I wonder sometimes why we so easily give others the grace we hardly give ourselves. I wonder about that a lot lately. We allow and encourage other people to see the world as grey and ambiguous when they’re in difficult times, but are quick to turn things to black and white and box them up in categories if it’s our hands in the fire. When were we taught to be so hard on ourselves? Who told us self-condemnation was the proper reaction to anything we do or don’t have control over?
I was graciously reminded by an old friend from high school this weekend that it’s torture to live a life in ruthlessly rigid, black and white boxes. She’d read “The Process” and felt compelled to reach out, expressing her thanks for my vulnerability and that she resonates with those dark thoughts… the ones that seem to make us devoid of self-worth, convincing us that somehow we’re less and unworthy of love.
“I’m not really sure what it is that’s happened or what you’ve done, or think you’ve done,” she said in her Instagram message, “but I don’t think that any event or circumstance or mistake outstrips your worth, your value, or your deservingness of understanding, compassion, happiness, and love. Especially from yourself.”
I tend to work myself into a corner, believing that my repetitive unhealthy and harmful actions leave me in the “bad” category. So her words spoke volumes to me. I was a little speechless.
“The hardest thing is believing that we, ourselves, are deserving. We easily give others the grace we hardly give to ourselves.”
There’s a surplus of grace in my hands, and I disperse it among those in my life who come to the well looking for something. But when I’m the one needing that same graciousness, my fingers close tightly around that life-giving, otherworldly substance. I expressed to her that I have yet to understand how to give myself grace.
So she continued, “For me, it is a rewriting of my preconceived notions of who I am and how life should be. It is accepting that life is grey, ambiguous, murky. I had been trying to fit everything into black and white categories: right and wrong; good and bad, when life is actually all of that, sometimes all at once. And that goes for us too. We are not either entirely bad or good, but somewhere constantly in flux on a spectrum. And we aren’t our mistakes, flaws, insecurities, anger, shame…”
My best friend recently expressed deep frustration toward this aspect of me. And at first I was confused. I had never thought of myself as someone who only sees in black and white, thinking instead that I have some depth of understanding for other people, compassion, patience. My view of who I was has always included those characteristics because I’ve been marked as a good listener by those around me. So when my own closest companion pulled that mirror out and revealed to me this ugliness, I had to take a second to process it. How could I have people thank me for being such a good listener and so understanding, but have the person who knows me the best give me such a contrary critique?
The truth is sometimes a witty fellow, revealing itself in the very question used to try and find it. There was another black and white perspective. Obviously I can’t be both incredibly understanding and also see the world in boxes, right? Both/and. Not either/or. And what a poetically cruel thing it is to utilize such a wonderful skill for those around you, but when it comes to your closest circle (including yourself) suddenly things are only right or wrong, good or bad, black or white.
“Categories are nice; boxes are nice,” she continued, “Things are easy to process when they’re clear and concise. I like my life to be ‘clean’ and clear cut, and I want me to fit in those boxes too. But when something happens that challenges this way of thinking, something that conflicts with who you’ve been striving to be, who you think you are, it can destroy you. Because suddenly, that identity, that clean white box, is gone. And it shakes you to your core.”
Who I saw myself as and who I was being were two very different people. And sometimes you don’t even realize it until the floor drops out from beneath you. Sometimes it takes totally losing what you had worked your identity up to be to see exactly who you are and who you want to be. And in that place, that total limbo of identity crisis, it can be so incredibly difficult to have compassion on yourself. It can be difficult to just be, and be okay with that. Losing your identity suddenly puts you in the “lost and hopeless” box. And living in boxes like that can convince you that that’s all you are, and all you’ve been, and all you’ll be. That there is nothing beyond your past mistakes and stumblings that brought you to your lowest point. And that must mean that you are those things. That you are your mistakes.
She then directed me to a podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking, episode 2: I’ve Made a Huge Mistake. I highly recommend it. The host, Nora Mcinerny, interviews Eva Hagberg and they discuss the concept of letting our past mistakes define who we are and color our future, our decisions, and the paths we take.
Eva, a 20-something writer had just received her big break, an article in the New York Times. But her article contained a pretty huge factual error that she hadn’t cross checked, and out of shame, she falls into a deep pit. She allows her mistake to take over who she is. After years of changing her entire career path, moving, and cutting ties with people from that stage of her life, Eva is encouraged to make amends. So she calls the subject of that article to apologize after eight years. Instead of hearing doom and gloom, what I’m sure she anticipated, she hears that it wasn’t a big deal.
“It had never occurred to me that a response could be compassion,” she says in the interview, “He didn’t say that it was okay, he just said ‘you didn’t deserve the punishment that you gave yourself.’”
I let those words sink in for a few minutes before listening to the rest of the podcast.
Eva went on to say, “Oh my God… this thing that I’ve been carrying around has colored every single decision that I have made in ways that I haven’t even known.”
What and idiot I’ve been… I thought after hearing the light blub click on in her little corner.
“The question, ‘am I loved and how am I gonna lose that…’ maybe that doesn’t need to always be the first thing I think…”
Jeez… I wake up with that weight almost every morning…
But in one simple phone call, she’d received absolution from this tiny monster that she’d let grow into a beast.
Nora, the host, finished the episode with some powerful words: “One of the hardest things to learn and to remember is that you are not the things you have done. We do, all of us, contain multitudes. We’ve done incredible things, and terrible things, and things that are more terrible in our heads than they actually were in real life. But take a random sampling of things we’ve done and, will we remember the ninety-nine good ones? Or okay ones? No. We’ll spend our time obsessing over the ones that missed the mark. The one we shouldn’t have said, or done, or written…”
That’s the last month for me in a nutshell. I have spent the last month obsessing over one chain of misplaced identity that lead to behavior contrary to who I know myself to be… contrary to who I know I have been for those I care about. I look at that person and I think “who the fuck are you? I don’t know you… you aren’t who I am.” But that’s the result of putting myself in a box I didn’t belong in, the result of seeing my life in black and white. And then that shot out and I applied the same mentality to the person closest to me. I allowed this person who I’m not, influence my view of the person she is to the same degree… making her out to be someone she isn’t either.
I had allowed so many circumstances define who I am. And for being someone who vehemently despises having someone try to put me in a box, I was all too quick to do that to myself, and to those close to me.
In a text to my best friend a couple weeks ago I tried to apologize for not dealing with this internal struggle of mine before she came into my life, thinking that if I’d dealt with it sooner then our friendship wouldn’t be on the fringe right now and I wouldn’t have hurt her. Her response I’ve carried in my head since she sent it, “There isn’t a need for you to be sorry that this was in your life when I met you. Only that you have allowed it to become who you are, when it’s not.”
She’s right. Damn right. These past issues, pains, struggles, blunders of epic proportions… I have meticulously taken each and every one of them and crafted a copy of myself thinking that these things somehow were me. Forgetting that it was just a shadow of who I actually am. And I gave that shadow freedom and life to walk around in my shoes and wreck havoc.
So here is the absolution that I’ve needed to give myself for twenty-seven years. Here is my first attempt at battling this shadow:
I am not the junior higher that other girls falsely called a lesbian behind her back. I am not the pain that brought, or the years of introverted struggle that caused. I am not the little sister that can’t seem to get along with her big brother. I am not the continual fighting between us. I am not my parent’s failed marriage or divorce. I am not at fault for it, I am not to blame, and there’s nothing I could have done differently to prevent it. I am not the burden that I think I am because of countless lost friendships… friendships that I allowed to become my identity. I am not the failed coffee shop manager. I am not the employee that was fired. I am not the conflict that brought that about. I am not the best friend that let her inability to trust ruin the best friendship I’ve ever been a part of. I am not the mistakes that followed. I am not the breech of privacy or the insecurity that my actions caused. I am not worthy of abandonment. There is nothing that I have done to be deserving of that pain. I am not a burden. And I don’t deserve the punishment I’ve been giving myself because of all of those things. Yes, my reactions and responses to all of those have not been perfect, good, or noble even 10% of the time. And the consequences that followed are deserved. But the condemnation is not. I am free of that.
So what am I then? Right now, what I am is doing the best that I can with what I have left.
“We do, for the most part,” Nora says, “just do the best we can, and that’s easy to say when we are doing well. When things are falling into place for us. When doing our best is good enough. It’s much, much harder when we’re falling short.”
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve had some big “AHA!” moment and my entire life is going to change tomorrow when I wake up. I’m not a believer in thinking that mountain top moments are reality. I am going to struggle, and struggle hard, with understanding all of this. My iron grip will not be loosened easily from these past struggles and mistakes. But if I can get up in the morning and take my dog for a walk instead of staying on the couch watching Netflix, then I’m doing the best that I can. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get there eventually.