When I was in junior high, I wanted nothing more than to be a cheerleader.
Cheerleaders, to me, were the epitome of female power and confidence. They demanded your attention, with their matching uniforms, loud voices, and synchronized clapping. Becoming a cheerleader meant instant popularity, which to my 13-year-old mind, was tantamount to unadulterated respect from my peers. With this social position, I’d finally escape my tired identity of curly-haired weirdo and enter a new self: one who was well-adjusted, carefree, and super duper cute in her coordinated orange-and-black ensemble.
Not to mention, my big sister, whose approval was my main reason for living, was a cheerleader. Therefore, I desperately needed to belong to this group.
I set out to train. I enlisted the help of my sister, who taught me a few cheers and spotted my wobbly back-bends. I read embarrassing books like with titles like, “Varsity’s Ultimate Guide to Cheerleading” and “101 School Spirit Cheers and Chants.” I did a summer intermural training with the high school poms team. I practiced smiling in the mirror until the corners of my mouth became twitchy and sore.
I thought for sure I had it in the bag.
But when the results were posted, my name was nowhere to be found. I was devastated.
“They” said I didn’t have what it takes to be a cheerleader.
Instead of taking it in stride, improving my game, and trying again next year, I took their word for it. They said I wasn’t a cheerleader, so I guess I wasn’t a cheerleader.
Instead, I became the anti-cheerleader. Pessimistic, dark, angsty, and insecure. I painted my nails black and smoked cigarettes across the street from the high school instead of going to homeroom. I got arrested for curfew and dated boys nearly 5 years my senior. I spent many a Saturday in a forced study hall for truancy.
That’s what “they” wanted, right?
And so began nearly two decades of letting others define my experience for me.
This pattern was more than simply giving up when the going got tough. It was believing the voices that said I couldn’t do it, and building a caricature around what I thought those voices wanted me to be.
Take, for instance, my relationship with my college boyfriend. I was infatuated with him for years before we started dating, so finding out he liked me back was like a dream come true. It was like winning the lottery and making the cheerleading squad all rolled into one!
So, imagine my devastation to discover he was a jealous, controlling, manipulative asshat. Instead of the happily-ever-after I wanted, I got incessant, baseless accusations of cheating and distrustful behavior. This was agonizing because I was head-over-heels-fairy-tale-Prince-Charming in LOVE with this person. Couldn’t he see all I wanted was him?
But over time, and after many screaming matches, I started to believe him. The voices in my head began to echo his accusations. I was a cheater, wasn’t I? I wasn’t worthy of his trust, or anyone’s for that matter.
So I cheated.
I became what he thought of me because I didn’t know there was another option. I thought that if someone else had a judgment about me, then it must be true. Not only that, but I may as well go all out. Why wear the hat when you can get the outfit, shoes, and bag to match?
The fact of the matter was, I didn’t know who I was. Was I trustworthy, or was I a cheater? Was I poised and graceful, or was I sulky and awkward? Was I empowered, or was I insecure? It seemed easier to let others tell me than try to figure it out for myself.
This lack of foundation—not knowing who I was, what I wanted, and what I was willing to accept to get it—was rooted in and simultaneously fed my issues with boundaries. My entire existence was plagued by a pervading sense that the people around me knew better about my life than I did. It was as though they had access to some information that I did not, which made them more of an authority than myself with regard to my choices, my motives, and even the inner workings of my own mind. I let them cross my boundaries and tell me who I was because I didn’t actually know. I, in turn, crossed others’ boundaries by assuming I knew what they were thinking about me (“they think I don’t have what it takes to be a cheerleader”) and building an entire life around that (“so I’ll become the anti-cheerleader”). The result was a nebulous, confusing existence in which my identity changed so frequently and drastically that I eventually felt like I was floating out in space with no connection to the mothership.
My journey back to myself began with a simple message to ground control: I want to come home.
I had to turn down the static a bit—all the voices, thoughts, emotions—in order to really listen to what I had to say. What did Natalie want?
For the first two weeks, it was radio silence. Then, a message. It was someone strong and powerful. She had a booming voice like those cheerleaders I so desperately wanted to be 20 years ago. She told me I am so much stronger than I realize. And she loves me. Unconditionally.
That was my first message from my inner cheerleader.
Y’all. This was a game changer. I finally had an internalized voice of somebody in my corner. Somebody listening to me when I was upset, and validating my concerns. “Oh, honey. You have every right to be upset!” Somebody to counter the self-doubt. “Girl, you got this. You can do anything.” Somebody to comfort me when I made a mistake. “Hey, anyone else in your shoes would have done the same thing.” And most importantly, someone who accepts me no matter what. “There’s nothing you could do that would make me not love you.”
Me and my inner cheerleader have developed the kind of friendship you see portrayed in feel-good sitcoms featuring strong female characters: supportive, nurturing, and real. I can be myself with her and I know she won’t judge me. She understands my missteps, and shows me that my unskilled behaviors always have wholesome, innocent motives. She praises me whenever I do something good. She tells me she’s proud to be me.
We don’t have the kind of relationship where I only call when I need something, or she sends a card to congratulate me on a big accomplishment. No, we talk all. the. time. And our partnership transcends the negative self-talk that inevitably crops up whenever I do something challenging.
For instance, when I moved into my new home, I decided to hang a towel rod in the guest bath. I have failed miserably at this task before (I hadn’t heard the adage, “measure twice; drill once” yet), so there was a narrative going on in my head that I would fail again.
“I don’t know,” the voice said. “Maybe you should just buy one of those standing towel rods and keep your deposit.”
Me and my inner cheerleader looked at each other, knowingly. “Thanks for your input, and I see where you’re coming from. But I want to learn how to do this for myself.” My inner cheerleader winked at me.
I hung the towel rack. In fact, I hung three.
I can’t describe the joy I felt in that moment. Actually, I could but you would probably think I was crazy as it was largely disproportionate given the small feat I accomplished that afternoon. Sure, you could say it was just a towel rack, but to me it was so much more than that. In that moment, I overcame the voice of self-doubt that used to rule my life. Instead of believing it and skulking away defeated, proved it wrong.
My inner cheerleader was so proud.
And I’m so proud she’s me.
Want to FINALLY learn how to love yourself? Visit nataliebphd.com to find out more.