An Ongoing Exercise In Dismantling Self-Doubt

“You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.” ~C.K. Dexter Haven, The Philadelphia Story

This week, my therapist and I began working on my ever-present self-doubt. Self-doubt, I’ve only recently come to acknowledge, has played a big part in my life. It’s not that I always felt confident or comfortable in my skin or my actions. I didn’t. But, through trauma, I became so adept at pretending to be sure of myself that I honestly bought my own fiction. I maintained this alternate sense of self that existed completely disconnected from my true self. My persona was a cardboard standee I would place in front of people, somehow absolutely convinced that they took my bravado at face value and would never peer around the side of the 2-D cutout I’d presented to them to discover there was nothing there to back it up. In fairness, I think some people figured out that my insides didn’t match the outside I presented to the world long before I understood that I had been play acting for others most of my life. Their superpower was being comfortable enough in their own skin to recognize an imposter when they saw one. My superpower was pretending I was perfect when, deep down, I felt like shit scraped off a shoe.

In my therapist’s office the other day, we did some guided meditation to address my lifelong self-doubt. First we did a basic relaxation technique, starting with visualizing my happy place. From there, she asked me to conjure up a meeting place, a place where I would feel completely at ease. I envisioned a warm, cozy room inside a log cabin house with a fireplace, a plush sofa, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows through which my view was the surrounding mountains in their fall splendor. When I was good and comfortable in that mental space, she asked me to invite my self-doubt to join me there. Self-doubt, my imagination decided, arrived in a dark cloud that obscured the sun and dimmed the room, making it feel chillier. She asked me to give the dark cloud a name, so I named it after the place where my self-doubt originated in my early youth. I was required to sit with my self-doubt with a neutral mindset, neither allowing it to overwhelm me nor allowing myself to ignore it. And that’s as far as we got in my session before we had to end for the week, but even that small effort made me consider my self-doubt in a new way.

I wasn’t born with self-doubt. Self-doubt was thrust upon me at a young age, the result of incessant criticism, which led to an understanding I was not good enough or worthy of respect, attention, or love unless I did what others thought was best or wanted. Self-doubt is what I got when I tried and didn’t reach the mark others thought I should. It’s what happened when, instead of being told, “You’re human and humans don’t always get it right and that is okay,” I was informed, “You should have known better” and admonished “You’re embarrassing yourself.” I have since come to understand that my relentless perfectionism is a by-product of continually being told I could and should do better, rather than being gently reminded that life is a process and you learn and grow over time. I wish I had heard more thoughtful “Go easy on yourself, you’re trying” and less demeaning “Everybody knows THAT.” The perfectionism I ended up with in a useless attempt to be good enough for everyone else (in order to believe I was good enough in my own skin) was backwards.

The truth is when you feel good enough in your own skin, you don’t have to be perfect for anyone else to appreciate you. You live your truth and know that you screw up sometimes but you also get it right sometimes. From that place, you learn to forgive yourself and others for the crime of human frailty. It’s challenging to think of myself 10 or 20 years ago, when I was 150% convinced through my perfectionist mindset that I was mentally healthy the way I was. I was throwing down that cardboard cutout of a perfect me as reality and challenging others the way I had been challenged. It was misguided, but it was all from a place of deep hurt and misunderstanding. I didn’t know who I was. I only knew who others thought I should be. And so, with my own sense of self dampened and obscured, I became full of self-doubt that could only be lessened by my attempts to be perfect at everything and for everyone.

Self-doubt is insidious. I know it plagues even the most well-adjusted among us, but it’s such a pointless place to work from, whether that place be a waiting room we occasionally occupy or the impenetrable fortress we inhabit. I’ve come to the place where I can acknowledge it’s a shame that I didn’t get better messaging as I was growing up, but I’ve also come to believe it’s incumbent upon me to give to myself the grace and forgiveness and gentleness and kindness I did not receive back then. It’s up to me to lift that dark cloud. No one else can do it for me.

Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
      Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

A poem by Shel Silverstein

Those Who Would Aim To Hurt You Can Teach You A Lot

It took me far too long to grasp the truth of this statement, and it took even longer for me to comprehend that just because someone is in your life because of a blood relation or an obligation doesn’t mean they will look out for you. Sometimes it’s a shock to discover how easily someone I trusted and believed in can turn on me to protect their own ego. There are people in my life, in my circle even, who have their own agendas when it comes to me and who I am. I know them like the back of my hand because I was them. I came from them. I know what resides in their hearts, and I let them stick around anyway. I keep them around not because I feel obligated to but because they remind me where I came from and what I’ve worked so hard to overcome. They illuminate my personal growth. Their presence in my life is a continual, flashing neon sign highlighting what I don’t want to be. The difference between the old me and the new me is that the new me knows the weakest links in my circle and doesn’t put any stock in their world view. The new me trusts my judgment and my heart. I’ve strengthened my ability to look out for myself. I know there are some people in my life who are definitely not in my corner, but it is precisely through their lack of support, forgiveness, and common kindness that I gain a little more wisdom about myself. Every time they test me and prove they are not in my corner, it hurts less and less and I feel stronger and stronger about who I am.

Sometimes, it’s best to cut and run from people who have been hurting you from time immemorial. It can be life saving, even. Sometimes, though, it’s not a bad idea to let some people who don’t deserve to stick around, well, stick around. Sometimes it’s the people who aren’t in your corner who make you see and appreciate those who are. And what a glorious day it is when, through the actions of the people who aren’t looking out for your best interests, you realize that at long last you are and now you are finally, solidly in your own corner.

My Very Unpopular Opinion

Even this could not keep my mind off Newtown, CT.
Even this could not keep my mind off Newtown, CT today. And, I love this.

I’ve struggled for days now trying to find an appropriate place for my mind to rest regarding the events in Newtown, Connecticut. Alas, no matter in which direction I turn, I cannot find my zen about this topic. There is not a thing about it that is right. I’ve done my best to avoid too much detail in the news, to acknowledge the miserable facts without becoming morbidly curious or rushing to judgment or conclusions. At the end of the day, as cold and as hard as it seems, I need to live my life in the wake of these all too common violent attacks. So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’ve been trying to distance myself from the news to keep from losing my entire holiday season to a dark abyss of the unthinkable. It has not been easy. Even my guilty escape, Facebook, has become a non-stop editorial column about the event.

Because I can’t seem to escape it, despite an entire day spent on a ski slope, tonight I would like to offer just this one comment. As we continue to think about the families who lost loved ones on December 14th, I hope we don’t forget that Adam Lanza left behind a father and a brother who are innocent of his crimes. They lost loved ones too. And, worse than that, they will have to live with the the anger, the scrutiny, and the unanswerable questions. I can’t imagine facing both the loss of my mother and brother and the non-stop judgment of the American people. My heart goes out to that family. They will never understand what happened or why, but they will always be held somewhat accountable via guilt-by-association. That’s a tough road to walk.