“I have decided I no longer want to improve myself; I am a beautiful disaster and I accept myself as such. So, bless this mess because I’m done being stressed.”
Now, ignore for a minute that I might have heard this saying today on a TikTok video showing a golden retriever in all its derpy glory and simply focus on the words. It’s basically a self-acceptance mantra. And I like it. It might be a good thing to keep in my back pocket for those days when I find myself trying too hard to twist myself into a pretzel for the sake of “improving” myself for someone else or their agenda.
Long live silly, come-as-you-are, funny golden retrievers that prove you can be happy just the way you are.
As a child, I learned that I was something to be tolerated. This notion colored every relationship I had. If you think you are barely tolerable, inversely, you will tolerate a lot of abuse from others because you understand what a burden you are. I spent most of my life apologizing for being who I was rather than acknowledging what I had to offer. Over my years in therapy, this paradigm has shifted for me. I am able to see what my gifts and strengths are and to value them. Don’t get me wrong. I know I have faults and hang ups and annoying habits too. I simply no longer think they outweigh my positive qualities. What I taught my children about themselves now also applies to me: “You aren’t a bad person. You are a good person with bad moments.”
Part of the beauty of reaching midlife, if you’re lucky, is your priorities shift. You become less concerned with what anyone else thinks and more focused on what you need, want, and are willing to work for to make the rest of your life worthwhile. When I combine what I’ve learned about myself through therapy with what I’m learning about life by virtue of being of a certain age, it’s like having a FastPass at Disneyworld. I am ready to jump to the front of the queue. I’ve spent long enough working hard for others, bending myself into a pretzel to make sure I am bearable, while not asking often enough for what I needed for myself. I’ve come to the place where I acknowledge if I’m not worth the effort to someone, then I don’t need to stay with them. Tolerance works both ways. I am free to choose what I will put up with from others.
Lately I’ve been taking stock of the relationships in my life. I can put them into categories. There are the people who like me both for and in spite of who I am and the people who see my downsides more than my upsides. I suppose there are also some people who walk the line of liking me most of the time and yet expecting me to be something I am not the rest of the time, but I can deal with those more nebulous relationships later. My goal right now is to jettison the relationships that make me feel worse about myself, the ones where I do all the compromising and giving and they do all the “tolerating” and taking. Those relationships aren’t serving me. They never did. There is positivity in walking away from them if I can withstand the judgment and commentary from those I care about who will question my choice to do so. Can I be brave enough to stand confidently in my truth without reverting to old habits, wavering, and then capitulating in the face of dissenting opinions?
Maybe it’s because it’s springtime, but I am feeling a compelling pull to weed the garden of my relationships. I want a fresh start. The void left by the people I walk away from will be filled in time with new, life-affirming friends of my choosing. I need to trust the process, to know in my heart that eliminating those whose words and actions make me feel less will only bring me peace because, heaven knows, keeping them around has only mired me in self-doubt. I’m not something to be tolerated, and I don’t have to tolerate a life with those who think I am.
“Accept yourself, love yourself, and keep moving forward. If you want to fly, you have to give up what weighs you down.” ~Roy T. Bennett
My family of origin called me Hard-Hearted Hannah because of my ability to contain my emotions. To be honest, that was self-preservation. I learned not to cry after repeatedly being told that if I did cry I would be given something real to cry about. As a rule, I tend to cry more often about happy or beautiful things than about sad things, and even then my “crying” consists of a few tears coming to my eyes and maybe then trickling down my face. But lately I think all my emotions are sitting just below my skin, and the slightest nick can free them to flow like blood from a shaving cut. I have had a few ugly, ugly cries this week. I feel raw all the time these days.
I don’t know if it is stress or anxiety or fear or gratitude or joy. I’m all over the place. I’m trying to think of this as a good thing. As if emotions that have long been buried are now coming to the surface and maybe once this passes I will be cleansed, at least for a while. That would be comforting to know.
But maybe this isn’t a one off. Maybe this is my new state of being. Maybe I know, at long last, I am in a safe place to experience and show my emotions and be myself. Or maybe I have grown in confidence or in self-love and acceptance. I’m not sure. It’s uncharted territory either way, and all the water works have me confused.
Perhaps I need to stop looking for answers and ride the eye-water wave. Maybe these tears are simply my inner self, filled with gratitude, pride, and joy about my personal growth, baptizing the new me.
“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me!” ~Jim Henson
As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It was given to me by a thoughtful, supportive friend last month, and I’ve slowly been making my way through it. The beautiful thing about Brené Brown is that her struggles and her authenticity seep from the pages of her books, making her words both relatable and heartening. She touches on so many difficult and uplifting emotions in the book that reading it has been equal parts soul-crushing reality and soul-inflating inspiration. Read about shame, guilt, perfectionism, fear, blame, and addiction and recognize how much those habits and emotions define and control you. Then read about hope, joy, play, creativity, resilience, authenticity, and self-compassion and see where you might be able to grow in a more positive direction. More than once while reading I’ve exclaimed out loud to myself in response to what I have read. Holy crap. That is me. I operate that same way. I so relate. I need to work on that. That makes so much sense. I have some work to do. I am really good at that.
The part of the book that hit me the hardest was the portion about shame. I know Brené began her work as a shame researcher, delving into the components of shame and how humans deal with or deflect it and how we can grow out of and away from it in healthy ways. So I fully expected to read about shame in this book. What I didn’t expect was to discover that for the majority of my life shame was my constant companion and operations manager. Ouch.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this discovery. I grew up commonly hearing, “You should be ashamed of yourself” and “You’re embarrassing yourself.” Most of my reactions to events in my life were approached from a shame vantage point. Boyfriend broke up with me? Of course he did. You were acting like a needy jerk. It’s a wonder he didn’t leave you sooner. New job too much for me? Of course it is. Who do you think you are? You have no life experience. You can’t be expected to manage other human beings. Can’t stick to a diet and lose that stress-eating weight? Of course you can’t. You suck at dedication. Struggling with parenting? Of course you are. Your mother always said you were too selfish to raise childrenand it turns out she is right. Brené’s definition of shame snapped me like a wet, locker room towel: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It was through this lens that I grew up and approached my adult life. I was an imposter, one misstep away from everyone I knew discovering my deep secret. To deal with this, I became a perfectionist. (That is another blog post entirely.)
I was continually baffled that anyone would want to be my friend or date me. I couldn’t see what they saw. I only saw my unworthiness. Still, I must have been presenting something else to these people too. They didn’t seem to see what I was seeing. The incongruity was not lost on me, but it never once occurred to me that maybe what they were seeing was the true Justine and what I was seeing was a story I had been sold. It took decades for me to figure that out, and I’m still shredding the pages of that story and working on my rewrite.
Perhaps the most life-affirming part of this book for me has been the section on Cultivating a Resilient Spirit because this is where I shine. I grew up feeling unworthy, less than, and invisible, but I persevered and took risks. Somehow, despite all the negativity and fear, I knew deep in my core I was capable. In my late teens and early twenties, I arrived at a place where I almost was able to recognize the big lie I had been sold. I was brave enough to imagine for myself something bigger. I took steps in that direction. I stepped away from guilt and forced obligation and walked towards autonomy and growth. I stepped up. At age 22, I graduated from a four-year university, the first in our family to do so. By 23, I was starting graduate school. At 24, I voluntarily sought help and signed on with a debt relief organization to pay off tens of thousands of dollars I had accumulated in loans and credit card liability. I was adulting and taking ownership, being resilient, and moving forward.
Then I realized I’d run out of money for graduate school. Rather than rising up and trying to find a way through that financial quagmire, I took my mother’s advice and I quit because I couldn’t afford it. I fell right back into the pattern of being a fearful, self-pitying, self-loathing coward and I stayed there for another two decades, operating from the familiar mindset that told me I wasn’t worthy.
I’ve spent more of my life in that shame mindset than I have spent believing in myself. I let other people’s negativity inform my choices. I asked for advice from the wrong people. I spurned the pleas of the right people who tried to guide me towards my better angels. Now I’m grateful for the difficult day that opened my eyes and taught me who was not to be trusted with my dreams and hopes. I learned to lean towards the people who raise me up, and I walked away from those who make me feel less special, talented, helpful, kind, and important than I am. I ignore those who don’t get me or who think they know me but don’t. I face my shame, talk about it, and deconstruct it. And all of this has led me to a place where I am starting to understand who I am and to like myself.
Shame grows through secrecy, silence, and judgment. Understanding this gives me a pathway out of it. You deny it oxygen by addressing it, sharing your difficult stories with others, and walking away from those who would keep you grounded in it. I am happier more often now, able to be joyful and at peace. I make better choices and I forgive myself more easily when my choices aren’t the best. I appreciate others. I try to apologize when I screw up. I am still working on self-love and I am having a devil of a time beating the judgment out of myself and my life, but I am making progress. I’m embracing my humanity and feeling part of a bigger whole rather than feeling like a lonely pariah. I am proud of myself, dammit. It feels good.
Sharing my darkness and vulnerability is terrifying, but blogging about these shadow monsters here has changed my life. Shame has no power over me anymore because I have named it, gotten cozy with it, and discovered its weaknesses. It will never leave me because it is part of my story, but it buzzes quietly in the background now, just white noise that my brain blocks out.
I was reading through The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown today when I came upon this:
“The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become. Well, it’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting or taking advantage of us or walking all over us. This research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we haveto start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.”
This hit me hard because I have had a long-term struggle with boundaries. As a child, I learned that it was not okay for me to set them. So as an adult, to avoid conflict, I have continued to shift my boundaries to accommodate what someone else wanted or expected of me. Doing so made me bitter without any understanding that the bitterness was coming from my giving what I wanted and needed away to keep someone else comfortable. Giving others their peace took away my own. Not setting boundaries kept me stuck. Understanding that keeping boundaries is essential to being compassionate to myself and others empowers me to stand my ground, to make room for myself, and to find that peace I have been lacking.
Over the past year, I have been working a great deal on boundaries. I didn’t come at this through the knowledge that it would allow me to better practice compassion. I came at this because I finally got to a point in my life where I realized that not having any boundaries in place for myself was no longer a tenable situation. The pandemic, and lockdown particularly, taught me I need boundaries to stay sane and to be pleasant towards others. I learned that I need space. I need silence. I need peace. And I need to stand up for myself to have these things in my life. If I don’t set boundaries, if I am not willing to ask for (and demand, if necessary) what I need from others, then I will forever be a grumpy, negative person who feels powerless. I don’t like that. I don’t want that, and I don’t want to be that person. So, I am learning to set boundaries and to accept that those boundaries will piss some people off and completely alienate others and that is not my concern. My concern is keeping myself and my sense of self safe from those who would use my difficulty in advocating for myself against me.
“The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who benefitted from you having none.” ~Unknown
“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” ~ Unknown
I might start saying no more firmly this year. You might hear me saying things like, “I understand that is what you want, but that doesn’t work for me.” I may full well make some people uncomfortable by refusing to do what they think is fair and right because I believe it doesn’t align with my core values and what I need. This will be hard for me because I was raised to believe people would only like me if I made myself likable by acquiescing to their whims. But I’m old enough now to understand that it’s not only acceptable but imperative that I set boundaries where I need them and tend to them to keep them secure and impenetrable. I will ruffle feathers and others may use my boundaries as talking points to turn others against me, but I no longer care about that. I’m exhausted from being the willow tree that bends. I’m ready to be the rock that the tree learns to grow around.
Some times, due to time constraints, you have to cut corners and do something less than optimal, like have a plain turkey and swiss on gluten free bread for dinner. On those occasions, though, don’t think of yourself as anything less than the marvelous queen (or king, I guess) that you are. Even if dinner is just a yawn of a sandwich, make sure you cut that shit on the diagonal because you are absolutely worth it.
Full disclosure: My husband advised me against writing this post. He did this because he is embarrassed for me by what I am about to disclose. He suggested I might not want to share this particular story. Second full disclosure: Listening well has never been in my wheelhouse. So I am going to tell my story anyway.
Steve and I started road cycling in 2009. When we brought my new bike home, a shiny, blue-and-silver $1300 aluminum frame contraption with mid-level components, Steve had to explain to me how the dang thing worked. I could ride a bike, but this was the most high-tech cycle I had ever owned. Steve began by telling me about the brakes and reminded me squeezing the front brake too hard too quickly would cause me to somersault head-over-heels off the bike. That seemed like an important point, so I memorized that. He showed me how to take the wheels off in case of a flat. I sort of paid attention to that detail. Then he continued explaining how to make the bike work for me. About two seconds after he mentioned mechanical advantage, I checked out. Mechanical advantage sounded a lot like physics. Yawn.
I am a bottom line person. Where some people like the fine details and want to understand the minutiae of a topic, I want to know only what I need to know. Call it impatience. Call it short sighted. Call it crazy. I call it being married to a man who tosses me a 300-page camera manual and tells me to read it when all I want to know is which button on the auto-focus monster snaps the photos.
So as he was describing how the gears up front work in conjunction with the gears in the back to help you increase your speed or climb hills or whatever (like I said, physics), I interrupted him to posit when we might get to that ever important bottom line.
“Which gear do I want to be in to make it easier?” I asked.
He started in again about mechanical advantage, yadda yadda yadda, and I went on another mental vacation. I vaguely heard something about “big gear,” “small gear,” “front,” and “back.” I would figure it out. How hard could it be? It was a bicycle. All I needed to know was how to get going and how to stop. I could do that already.
Steve and I participated in the Tour of the Moon ride into Colorado National Monument on Saturday. We first discussed this ride as we were coming off the high of completing the Bike MS ride in June. I registered us and then I forgot about it. Two months went by during which we got on our bikes only twice for short, easy rides. A couple days ago, we started considering our options for the weekend and chose to go ahead with the ride without training. We figured we might be sore afterward, but we could handle it. At the hotel the night before, I glanced for the first time at the ride’s elevation profile. Big mistake. In roughly 16 miles we would climb about 3500 feet. Did not sleep well with that knowledge.
The next morning as we approached the monument and the dreaded climb was looming, Steve asked me what gear I was in.
“I’m on the middle ring,” I told him, referring to my front gears.
The middle is where I most often stay when riding because, well, I don’t understand my gears because, well, I didn’t pay attention during my lesson. In the past, I have tried to switch gears on a hill, lost momentum, stalled out, and simply flopped over sideways still clipped into my bike pedals. I haven’t enjoyed that, so the middle gear has remained my crutch and faithful companion. It gets me where I am going, and I don’t fall over while switching gears. Win-win.
We pulled off into a church parking lot so Steve could investigate. He told me to switch into the easiest gear. I did.
“What gear is your chain on?”
“The big one,” I replied.
“The big one up front?” he asked.
“Yes. Granny gear.”
“Umm…that is not granny gear,” came the reply.
“Yes it is. You told me the big gear up front was granny gear.”
“You want the small gear up front and the big gear in the back,” he told me.
“This is how I have always done it,” I told him.
“Always? Not always,” he asked doubtfully.
“As long as I can remember,” I said.
“Then you have been climbing in the wrong gear,” he replied.
Well, shit. No wonder I’ve hated hills.
With my bike finally figured out (nine years later), we began our ascent. The new gear knowledge worked like a charm. The ride wasn’t exactly easy (rain, hail, and cold weather temps ensured that), but I had no problem riding. My legs weren’t tired. I pedaled up the hills slower than molasses in January, but I never felt like quitting. And you know why? Because for the past nine years I have been training for this one ride by cruising along in middle gear. And that is an oddly perfect metaphor for my life to this point. From the beginning, I’ve made things more difficult for myself than they needed to be. I checked out too soon or checked in too late or somehow managed to do both. There isn’t much to gain from an easy path, so I’ve grown through my hard (and occasionally not necessary) work.
Perhaps you now understand why Steve was reluctant about my relaying this story. It’s embarrassing. This blonde moment lasted nine years. It’s practically a blonde decade. And, at a point in my not too distant past, I would have been too mortified to share this information. But I am older now and working to accept my flaws and appreciate my gifts. I am learning to look on the bright side. I could take this whole bike-gear lunacy and go to a dark place about what a dolt I am and how naive I was not to figure out my bike properly in the first place. Instead, I’ve chosen to be positive. For something between the 3000-5000 miles I have ridden over the years, I have worked at my cycling. Every ride I undertook, I rode with more effort than I needed to give. All the times I felt weak because the hill climbs seemed much harder for me than for others, it was because they were most likely harder. And the times I passed other riders cruising up a hill in a harder gear than necessary, it was because I was strong, stronger than I had any idea I was. That is not embarrassing. It is an awesome discovery of my power and resiliency.
I’m not saying I will eschew the easiest gear going forward. That would be silly. Sometimes the path of least resistance is a good idea. I might, however, keep riding in middle gear a bit longer and see what else I can do.
To help me along on my journey toward Zen (with a capital Z), I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. If you don’t know anything about Brené, here is an excerpt from her web site bio: Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brené is a self-described shame researcher. Her books illuminate some of the struggles of the human condition and suggest pathways toward living more bravely and authentically. Because I’m 45 and still muddling my way through midlife crisis, I know I could use some of that knowledge. I want to be more at peace on the second half of my journey through this life, so Brené’s become my guru.
Last week the federal government deemed my husband nonessential. He has been home with me since then, and my time for leisurely reading has been greatly curtailed. Tonight when I finally picked up my book again, I felt like I was starting over. I took a good, long look at the cover and noticed that there appeared to be stains on the cover. I didn’t recall those from before, so I scratched at them a bit to see if they might come off. They did not. I inspected them from several angles in different light and decided they looked too perfectly splattered to be accidental. I even sniffed the book. Nothing out of the ordinary. Same old book smell. And so I decided, “How clever of the book designer to create an imperfect cover for a book about imperfection.” I mean, seriously…that’s just genius. Good for them for thinking of it. Still…in the deep recesses of my brain, something kept bugging me because I didn’t remember those stains. I ran off to my laptop to verify this ingeniously designed cover and to put my perfectly pesky mind at ease.
Of course, I discovered that the cover was not designed to have stains on it at all. Apparently I put those stains there. I’m not entirely sure if they are residue from one of my daily soy lattés or from some of the neutral paint we’ve been slathering on the walls of our main floor while hubby has been temporarily unemployed. Either way, what’s interesting to me here is that I was so certain I could not have spilled anything onto my book that I thought it was an intentional publishing gimmick. It was easier for me to believe that the stains were a purposeful design feature rather than the result of my own, personal sloppiness because I don’t do things like damage books with foreign substances. I take better care of my things than that.
Oh. Dear. God. I need this book a lot more than I thought.