As my mother’s voice urged me to give up something I desperately wanted, my three-year-old mind felt like screaming. For some strange reason, because my cousin was an only child, and I was blessed with several brothers, I was to take a back seat so she could have her way—once again.

The year was 1955, and Disneyland had just opened in Anaheim, California. With our parents leading the way, my older brother David, my cousin Sally, and I were one of the first families to run through the gates to the happiest place on earth, straight to the castle of Fantasy Land. Tim, my baby brother, was left behind with my grandmother. Michael had yet to be born.

Filled with wonder as my little eyes surveyed the enchanting park and all the rides, I can still feel my daddy’s hand in mind. Everything was magical, from the smells of cotton candy and corn dogs to the people dressed like Disney characters mingling in the crowd. Then we came to the face-in-the-hole board with Minnie, Mickey, and a fish.

“Sweetie,” Mom began gently, hoping I wouldn’t cry. “Let Sally be Minnie. You have so much in your life.”

“But Mommy.” Tears spilled down my face. “I want to be Minnie too.”

Giving me that look that said Please be a good girl, she squeezed my hand, then pushed me toward the sign. I wiped my chubby hands over my face and sulked my way to the hole of the fish. This would mark the beginning of my people pleasing syndrome that would haunt me the rest of my life. In my young mind, I wanted to always be loved by my parents, and it seemed the best way to get that love and approval was do as expected, don’t cause a fuss, do as you’re told. This belief in conditional love became so ingrained in my psyche it would take me until well into my adult life to release it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Being agreeable, kind, and charitable are beautiful attributes. I’ve tried to teach my own children these qualities. But they should always come from a place of caring for someone else, not because you’re expecting to get something out of it, like self-worth, attention, or love. Being altruistic should never come with terms and conditions. How I wish I knew then what I know now.

During the growing years, I denied many of the true inner workings of my mind because I was afraid my opinion might cause a stir. I didn’t agree with my mom’s fashion sense for me. What good was having long hair if it was always stuck in two ponytails on either side of my head? It wasn’t until I was in sixth grade, and it began to fall out, that I finally got to wear it down. As for all the rules in my household, both religious and parental, I could be a good follower, as long it made sense. But the moment I found myself questioning “Why? This is ridiculous!”, I shut down. Speaking up or asking questions was, well, out of the question. It was better to grumble in silence and sneak my way around something I didn’t like (as long as I was sure I wouldn’t get caught) than to be criticized or admonished for not agreeing.

So, how did I break the cycle? It all began with a pen and paper.

I began writing shortly after my mother passed away. I missed her terribly and it was the one thing that brought me comfort.

The need to be perfect is exhausting and totally unsustainable. Constantly worrying about how I was going to be perceived or how someone else would react to my words, thoughts, or deeds held me back. With writing, I could say anything I wanted, explore deep seeded emotions, clarify aspects of my life that were cloudy, and never have to deal with anyone’s questioning eye or disapproval. Writing (as well as some great counseling) has freed the little girl inside desperately longing to be loved. Through the words on the paper, I’ve learned to not only forgive myself for all the things I thought I did wrong in the past but love myself as well.

It was also through my scribbles that I saw how right Mom was to attend to her niece’s desires over mine. While I didn’t know it then, I was blessed to have three brothers. Together we have traversed life’s complexities and I’ve never felt alone. Sally didn’t have that comfort.

So, the next time you find yourself dealing with depression, lack of self-esteem, anxiety, or that feeling of being unloved—all especially common thanks to the pandemic—rather than take a pill or that glass of wine, I suggest you grab a pen and piece of paper. You might just discover someone truly amazing, the real you!