On a recent episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Erika had a full-on meltdown during dinner with the other ladies. Unlike most of the housewives, she has been very reserved—not unfriendly to the other women but not chummy either. Throughout this season, she’s clashed with a newcomer to the cast, though she kept her feelings mostly to herself until this particular evening. In a deluge, all the hurt she’d held inside came rushing out. When another cast mate tried to say something helpful, Erika overreacted, lashing out at her, too. She reminded me very much of myself.

Forty-five-year-old Erika Girardi joined the cast last season. She’s a self-described homebody and tomboy who’s married to a high-powered lawyer, but she has an alter-ego—she performs as the dance club musical artist Erika Jayne, wearing ultra-sexy, ultra-glamorous outfits during her somewhat risqué shows. It’s a seemingly crazy contradiction: quiet, shy Erika Girardi vs. flamboyant Erika Jayne.

Recently on the show, she revealed that her mother had been hard on her while she was growing up. She called her mother a “disciplinarian” and said her mother had been very critical of her. She pointed to her mother’s treatment of her as the reason why she seldom cries and finds it difficult to connect with other women. Others have described her as cold, but she sees herself as tough. She was forced when very young to buck up, to handle things on her own, and she’s carried that directive inside herself all this time.

I can’t help wondering about the link between the child Erika not having a mother who was a solace to her and the grown Erika who tries to conceal her vulnerability from other women. This makes sense to me. It’s something I’ve recognized that I also do. Vulnerability often feels to me like a weakness that shouldn’t be revealed, and other women feel the most unsafe to me, probably because I want to avoid experiencing again the pain of motherly criticism or rejection.

But there are times when we all need to cry on someone’s shoulder. When we try to handle everything on our own, we risk an explosion like the one Erika had at that dinner. Sometimes we don’t even understand why we’re so upset until long after the episode is over.

It was interesting to see and hear the other housewives’ reactions to Erika’s meltdown. None of them seemed to know how to interpret it or how to help Erika calm down. Their faces displayed their shock at her outburst. They didn’t have the tools to approach her in a way that wouldn’t seem critical, dismissive, or threatening in that moment. The one person who came closest to understanding what was happening mistakenly reached out in the wrong way and endured Erika’s wrath in return. It was like watching a rerun of episodes from my own life. I’ve blown up over seemingly minor things or at inappropriate moments. I’ve jumped down the throats of friends who have only wanted to help. Sure, RHOBH is a fluff TV show in which the cast is thrown into contrived situations intended to provoke drama. Even so, this incident was very real and revealing to me about what is and isn’t reasonable for me to expect from other people, what it looks like from someone else’s point of view when I overreact, and how my behavior may be misinterpreted.

People who’ve grown up in mainly healthy, emotionally secure environments may have trouble understanding why someone might feel they always need to protect themselves, why they might not want to reveal themselves very quickly, why they tend not to easily trust. Watching how the women reacted to Erika both in the weeks before and the minutes during her meltdown made me realize how my own words and actions may give a different impression to other people than what I intend, consciously or not, to communicate. I’m sure that some people haven’t known how to deal with my being as closed off as sometimes I am. Maybe they’ve mistaken me as being cold-hearted or not liking them because I’ve held back. I’m sure that, like Erika, people find me hard to get to know.

Watching the show, I want to throw my arms around Erika and say, it’s okay, you’re okay, I like you. I want to tell her it’s okay to cry and it’s okay to want to talk to a friend. She and I both struggle with making female friends and tend to feel more at ease with men. I wonder how a weak bond with one’s mother correlates. In interrogating the motivation behind her behavior, I’m also investigating my own.

I read an article last week about children who grow up as people pleasers, how damaging that can be because these kids never have the experience of messing up yet being loved anyway. They become adults who think they’ll only be loved if they do the right thing—whatever that is. I know this is part of my psyche, and I wonder if it’s part of Erika’s, too. How many unmothered daughters are still trying to figure out something they can do that will please their mothers enough to be loved? This need to please can be another reason why we hold back. We hesitate to speak until we ascertain the right thing to say. We want first to observe, to figure out what we need to do to earn approval.

Deep down, though, we long more than anything to be seen and heard. So sometimes we do big, showy things for recognition. We rebel in major ways to challenge this requirement that we must conform in order to be loved. We want to show off our ugliest, our most outrageous, most dangerous selves to challenge people to love us anyway, to prove that we weren’t crazy, that the love we received was conditional all along. But these displays aren’t the whole of us. The tender parts are hardest to reveal. We are still on guard, still protecting ourselves, even at our most flamboyant. I think of how Erika puts on a glamorous costume for every scene on RHOBH, as if she’s reluctant to let the other women see her un-made up, how her makeup and hair and clothes are a challenge as well as her armor. If you don’t accept this part of me, I’ll sure never let you see the rest.

There’s a separation people like me and Erika create between the parts of ourselves we allow to be public and the parts we hold sacred. Maybe most people do this to some degree, but it’s evident on the show that Erika does it to the extreme, and I know that I do, too. It’s a means of hiding, of trying to stay safe, by not risking all of ourselves. How would it feel to walk around in the world unarmored and to be okay? I imagine that’s what freedom feels like.


I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #10 of 52.

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