A lesson from a childhood doll about self-acceptance, authenticity, and personal power
I grew up in a very loving family in rural Oklahoma. My family wasn’t perfect by any measure, but I never doubted that my parents would protect and provide for me and do anything they could to make sure I had all I needed. I was generally happy and well-adjusted. I felt loved and accepted.
Most of the time.
There were signals that something wasn’t right. Throughout my childhood I was given silent and not-so-silent messages about who I was expected to be—as a boy, as a white person, as a Christian.
Early on I began to see that I didn’t meet these expectations in many ways.
When I was 3 years old, I was given a cast-off baby doll by my teenage babysitters, two sisters who lived down the street. I loved that doll. Her eyes were supposed to close to mimic sleep when she was on her back, but one eye always stayed open. About half of her nubby hair was pulled out of her scalp. It didn’t matter. Julie and Anita had given her to me, and I loved her.
When I brought her to Sunday school one morning, it became very clear that I had violated some tribal law. My dad was not okay with his son carrying a doll in public. It was taken away. I cried a lot but then got over it—or so I thought.
Years later in a spiritual exercise during a retreat, the memory of the doll surfaced, still containing all the grief and confusion I had felt at 3. I hadn’t thought of it for years, but there it was.
Part of the exercise was to name the belief that was formed in my consciousness at the time of this event. It was instantly apparent. These are the words I wrote:
“If I show up as who I truly am, the people I love are harmed.”
The moment I wrote it down, I recognized that this belief had been silently controlling me for decades, that at a deep and unconscious level I had been editing myself so the people I cared about would not feel uncomfortable.
How Those Childhood Messages Shaped Me
I had come out as a gay man years before at age 19, and by the time of this exercise, I had already done significant internal work. I thought I was living authentically, but it was immediately clear to me that those early messages had stayed with me and shaped me.
So many times, I stopped myself from saying what I really felt or expressing what I really wanted because I knew my partner or my friends or my family members wouldn’t like it. In that moment of clarity, I was able to take a stand for authenticity, no matter the cost. I was being asked to live my authentic life on a whole new level.
This choice changed some dynamics in my close relationships.
Some people supported me and confessed they had seen through my people-pleasing for years. They were grateful for my becoming more honest with them. But some friendships ended. They weren’t built on truth but on a false self I had projected.
The Authentic Power of Vulnerability
In these past years, I have experienced a new freedom and a sense of personal power I didn’t even know was possible. I also discovered that this greater power was rooted in vulnerability.
My willingness to bring all of me to my relationships—even when it’s scary to do so—has led to deeper connections and truer intimacy than I have ever known.
This is true even in my family. Before he passed away, my father and I grew close. Being fully who I am gave him the opportunity to question his own beliefs and assumptions. He became my greatest champion.
Today I cherish the sweet little boy who was drawn to nurture a baby doll instead of playing with toy guns. I welcome his softness as a part of who I am at my core.
I am also incredibly grateful to be a part of a spiritual community that recognizes my uniqueness as a gift from God.
This path to authenticity has been so healing for me. I believe it is universal. We are all here to discover who we are and become part of the collective so that we may all be healed, and we may all be, finally and truly, one.