Welcoming the Orphan

I walked into the classroom feeling a sense of anticipation, my first in-person class in almost two years after COVID forced my graduate program online. Eager to finally see my classmates, I looked around the room expectantly, finding a few familiar faces and quite a few I didn’t recognize. Knowing that group assignments were on the agenda for the evening, I felt a twinge of anxiety inside, an old trauma imprint my body holds from countless moments of “not belonging.” Reminding myself to breathe, I settled my nervous system with the knowledge that my friend and I, while working together at our internship, had talked about the possibility of being in group together. I had a plan. 

Thirty minutes later, I felt the familiar flush of shame rising from my gut, the sting of tears beginning to form as I looked toward my friend and witnessed her helpless shrug—the people at her table had already formed a group. Turning around, I struggled to ground myself as I scanned the room for options. Above the chatter of voices, I heard someone say, “Is there anyone who doesn’t have a group?”

There was only me, once again the orphan with no place to belong. 

I can still picture the room where I first heard a trusted counselor name the orphan inside me, as I struggled to imagine speaking my truth to my family of origin, fearful of losing relationships. He met my gaze with steady, kind eyes as he stated, “And yet, you’ve always known you were an orphan, haven’t you?”

Are you familiar with those moments when someone speaks words that land inside you in a way that leaves no doubt that they are true and meant just for you? For me, the sensation is expansive, like a rigid space inside softens, expanding to allow the inhalation of truth. He was right–I had always known. Yet until that moment, it had been too painful to admit this knowing, to let it be present in my acknowledged self. 

Since that day several years ago, I have been working to welcome that orphan part of me with curiosity and kindness when she shows up. As a young girl who felt like she never fit in anywhere, the only way to explain my painful experience was to conclude that there must be something unlovable about me, leaving me with a deep fear that I would always be alone. Years of anxiously seeking connection failed to dispel that fear; she was afraid and in hiding. I had to make room for her and her fear, allowing her to first belong in me. We’re building trust, but that old fear still shows up at times.

I took my seat at an unfamiliar table that night, surreptitiously resting my hand on my heart, a regulating self-compassion practice. I turned to the young woman who’d shared a picture of her horse during introductions. “Hi, I’m Janet. Tell me more about this horse you love.”

Janet Stark is a deeply feeling introvert who has learned the value of creating nurturing, restful space in a loud world. She loves the connection that is possible when we slow down and listen to each other with intention. A few of her favorite things include the smell of freshly baked bread, soft blankets, good books, and the warmth of her puppy, Oliver, snuggled up close. Janet and her husband Chris love traveling, especially to spend time with their three adult children.