There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you – Maya Angelou

The Secret Handshake

Do I know It?

Recently a friend of mine reached a landmark birthday and opened up about not really knowing what was going on in his social interactions with other people.  He talked about feeling like everyone else had gone through a special “training class” that he had missed. I knew exactly what he meant because in my younger years, I too felt very similar in that I felt like everyone had been let in on the secret handshake, except me.

He went on to talk about how he felt like he was wearing masks, reflecting back what other people did and said, but that he really did not understand the rules or what was happening; it sometimes led to misunderstandings that baffled him too.  Again, I understood. I was often baffled by the opening greeting of “How are you?” When I let people know how I really was – and why, they never really seemed to be interested in hearing it. Why were they asking me how I was if they did not want to know? Why do we include this obligatory question in our greetings if all we really expect – and want – to hear is “fine,” whether we are or not?

But it wasn’t just this. There were many social rules I did not understand, and I often found myself breaking some unspoken rule or another. I also found that people were very often indirect, and I was left to guess what they meant.  Because I am not a mind-reader, I was often wrong, which led to a lot of misunderstandings. Why couldn’t people just be direct? Say what you mean! Ask for what you want!

When I was in the miltary, things were much easier to figure out. Social structure is very organized, the rules are very clear on how to behave around others of various ranks, and respect is expected of all.  As a soldier, I clearly understood where I fit in, how to behave, and how to interact.  The chain of command and procedures were well understood if there were any issues.

When I was discharged, I found myself confused by the civilian world. People were often jerks, chain of command did not work, and nothing I had learned in the military had translated into civilian life.  I had gone from order and understanding to chaos and confusion.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that no one really does know “the secret handshake,” but everyone likes to pretend that they do. We wear masks in order to “fit in.”  How many times have I heard people say things like “I was born in the wrong country” or “…in the wrong time” or even “…on the wrong planet”? But none of us wants to admit openly we don’t know the secret handshake, nor do we want to remove our masks because to do so would be akin to getting caught with our pants down.

So, we keep picking up our masks, playing the games, and always wondering things like: who am I? who are these people? and what the hell just happened?!  

What about you? Do you feel the same way? Or is there really a secret handshake?

...yet with my feet on the ground
I look around
and see everyone's with me
confused as can be
and yet they pretend
what they do they intend
they make it up too
it's how they get through...

--GA Rosenberg

Comments on: "The Secret Handshake" (6)

  1. mlwallace1021 said:

    I get it. My parents made sure that my sister and I were in church every time it was open for services, so I was inundated with the Christian doctrine from an early age. As I grew into a teen, I felt that I was missing something–that I didn’t really get “it.” I thought everyone else around me got it, but it eluded me for some reason. I pretended to feel what I thought I was supposed to feel, but I really just felt like a fraud. It wasn’t until I went to college and met people who challenged what I had been taught and until I started questioning my own beliefs that I really got “it.” I think we all go through this kind of thing at some point in our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had that same experience. I was raised as a Christian too – in a variety of denominations. Everyone seemed to get it except me. I kept wondering why I was the only one who never seemed to understand things the way they did or feel the “spirit” or anything that could give me that same faith they felt. I prayed continually for answers, went to church faithfully, read my scriptures, and even taught Sunday School classes, but never felt connected. I was going through the motions.

      It was not until some years after I had walked away from it all and challenged my beleifs and even the very existence of God, that I finally got my answers. It was the most powerful experience of my life and one that I will never forget. I had to put my mask down and clear my head of all preconceived notions before I could get my answer. I did too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Because of an injury I was home schooled from the 4th grade to the sixth. Returning to the seventh grade I faced all kinds of social problems.

    It felt as if my mind didn’t grow. I didn’t understand the rules and was shocked at the name calling and bullying. It was survival mode after that year and I learned quickly. It does help to be good at observing and not repeating mistakes.

    It would be nice if we were given a training manual at the start. This was an excellent post. I’m glad you brought this up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bryan, I do understand to a degree. Though I did not go through exactly the same social withdrawal from your peers as you did, I did go through a stunting of social learning and experience of sorts.

      Mine occured as a result of moving around a lot as a kid. Every year my sister and I were uprooted from our home, school, neighborhood, city, and oftentimes even the state we were in. This meant losing all our neighborhood and school friends and having to start all over again. But, because we were the “new kids on the block” developing new relationships was challenging. In addition, I was often tormented and bullied because I was much taller than my classmates. I was always an outsider looking in. And by the time I was getting to establish friendships with some of the kids it was time to go again.

      I never had a chance as a kid, and even into my adulthood where I continued moving around, to be in a relationship long enough to learn the finer points of all the social rules. I think that beyond a training manual, we should be given age appropriate classes every year in school on how to navigate relationships. It might save us a whole lot of heartache and help us to become better people.

      I’m sorry you had to go through this shock upon returning to school – especially at such a difficult age. I hope you made it through a better person. Keep on keeping on!


  3. I too am sorry to hear what you went through. The first ten years of our lives are so important. Confidence is gained, our personalities grow and relationships are made. But if something gets in the way it can affect us for years to come.

    I have a feeling you and I are survivors and in a way that is our reward.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I definitely agree!
    Go survivors!


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