I hear the familiar whine—“Oh no! She’s here!”
Poor Pitiful Pearl is that pesky, tag-along girl who wanted to sit next to you at lunch and claimed to be your BFF, but you wanted to be with anyone but her. I have known her all my life.
My skin crawls with shame as she pushes into the conversation and gives her usual speech about how everything is hard, bad, and wrong.
Over the years she has perfected the role of the victim, knowing just what to say to elicit sympathy and when to add, as if by accident, the details of her life that provide a protective shield of pity. When given a challenging task, she claims the handicap advantage. As a result, she was allowed the extra assignment time, began the race a few steps ahead, and was granted forgiveness for mistakes and tardiness.
Pity was her secret weapon, disguised by friendly smiles and ingratiating offers to be helpful. When faced with challenge or possible peril, Poor Pearl would spring into position, the subservient dog, cowering belly-up, pleading, “Don’t hurt me! I’m Poor Pitiful Pearl, weak and damaged and unable to fight.” The bullies would unclench their fists, spit in disgust, and walk away.
Her pleas held the power of authenticity because they weren’t complete bulls**t. She grounded her sob stories in real experiences of traumatic events and chronic hardships. She had suffered. Life for her was challenging and hurtful, with deprivation, grief, and pain.
Why do I feel such shame in her presence? Because—I am Poor Pitiful Pearl. She is one of my faithful internal bodyguards, a habitual and well-honed defense. She rushes in and defends me and I have relied on her. She’s helped me survive many difficult times, and now I understand why she exists.
She and other members of her faithful tribe have served my family for generations.
I first identified her decades ago, during the work of deep, life-changing therapy. I began to recognize the difference between validating and processing traumatic experiences and identifying as a victim.
One was empowering and the other self-defeating. One was useful. One was not.
I was raped. I am not a rape victim.
I also began to understand how my background and experiences impact how I navigate life. My family used certain beliefs and coping skills to process their difficulties. I was fed the anecdotes of my parents’ suffering as if they were beloved fairytales, memorized nursery rhymes, or familiar songs I should know all the words to.
“Baa baa, black sheep.”
We were those sheep who didn’t quite fit into any culture. Outsiders with stories befitting Dickens’ tales. I never had the benefit of an easy fit. If I couldn’t be “normal,” then I would use what I had.
Teachers often separated me from peers by identifying me as “very smart.” Poor Pearl was a feeble attempt to balance out the scale and achieve the desired level of normalcy and acceptance.
“Yes. I may have certain advantages, but see what I’ve had to overcome? Don’t hate me or judge me or ostracize me for not being like you! I am like you! I’ve suffered too!”
My abilities marked me as different, so I hid them under a cloak of rags. I know why Superman chose the stumbling, fumbling Clark Kent as the best disguise. It kept him safe from constant challenge, attack, and responsibility.
And responsibility was something I was avoiding. If I had ability, why wasn’t I more productive? Why wasn’t I a greater success? What was my excuse for not being fabulous?
Poor Pitiful Pearl was birthed as a protector, helping me to steer through the realm of judgment. I would abdicate control and let her guide my ship. She would keep me safe from the stinging blows.
As a therapist, I help clients identify the bodyguards that act in ways that are outdated and no longer appropriate. Their usual response is to deny and hide, or hate and kill the defender that is now unneeded. Instead, I recommend befriending the stalwart bodyguards who are trying to keep us safe. We give them names, try to understand their origins and have dialogues about the nature of their duties. We give them compassion and thank them for all they have done, even if the results were opposite from what we wanted to achieve. They meant well. Hating them means we hate ourselves.
I gently send Pearl away. I am a bit ashamed when she emerges, but am able to accept her, give her a hug, and say, “I appreciate your efforts and desire to help me. But I’ve got this.”
I wish I could convince her to retire and move to Florida, but she remains my close and faithful defender.
I have several bodyguards, but Poor Pitiful Pearl was easy to identify and name. I began to use her as an example in sessions with clients to illustrate what is meant by internal bodyguards. I vaguely remembered that there was a doll with that name, and did some research and found she was created by author and cartoonist William Steig. She was first made into a doll in 1958. I showed the photos to my daughters who had heard me talk of Pearl.
One Christmas, my daughter was particularly excited for me to open my gift. There she was! Poor Pitiful Pearl with her ragged patched dress, tattered scarf covering her head and that soulful, sad smile (picture above). I hugged her close and gave her a kiss. “Hi, Pearl.” She now sits in my office keeping an eye on the proceedings.
Pearl is not as active as she used to be, yet she still emerges from time to time. When she does, I cringe at first, but then I give her a knowing smile and a hug. Her presence helps me realize I must be scared or insecure to have roused Pearl from her slumber.
“Shhhh,” I say. “It’s okay. Now I’m strong enough to handle this a different way.”
Finally, I have befriended and accepted her. And love her.
Author: Gretta Keene
Image: Author’s Own; Meg Cheng/Flickr
Apprentice Editor: Donna Yates Kling; Editor: Emily Bartran
Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina