Faith Gong: Things we don’t talk about: Being the anti-hero

the man guilty of desperation regret and sorrow

I have an uneasy relationship in my head with singer/songwriter/cultural icon Taylor Swift. On the one hand, I appreciate her catchy tunes and sharply intelligent lyrics. After watching the 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana with my children, I was deeply impressed with Swift’s creative process, and grateful for the thoughtful messages she conveyed about the dark side of fame and her struggles with body image. 

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel a little resentful that so much of Swift’s oeuvre has become the soundtrack of my life — a soundtrack that I didn’t choose, but that’s been thrust upon me by my children. Taylor Swift’s voice accompanies us everywhere: driving in the car, doing dishes, doing homework. I’m also less-than-thrilled that she seduced our whole family — including our pre-teen children — with her early, wholesome, country-to-pop crossover albums, and then released a trio of albums over the past three years in which 1/3 of the songs are marked “E” for “explicit lyrics.” It’s made for plenty of exciting, dive-for-the-mute-button family car rides. 

Still, on Taylor Swift’s latest album, Midnights, there’s a song that’s become a sort of anthem for me. When I first listened to “Anti-Hero,” I recognized the chorus for how it beat in time with my own subconscious: “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” 

This year, I started seeing a counselor. While my Puritan ancestors would never sign up for therapy — let alone admit to it — I teach my children that therapy is smart, not shameful. Indeed, over half of our family has seen counselors at any given time over the past couple of years. I have an amazing spouse, dear friends, and a church community, but there’s nothing quite like meeting regularly with someone whose job is to reflect your thought and behavior patterns back to you in all their dysfunctional glory.  

I started therapy because I was starting to be haunted by this dysfunctional thought: Everybody would be better off if I weren’t around. All I do is ruin things and create more stress for people. 

It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.

This thought pattern came to light when my counselor asked, “What are you most afraid of?” 

How would you answer that question?

There are so many good options. Many might start with: Death. And death deserves some major respect in the fear pantheon. It subconsciously informs most of our behavior: We act out of the desire to stay alive. But death isn’t what keeps me up at night.

I could’ve been very specific: I’m afraid that bad things will happen to my children. I imagine the damage that cruel events and people can inflict upon them, or the traumas that they might choose to inflict upon themselves. I’m afraid that I’m not doing enough, personally or professionally: that I’m a subpar spouse, friend, daughter, housekeeper, writer, teacher…human.

All those things probably ran through my head in the moments before I answered my therapist’s question, but the answer — which surprised me — left my lips quickly:

“I’m afraid that I’m The Bad Thing, that I’m The Problem.”

Why am I telling you this? Why am I giving you a peek into my private therapy session — into my psyche? 

I believe that the things we hide because they seem the most personal and specific, are often the very things that are the most universal. We cover up out of fear masquerading as privacy. I place a high value on privacy, and there are some things that I will never write about for public consumption. But when we stay silent in the name of privacy, often we’re really coming from a place of shame: “I couldn’t share this because it would be too much for other people. They’d feel overwhelmed, or worried about me, or they’d think I was weird and unhinged.” 

On the contrary, chances are that if we were to open up about those things — especially to kind, safe people — they would respond, “You too? I thought I was the only one!” One of the great lies we tell ourselves is that our innermost thoughts, anxieties, and questions will drive others away. We choose to stay safely isolated in our shame, confining our thoughts to our own mental cages, when bringing these things into the light is far more likely to help others and draw us together. 

So I’m telling you that my greatest fear is of being the bad thing, of being the problem, because I’d wager that this might be your fear, too. Maybe not for everyone, maybe it’s not your greatest fear, but I doubt I’m alone. We’re rarely alone. Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” debuted in the top spot on Billboard’s global and U.S. charts, earned over 17 million plays in its first 24 hours, and was Swift’s longest-running number-one song. There are an awful lot of people out there singing, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” 

One month ago, I wrote a column about the particular challenges of my current life stage: a middle-aged parent of teenagers. I suggested that this season is even more challenging because of the odd silence that surrounds these topics, the things we don’t talk about. Based on the number of comments I’ve received, the column resonated with people. (We are rarely alone.) So, since I made the first move, I’m going to keep going, writing through some areas of life and parenting where I feel particularly wobbly.  

I’m telling you that my greatest fear is of being the bad thing because this is where I must begin. Middle age and parenting are hard, yes, and the silences around them are hard, but I’m feeling wobbly because my root system is based on a fear of inadequacy. When storms hit, the trees that tend to fall are the ones that are weak, sick, or have shallow roots. When I am faced with recalcitrant teens, decisions about where to focus my energy in work and life, or issues of my own mortality, what makes me wobble is my fear that it’s all my fault, I’m causing other people stress, and I’m just too much. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix: I will likely spend the rest of my life trying to be aware — to beware — of the voices in my head whispering that I’m the problem and calling those voices out as liars. (Most of the time they’re liars; sometimes we really are the problem, and it’s important to recognize that and make amends.) Likewise, I don’t have any easy answers to the questions I’m going to address in upcoming columns; no answers, just my own experience and a lot more questions. 

So if you want advice, this will not be the place to find it. But I’m not fighting against questions or doubt; I’m fighting against silence and shame. I’d love for you to join me. Perhaps, like Taylor Swift, we can transform our insecurities into a song. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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