepared to “pass” with flying colors because I had a master’s degree in psychology and had been through a very growth-producing divorce. Feeling I’d made great progress in developing self-esteem, I was shocked and angered when I tested high in healthy assertion in all areas except in relationships with the men I loved, including my two sons.
The results of that test helped me discover that I was still acting out a lingering assumption that men are better, deserve to be listened to more than women, and would probably leave me if I didn’t take a backseat to them in most matters. My beliefs allowed men to invade me by firmly planting their tennies on my face. Croak! Significantly, my need to clear my throat was a family joke and, I learned later, a constant irritation to my husband.
I decided to do something about both my beliefs and actions (or lack thereof). I began to assert myself with men, even with the men I loved. I ferreted out my fears and hidden attitudes of subservience and slowly stopped giving myself away. The process was not easy and required the help of a good therapist, supportive friends, clients, and my own stick-to-itiveness.
The frog in my throat, which had been with me constantly for almost thirty years, disappeared. Rarely do I choke and croak now, but if I do, I look for ways in which I’ve reverted to old patterns and allowed myself to be invaded. Froggie has become an important teacher.