Excerpt from Bill Allen’s Confessions of a Highly Sensitive Man, Chapter 3: Being Different Growing Up
Quiet and Alone
I was a shy child and introverted. One of my earliest recollections was around the age of four. My parents had switched churches, and I can clearly remember the first Sunday we attended the new church. I was taken to a rather large room divided into sections. My mother and father knew I wasn’t going to go lightly into this strange place. The minute I knew I was being sent off to be with complete strangers, the waterworks began. I can remember screaming and kicking. I felt abandoned as I watched my parents exit the room and disappear down the hall.
At some point, I calmed down. To be fair, the Sunday School teachers were nice people, but I didn’t feel right. I know I didn’t want to be there. Some might say it was a good lesson for me. I needed to allow my parents to go do adult things, like going to the Adult Sunday School class, but I was not used to being out of my element. It was a process I experienced over and over again in the first ten years of my life.
The Changing Outer World Solved by my Room and Books
We moved several times in my young life. Probably not as much as a military family, but it was enough for me. Moving was hard; essentially, it meant I had to start over again. Not just meet new friends, but rediscovering my new baseline, find the new comfort zone. This was not an easy process for me. I was very aware of my surroundings. To be comfortable, I had to know who were friends, who were enemies, or folks I had to watch out for. By the time I was nine-years-old I had moved four times, each as difficult as the previous one. I had changed schools four times before fourth grade, in some cases bouncing from one state to another. Of course, there seldom was continuity in the educational systems in the sixties. I was in the South, at one point going from a state last in education to one just a couple notches above. …
I never thought of myself as bookish. I didn’t care to read Hardy Boy mysteries or books for young fiction readers. I was a more practical information enthusiast. In 1964 my parents invested in a set of World Book Encyclopedias. To me this was a fabulous gift. It had pictures and tables, lists and articles, the likes I had never seen before. I devoured the set, cover to cover book to book, from A to Z. I spent hours with a single encyclopedia reading about everything, everyplace, learning things I’d never heard of in school. It was the Internet version 0.1. And I loved it. It was then, at that tender age, that I became an information freak….
My room was my castle, my refuge, my sanctuary. I spent many hours playing with toy soldiers, cheap little plastic K-Mart soldiers. I didn’t play with them like a normal boy, no; I created scenes from a movie with dialogue, action and in the end, no one got killed. I didn’t shoot my soldiers up with BBs or throw rocks at them to knock them down. No one ever was blown up, but within my head was a deep orchestration of these plastic actors on a stage of bunkbed mountains, battlefields made of carpet, bunkers behind tables or chairs, and lakes and rivers made of throw rugs. Sometimes it took hours to set up the scene, long convoys of troops, tanks, and jeeps. It all played out in my head. There was a rich world of possibilities between my ears.
How to Avoid Humiliation: Become an Imposter
As I got older, approaching fifth or sixth grade, I discovered how easily I became embarrassed. Unfortunately, for me, the kids in class found that out, too. They could make me turn beet red by simply directing some unwanted attention my way. Some kid would fart and then point at me, chastising me for the rude breach of etiquette. I knew it wasn’t me, but because I was embarrassed, I blushed. Blushing is the equivalent of an admission of guilt for eleven-year-olds.
…I developed a pattern of avoidance behaviors. As I got older I avoided social interactions, the coed birthday parties, the swim parties, the chances for serious embarrassment, or in my mind, humiliation. Any opportunity where I would be out in public around peers or adults or frankly, anyone, I found myself avoiding. I shied away from Little League, because every game was a venue for rabid, trash-talking parents and spectators who became invariably attached to a team. I wasn’t very good at baseball, so the opportunity for humiliation was great.
This sounds over the top, but to me, humiliation was something that needed to be avoided at all costs. My shaky young man’s ego was not framed to handle the onslaught of criticism or mockery that screwing something up provided. It was sad that my ideas about myself and self-image were so hinged on my inner world. There was never outward confirmation because the only place I could get that was in the outside world. And sadly no one was pushing me gently to test the waters. It formed a lifelong habit of avoidance that I am just learning to overcome.
…From Boy Scout scoutmasters to pastors or coaches or any adult male family members, I was socialized to accept the prevailing norm for male role behavior. Which in so many words, is to be a man in the nineteen sixties, World War II definition. Conform or be rejected. This binary choice did not make room for kids who didn’t fit that model.
I felt I lived the life of an imposter. There was much incongruity of who I was and what I presented to the world.
On the Other Hand
Around friends, the neighborhood kids, I was much more confident. These interactions were more one-on-one, and I selected my friends carefully. As my family settled in to the neighborhood in South Carolina, where I grew up, I gained a newfound sense of confidence in who I was. I found that I was a natural leader and organizer.
Our neighborhood was almost a frame right out of The Little Rascals. We organized baseball, football, and basketball games with other neighborhoods. I found myself being the one everyone came to find out what was going on. We built campgrounds in the woods, organized campouts with the neighbor kids, and generally had idyllic summers. I was the one doing the organizing, and I liked that role.
At one point, I decided to create a neighborhood newsletter and received a student style typewriter where I crafted stories. The next-door neighbor’s mother was a school teacher, who mimeographed the newsletter so we could distribute them.
Yes, in the right circumstances and with a certain comfort level, I could easily rise to the top. I was a likable, smart kid and believed in the team concept, yet appreciated my friends as individuals. I was well organized and great planner for the neighborhood. I never realized that these characteristics were natural talents. I just never received the right feedback.
In school plays, I was always chosen to be the play’s narrator, usually the first kid out in costume, reciting my lines nervously, but flawlessly. If the costumes were dorky, I got the first laugh, which, of course, was embarrassing for me. One year, we performed a play about George Washington and the founding fathers. I walked out in front of the curtain to start the show, with a quick narration about the subject matter, sporting a concocted wig made of cotton balls that, by the time the play had started was beginning to disintegrate. I was tall and skinny and must have looked ridiculous because the audience burst out in laughter when I walked to center stage. Yet, somehow, I managed to execute on my lines and exit red-faced but relieved. My good memory and my conscientiousness were showing. Perhaps that was why I landed the same part every year.
What I learned was what I didn’t learn. I didn’t learn how to be confident in myself or who I was becoming. I never learned to deal with my sharp emotions, how to let them flow over me, immerse and release them, and not hold on to them. I struggled internally with those feelings and never felt the guidance of an older, wiser man. There was no one to steer me through the difficult process of expressing my emotions, my fears, and my constant worries about the external world…