And then he left.
Afterwards, rather calmly, I was telling my sister what had happened, and she stopped me to say, “Wait. You said that? You just didn’t think it?”
“Yes, the words actually passed my lips,” I said. Meaning: I had spoken out and not let fear control me.
In saying those words, I was finally ending a relationship that I had never really wanted, correcting the mistake I had known on the altar I was making, quitting five years of verbal abuse and beginning to fix my deep unhappiness. I was me again.
I didn't know it at the time, but that very moment I was finding the voice I had lost. In that instant, I rediscovered a beautiful, bold precocious little Vanessa I had unknowingly abandoned at 10 years old and I became a real grown-up.
Since around the age of 10, I had engaged in what psychologists call “camouflaging." In simple terms, camouflaging is when tween girls hide their true selves in order to fit in with those around them. It’s a crucible event of a tween girl’s life. Every girl will camouflage to some degree.
As tweens from 8 to 12, girls quickly learn that going against the grain can be social suicide. We will do anything to avoid being ostracized by our girlfriends. I, like many other tween girls, had become so practiced at saying things I thought others wanted to hear, that I successfully buried my authentic self. Why? Because it worked! I got what I craved: acceptance.
But the cost is high. Being someone else cuts off a girl's power. Silencing her own voice costs a girl her self-confidence, as she increasingly looks to others for validation and acceptance. And as she grows up, things really start to fall apart.
The successful camouflaging strategy can result in a long-term period where the girl and subsequently the woman directs her energy outward, always adapting to fit in. She is disconnected from her gifts and her true self, in what some experts call an extended “power outage.”
At worst, without a conscious connection to her true identity, girls can enter into the gamut of self-destructive behaviors: abusive relationships, excessive drinking, eating disorders, cutting, etc. These can be side effects of feeling like you aren’t heard and won't be accepted for who you really are.
In my case, it was dating the wrong guys. Remember the line in Pretty Woman where Vivian says, “My mom called me a bum magnet.” That was me. My first serious boyfriend in college thought nothing of calling me the “c” word (that’s a hard one to admit). I picked handsome guys who other people thought were good for me. And the bums (er, guys) I chose wanted a girl lacking in self-esteem who would endure their abuse.
I repeated the pattern over and over until I met husband number one. He looked good — others said he resembled Christopher Reeve — and I got many compliments from family and friends. In fact, that is why I kept going: I was told I was lucky to have met such a handsome, amazing boy!
I'll skip the whole dreary, sad story of what was really happening, how John* wasn't perfect. On our honeymoon he told me to “f--k off” and locked me out of our hotel room for hours. And I sat in the hallway, waiting. Enough said.
After a few years of being married, I knew I had to do something to help myself or I was going to die. Not physically, but inside. Every day, I found myself doing more to hurt myself.
Finally, I sought professional help (in secret, of course) and met Dr. Shirl. Not a classic therapist by any stretch of the imagination, Shirl spoke her truth and wanted me to, as well. She was a total character, one who had lived everywhere and loved extravagantly, daring anyone to not like her. She was truly her unique, individual self. She was a role model.
Shirl taught me to rediscover my true, authentic voice. She taught me that no one was better at being me than me. She had me stand in front of a mirror and tell myself I loved me! It felt a little like an SNL skit, but I didn’t care because it felt good! She taught me to physically hold on to myself. I actually hugged me, and it felt great!
Dr. Shirl gave me my life back. My voice.
It was a little over two years that I had been seeing Dr. Shirl when John and I were getting ready for bed one night. He started talking about kids. He said, “All our friends are starting to have kids, Vanessa. It’s time we start trying to have a baby.” And it was true. All of our friends were getting pregnant. Shopping for cribs. It was an exciting time for them.
And it was for me, too. Just in a different way. Because it was the first time I was able to speak my truth. I looked over at him and said, “If you think I’m going to have kids with you, you are sadly mistaken.”
He was gone the next day.
And, just like that, my power was on! I sold the house, packed my things and headed for New York City, a place I had dreamed about living. I landed a job at a major fashion magazine, then met and married my amazing, awesome husband.
Today, I am the mom of 10-year-old Julia (and 12-year-old Will) and the proud founder of Tia Girl Club, a lifestyle brand for tween girls. At Tia, we help girls avoid camouflaging and connect girls to positive role models.
The Tia motto is “Say it! See it! Be it!” Tia is short for “Today I am,” a statement that speaks power into the lives of girls. Whatever a girl says after “today I am” gives her identity, truth and strength. A tween girl who says, “Today I am beautiful and confident” is much less likely to camouflage.
We also believe that positive role models can help girls to see their dreams are possible if they keep faith in themselves.
We see it working every day. Tia Girl Club has been on Instagram for a mere six months, and has over 5,000 Tia Girls speaking strength into themselves.
Today I am helping others! It’s what I’ve always dreamed of doing.
*I wish him well, but John is not his real name
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