I used to describe my off days as days when I was having an allergic reaction to the universe, and I’ve only just realized how apt a metaphor that is. Physically, I am allergic to nearly every type of animal dander, many types of pollen, and dust mites, among others that I’m sure my allergist could enumerate better. Emotionally, I seem to be allergic to…everyone.
The body’s immune system works by recognizing certain substances as SELF and everything else as OTHER. The body then produces antibodies in response to dangerous OTHERS that trigger responses in other cells that manifest as the familiar allergic symptoms . An allergy, therefore, is an overreaction to harmless OTHERS.
I have come to realize, not for the first time, that I am extremely defensive of my SELF. I am a consummate Four in Enneagram theory, whose basic desire is to feel special and be seen for who I am, although I believe that my first instinctual variant is still Intimacy rather than Self-Preservation. All my life I have felt different from those around me, and I embraced that to be my identity because I didn’t know how else to deal the loneliness of being OTHER. But in doing so, I lashed out against anything that is not SELF, or what I define as SELF: other beliefs, other perspectives, other preferences, other functions, other opinions. And that only furthered my isolation.
Studies have shown that children who grow up in too clean environments have a greater tendency to develop allergies, while children who are exposed at a young age to dirt and dust have primed their immune systems to respond appropriately to common triggers. I grew up alone, not just in the sense that I was an only child for six and a half years, but my parents were less involved in the world outside their private universe when I was growing up. Mostly, though, it was my innate sense of outré that I fed consciously and unconsciously.
When my SELF feels threatened, several things can happen. Sometimes I try to adapt to the OTHER, which only drives SELF crazier because she feels ignored. (I go to Two, in Enneagram-speak.) Sometimes I go on the attack, telling the OTHER that they are wrong and bad and unacceptable because that’s actually how SELF feels. (The worst side of One.) Sometimes I go Sevening, looking for whatever distractions I can stuff SELF with if only to shut her up. All of this has had crippling effects on my intimate relationships.
What to do? In therapy, I learned that every feeling just wants to be heard, but I am still learning how to acknowledge my feelings without indulging them. Having principles to ground in helps, and I had that more strongly in college than I have had for the last few years. I am coming back to that, however, through reading Scripture, prayer, worship, and fellowship. (It was a conversation in church yesterday about productive disagreement that prompted this insight.) My hope is that I am back on track to the woman I am becoming.
And just to make sure I’m not taking myself too seriously, ridiculously cute things to which I am deathly allergic.