We are not careful with each other, or with ourselves.
On paper, my life is impressive. Or maybe it’s more that the paper in my life is impressive. On my walls hang diplomas – Bachelor of Arts, Juris Doctorate (With Honors, no less, emblazoned right there on the degree), license to practice law from two states. Newspaper articles, newsletters referencing my involvement in the community – advocating for justice, volunteering my time on boards and committees and for various social work. Ever more importantly, a Civil Union license meaning someone chose to build a life with me. Lots of paper evidencing a sassy and brilliant 13-year-old daughter. Photographs and cards from friends and family who all seem to consider me important.
Looking at all this paper documenting my life, it appears I’ve turned out alright. Words abound reflecting a multitude of people who love me, intelligence, success, priorities mostly in order.
Here’s the thing, I don’t think the voices in my head can read.
If they could, they’d surely cut me some slack.
Instead, they constantly berate me for my shortcomings, failings, mistakes. They whisper, which is worse than shouting: you’re worthless and unwanted; you’re careless with your partner’s feelings; you screw up parenting all the time; your daughter’s anger issues are because of your own; you throw snarky comments at your best friends; you’re selfish and mean-spirited; you’re petty and vengeful; you hate easily; it’s your fault; you’re demanding and impossible to please; you’re never happy; you’re life hasn’t made any difference, doesn’t mean anything. You are a failure.
And every shortcoming they point out is prefaced with if you were a better lawyer, a better litigator, a better spouse, a better daughter, a better in-law, a better parent, a better friend, a better communicator … always if I were just BETTER.
While I’ve written before about struggles with depression, this isn’t that. This is just my normal.
I’d like to go a day, get through a social event, or worse, a family gathering, without the voices analyzing how everything played out. If I might have said anything wrong, if anyone mistook my words, if I inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings. It can’t possibly be normal to go through a mental and masochistic debriefing every time I have contact with people.
The anxiety doesn’t even wait until afterward, it’s during. In my head, while I’m talking to others, it’s like live action commentary of a football game, followed by hours upon hours of replay analysis. Trust me, ESPN has nothing on my brain and family gatherings are like the Super Bowl.
And these worries, they smack of narcissism. People are not obsessed with my every word, for God’s sake. To be this concerned indicates I think they are. … Maybe if you were less self-absorbed …
It. Is. Exhausting. And limiting. It makes me fearful, cowardly. Afraid to try new things because what if you fail, what if it doesn’t go well …. Visiting with friends or family … you’re saying that wrong; they’d rather you go; are you sure they want to know you that well? Every single time I post something on my blog … no-one reads anything you write, you’re not saying anything worthwhile, no-one’s going to look at this.
I’m not alone in this. The voices may take different forms but when I dig deeper with people, I find being self-abusive in our thinking is almost universal. Why is that? I have said that people are not careful with each other, but at times it’s even truer for how we treat ourselves. One of my favorite quotes is, “If someone treated your best friend like you treat yourself, you’d kick their a**.” Oh, how very amen. After all, the voices in our heads are really just our own.
When someone comes to me about how they have fumbled parenting, let their spouse or best friend catch the brunt of their bad mood, let old resentments interfere in relationships, ruminated on revenge instead of forgiveness – words of compassion come quickly and easily. I remind them that life is indescribably amazing and impossibly hard, we can try our best and yet we have so little control, we experience resounding successes and spectacular failures and sometimes, well, we just flat screw it up, don’t we? We make the wrong call, say the wrong thing, we even fail, god forbid. But failing is not the same as failure – something the voices will never acknowledge. There are no perfect parents, no perfect spouses, no perfect daughters, friends, family and no-one who says the right thing all the time.
Yes, I can offer that so easily and sincerely to others. I can wrap people in words of compassion. But the voices don’t listen any better than they read.
Still, in spite of those ever-present mutterings, I can’t logically look at my life and conclude I’m a coward or failure. Two years ago, my partner and I gathered our daughter, our pets, our belongings, our careers and left Oklahoma. We moved to Colorado to start a new life in search of community and friendship. We started a new business in a town where we knew no-one and had no connections. It was equal shades bravery and insanity, and deliriously freeing. No matter how hard it has been and is, I am endlessly proud we had the nerve to do it. We are happy on some substantive level I’d not previously known, our daughter is thriving and our business is growing, slowly yes but growing.
Every day I wake up in a place I never thought to live, with a partner I never thought to find. I make myself do the things that scare me, in defiance of the whispers telling me all the reasons to do otherwise. I know how much effort it takes to overcome myself. I have to see that part as an additional accomplishment when I try new things, interact with people, post something on a blog …
We are none perfect. We are all messy and beautiful. It is our individuality, our nuances, faults, quirks and sometimes just plain weirdness that make us who we are. We should strive to love that person, embrace her, offer her the compassion you offer your best friend – that is the definition of being careful with ourselves. And achieving it might quiet the voices.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!