I watched a nine-minute video about pruning my tomato plants this past June. Planting tomato plants for years, I typically harvested a fairly small yield. This summer, however, I decided a different approach. My body and mind were awakened as I learned about suckers and how they sap energy from the growing crop. How did I never learn this? Why have I settled for so little?
As I stood over my already overgrown leafy plants with scissors in hand, I couldn’t imagine snapping off the dozens of beautiful, leafy sucklings I saw. But once started, I did not turn back. Upon finishing, I stared with wide eyes at my massacred plants. They looked naked, butchered, and exposed. Sheesh, this is pruning? Would the bare branches survive the summer sun? I wondered.
Little did I know my tomato plants were only the beginning of my pruning life for the summer.
In the coming months I would wonder whether I would survive the vulnerability of the heat and pressure moving my way.
As a trauma-informed therapist, I often ask clients the cost of how they learned to survive childhood abuse or neglect. The complexities of these costs reveal places where people are most stuck or caught in reoccurring patterns of behavior, ultimately leading them to my office.
This summer revealed the costs of my own scaffolding where the debris of my childhood neglect was again rearing its head. I learned at an early age to be a honing device for others, particularly my mom. Verbally, I was told to “stay true to myself,” yet everything else in my body was hearing, “stay small and don’t take up any space.” Wait, what? The paradox of those two messages felt like madness.
Staying small felt safe yet oppressive. Throughout childhood my little nervous system felt an ongoing hum warning, Be careful. Don’t speak. Don’t shine too brightly. Don’t be bossy. Stay alert to others’ needs—always, to others. Staying true to myself would have looked like the freedom to explore, create, dream, emote, risk, and ask for what I need, all things that when attempted with any real effort were doused, damped, or drowned.
“Living safely,” as Irvin Yalom says, “is dangerous.” I realized my body has stored the craziness of the contradicting bind to be fully alive yet also dead to myself for my entire life. In a sense, I was groomed to be complacent and empty of my true identity.
Based on the themes in my life, what do I invite? This question raised by a wise therapist years ago continues to linger in me. As a woman in her 50s today, I am forced to look at well-worn patterns of relating where I invite others to idealize me and then turn on me—devaluing and discarding me. This has been true in past romantic interests, friendships, and employers. I’ve learned how I am drawn to narcissists. I grew up learning to focus on others who needed to be the most important people in the room, and I’m left reeling in the realization that I only feel valued when propping someone else up.
This insight felt as painful as if I were being actively pruned and also freeing as I realized that I, like my tomatoes, could feel the nourishing sunlight more when not in someone else’s shadow. It also made sense of why mending my own sense of self has been so difficult. Like my tomato plants, when a healthy yellow sprout began to birth a small tomato, a sucker would overshadow it stunting its growth, and I was quickly discarded.
My personal resolve today is to embrace that which needs pruning, no longer tied to the pattern of homing in on others to feel alive. God’s personal opinion of me is enough. It is now late fall, and I relish in the fruitful abundance of a new season.
Natalie Sum enjoys quiet mornings, hot cups of coffee, and sweating it out on her Peloton. She also knows healing relationships and engaging life requires being fully embodied, not just mentally aware. She is a licensed therapist and a current facilitator for The Allender Center’s trauma-focused trainings. Previously she worked in full-time Christian ministry, corporate settings, and as a high school English teacher. In her free time, Natalie enjoys savoring a meal out with her wife, as well as writing, hiking, and cooking scrumptious meals with friends. She can be found at nataliesumresources.com.