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My Old Pigeonhole

By Hildie Westenhaver

I started out as “the smart one” in my family. My little sister had waist-length golden hair which automatically made her “the pretty one”. Eventually, though, she got a bad perm, had crooked teeth grown in and started getting much better grades, so she became “the smart one” and I, an extremely bratty teenager, became “the mean one”.

“The mean one” title stayed with me for quite a while. I didn’t get along well with anyone in my family and I wore a constant expression of peevishness. I was happy around my friends, but most people only saw a sullen girl who had a bad attitude about most everything.

Of course it was a façade as adolescent angst sometimes tends to be. Deep down I wanted to be cheerful and sweet but I just couldn’t get over myself until I went away to college and grew up a lot.

It seemed, though, that my family didn’t notice much of a change. Even though I was thoughtful and friendly most of the time, “the mean one” was still who I was for years afterwards. I still think my mother believes that’s my default personality.

Like so many grown women I fight against the label I was given when I was younger. I try extra hard to be friendly to new neighbors and ward members. I’m the first one to sign up to bring dinners to sick people and new moms. Obviously my mother doesn’t know most of what I do—I don’t do it for her. Really. But part of me, this tiny naggy voice, wants to prove with every smile and casserole that I am kind. I am thoughtful. I am “the nice one”.

Occasionally someone will compliment me on a considerate thing I’ve done and it catches me so off guard. I am usually stunned into silence. “Really?” I think to myself, “someone thinks I’m nice? They don’t know. They don’t know that I’m the mean one.”

The school of hard knocks has taught me a lot of empathy. I have learned through my own experiences how vital service is, and what an answer to prayers it can be. I’m not serving others in order to prove something to the people who knew me 25 years ago. But there is the shabby part of me that desperately wants to show myself that I am more than just an old label.

About Hildie Westenhaver

(Blog Team) was born and raised in Detroit, but is happy to call Austin, TX home now. She majored in Art History and Geography at BYU and graduated a week before having her first baby. There have been five more babies since then. Hildie is an avid baker and tries to fatten up the people she loves.

26 thoughts on “My Old Pigeonhole”

  1. I feel exactly the same way. Every time I visit home, its a battle to show Im not who I used to be. Especially with my oldest sister who was out of the house by the time I was 14. Not a great age to remember me by!

  2. Oh, this post gives me hope! I have a tween who's working on the sullen attitude with all her might and main!!!

    I'm also filing away for future reference to throw away the sullen label once she's matured.


  3. I liked this post. What I hope you will embrace is that we are mean and peevish and kind and generous – we are composites of many conflicting characteristics. The symbiosis makes us rounded personalities.

  4. This is so true, Jennie! Labels are the worst. Why is it our birth families feel so compelled to brand us with the labels? And they are the last ones to let go of them. When I went away to college, I was surprised at some of the comments and compliments I received; I remember being shocked that someone could see me for something other than the things my family said I was. Don't get me wrong, I do have a good family, and I love them, but even today, I have a grown sister who insists I am being "fake" because she has never bothered to get to know who I really am inside. I am trying very hard to minimize the labeling with my own kids. This is where they should have the most room to grow into who they will become; this is where they should feel safe to shed the layers of themselves that they may not like as they refine their characters and mature into their true selves.

  5. this is one of the reasons i think it is so important not to "label" my kids. i don't think it's good for them now or later in life. coming from a family of 6 girls, i am grateful that my parents never labeled us, and we were always able to be who we were, and then change as we got older, without feeling the need to act the way we were "supposed to".

  6. Oh to be young again and able to get over oneself. I had that same attitude. I think it was mostly self defense against anyone being mean to the shy tender hearted teenager I was.

  7. The other day at church, we were talking about why we needed to leave Heavenly Father's presence, and the whole class seemed to agree we behaved better when our parents were around.

    Um, maybe it's been a while (or maybe they had a better teenagehood than I did), but YEAH, not me. I think it was years before my mom was fully convinced I didn't actually hate her. Meanwhile, my classmates thought I was so nice they asked me how I could do it.

    My parents didn't label us, though I had one sister who decided she was "the pretty one." That hurt on multiple levels—I thought all us girls were pretty, and I'd hate to think that that was all she thought she could offer the world, her defining characteristic.

  8. Sometimes we do it to ourselves. I have a sister only 15 months younger and I think I bent over backwards to differentiate myself from her, so when she naturally excelled at music and acting, I shied away from even trying those things. Only when I was off on a mission and amazing my companions with perfect imitations of investigators' accents or mannerisms did I realize I had some of the same talents–although, to be fair to myself, I still genuinely don't enjoy being center-stage. (At least not to act or sing. I LOVE teaching which I suppose is its own form of basking in a limelight.)

    I'm also finding that although I want my kids' self-perceptions to be fluid and allow for change, they do look to me to help define themselves, and I find it impossible not to convey my beliefs about them by how I interact with them. And I don't want them to think I don't notice their accomplishments or character traits. I do really try to frame any negative observations in terms of behaviors (which can be changed) instead of character labels, for example to say things like "Don't argue with me when you're supposed to do chores," rather than "Stop being a brat." But I've also decided it's not entirely bad to tell them my positive observations, like, "You're cheerful a lot," or "You're really good at solving problems." Objectively I can see some problems with praising kids too much, but a) sometimes I can't help myself and b) who else is going to lavish praise on a kid if not his or her mother?

    I think the main thing is to *try* to convey the belief that anyone can change their thoughts, words, and actions to become a better person, and to really try to notice and encourage a kid's good efforts.

  9. It's such a conundrum – we get older and move away from our families and grow up and get better, but they're not around to really see and experience it. And then we go home and revert to being moody 15 year olds (or at least, I do).

    Being extremely kind and sensitive and empathetic has never been as natural to me as it seems to be for some others. I know I have a core of steel that could get me and others through a disaster but I have to work a lot harder to feel and express daily kindnesses. I feel like I've made strides forward in the past several years, but every few months or so I'll have a bad day or week and feel that I haven't really made a fundamental change at all. Turning that natural man into a true disciple of Christ certainly isn't a quick or easy process!

  10. My favorite seminary teacher (who later became my brother's mother-in-law) used to tell her four daughters to be nicer to their brother (he was the youngest). (They would call him a Butthead since he was a breach baby)

    "Don't call him a Butthead," she'd say, "because he'll start thinking he is one. Then, if he thinks he is, he'll start acting like one. Then, if he acts like a Butthead, he really will BE a Butthead!"

    I know this is a funny story, but it's scary the effect words can have! You never know! There's power in seeing the best in everyone, I'm pretty good at that, but I struggle with verbalizing those thoughts. After reading this, I want to do better.

  11. My mom was totally labeled and so was my dad — both the youngest and all — and I see it in how their siblings treat them. So I think they tried hard to not label us, but as the only girl and my brother being the only boy – there was a lot of gender stereotyping going on.

  12. My mom is quick to tell people about what a sweet little girl I was– so happy and kind and loving– AND THEN I TURNED 13. I had a rough time getting through adolescence, and I did not do it with with any sort of grace. I kind of wish my mom weren't the one to point it out so often though. I have painful enough memories from those years as it is; I don't love my mom reminding me how awful I was. As a result of being a Mean Girl in middle and high school, I have become rather shy and reserved, though. Like you, Jennie, I'm always surprised when people tell me I'm so nice and that I am so positive and upbeat. Apparently I still think I'm the person I was at 13. Time to move on? Probably.

  13. Great post. I still wonder if people think of me as too talkative. I was a chatterbox (no boundaries) as a teenager. I work really hard not to be that way now but I know its hard for some people to let me change.

  14. I always had to fight others' impressions of me as a teenager, because even at the time, I knew it didn't fit. I was always told to smile more because people thought I was a mean, uptight snob from my expression – but that was FAR from who I was. When people would get to know me they would tell me about how they used to think of me and how shocked they were that I was nice and non-judgmental. But no matter how many people have told me to "Smile!" over the years, it is very difficult to make natural, so I still struggle against a stereotype that jumps out at people.

    Fortunately most people have been able to give me a second chance once they get to know me.

  15. It wasn't my family that labeled me. It was everyone outside my family. I was always the "smart one" not the "pretty one" in school. But I finally managed to reach the point where I believed someone when he told me how pretty I was. And I married him. 🙂

  16. Now she is very generous and nice too, but she is still herself with a lot of baggage and she can still be difficult (although she might not see it). I do try to see her for who she is today, and notice her positive characteristics as well as the negatives.
    Unfortunately, I can't forget some of the things she did.

  17. I was always the "smart" one, and all the other labels that come from being a natural redhead.

    Now I'm another set of labels, but I tend to just ignore them when they annoy/don't suit.

    Thanks for your post Jennie – it made my thinking much clearer!

  18. I was always the bossy one, since I'm the oldest child, and I haven't outgrown that label. I am also the "churchy" one, the studious one, the serious, responsible one. My sister is the funny one, and also the clumsy one, which she resents. It's interesting how these labels seem to follow us through adulthood, where my parents and siblings are concerned. I'm not sure I'll ever outgrow them!

  19. My youngest has a difficult personality. I think she is like me. What I always wanted was for people to know how good I was on the inside, even when I did silly, weird stuff outwardly. I strive to remember that with my own daughter. Some day she will be a beautiful, confident woman. I don't want to remember this period of her life and think of her that way forever. I had some family members that made the transition from my childhood to my adulthood along with me, but that's because they saw me grow up. My old YW leaders were different. One I saw at a wedding, and I could tell she still thought of me as a teen. Another was great about accepting the adult me. I hope your family can be generous and see you for who you've become. Isn't that what it's all about?

  20. My mother-in-law has already started labeling her future grandkids (I'm having one later this month, and SIL2 is having one in May)–SIL2's kids are going to be "the funny ones," SIL3's "the bookworms," SIL1's "the athletes" (also, "the bullies"), and mine? "The know-it-alls." We couldn't get "the intellectuals"? "The smart ones"? Surely there was a better way to word that, MIL?

  21. My 12 almost 13 year old is getting a major case of the sullens. Even refusing to do things she would probably like to do because saying "no" seems to be her way to assert her independence. I'm trying really hard not to label her "the one who must drive mom up the wall on purpose".

  22. this post resonated with me.
    it's really hard to move past labels in the family unit. i can relate to this so much.
    i guess the most important thing to remind myself of is that the Lord can see — he can see the changes, even when others can't. and that's the most important thing.
    thank you for your article. it made me feel like someone else out there gets it.

  23. I was lucky, I think. When I was young, my parents assigned me a pretty great label. They saw the best in me, and that has helped me to see the best in myself over the years. I've also felt free and empowered to reach for my potential.

    Someday I hope to live up to their good opinion of me. (That may not happen in this life.)


    PS. The messages parents transmit to their children do make such a difference.

  24. Wow. That was really deep. Even for "the smart one."

    Do you still think Mom thinks of you as mean and sullen?

    Do you think I do???

    (I don't.)

    (But I do rememeber you being mean and sullen. A LOT.)

  25. Fun post. I wonder if the primary motivation for providing service is to prove something.

    I was the shy one. Yesterday at church a primary substitute teacher said things like "dynamic" "captivating" and "energetic" to describe my singing time. See? A gal can change. (Hope my almost six year-old daughter changes from sassy and primping before too long!)


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