Walking a new beach in a super heightened discovery mode—like a dog just let off leash—I came upon a sign in the form of drift wood with a magic marker message.
I’ve been lost. I’ve been lost not even knowing I was lost. Have we all been lost? Has life served us a fresh dish of WTF? Are we still eating the leftovers?
Being lost is familiar to me. Loving people who are lost is almost a hobby. However, believing being here now is enough all by itself, well that’s a radical concept I’m only beginning to embrace.
I had a conversation just last week with my friend, Jen, about this subject and how, for most of my life, I have been auditioning for the part of human. I have lived with this idea of myself as decent and whole and accomplished. I was her wanna be, her almost and her not quite.
In my mind, I was this totally potentiated self who was entirely over my past, with no evidence or scars from the ugliness of childhood, and absent of any untidy emotions spilling out. This imaginary self was used daily as a hammer to beat the hell out of my actual struggling and imperfect self.
The former me would have laughed at this driftwood sign. I would have screamed at the sand and said, “It’s not enough to just be here. You need to make a difference, make a mark or at least stop being a lazy four-eyed fuck.” This would have been directed at me, just in case I was in any danger of believing the world was going to offer any soft pillows to rest on when so much work needed to be done. I would have thought, “Lazy, New Age bullshit—you can’t just take up space on the planet.”
Jen not only understood, she could relate. She shared how she,too, had been trying to execute her roles as mother, daughter, sibling, friend and spouse. She wanted to be “good” above all else and to get life “right.” She wanted to exceed the expectations of others. She, too, was proud of what a hard working soul she was, how good she was at helping others, and how she could intuit the needs of others.
We were also gifted at criticizing ourselves. We were always on guard for any weaknesses and tried to correct them quickly before they were detected by others.
We didn’t see ourselves as people pleasers, co-dependent or even acknowledge how afraid and exhausted we were. We saw ourselves as activists; sensitive people willing to make life easier for others because we were tough and they were in need. It was an identity and a lifestyle and so deeply ingrained we thought it was who we were and would always be.
We didn’t even know exactly what we were trying so hard to accomplish or gain, but for both of us, the desperate and excruciating effort of wanting to be perfect, productive and caring had a self-denying relentlessness that became a machine that never stopped to rest. It operated on autopilot even without having a destination. It had started in childhood for both of us. Though our lives are different, we had each experienced at least two of the following: addiction, abuse or abandonment.
We weren’t addicts or breaking laws. We weren’t materialistic or blatantly narcissistic. We were kind and responsible, sweet and decent. We were the type named to guardians in wills, go-to people who could be counted on to return a call. We would never be caught doing anything dishonest or “bad.” If that had given us pleasure and was the deepest expression of who we were meant to be,so be it. Only it wasn’t.
We were trying to justify our existence, to prove we were worthy enough to take up space and air.
I was a hater when it came to myself. Jen recently found a note she had written to herself that said “I feel guilty for even being here on Earth.” My mantra used to be, “Who cares if you feel bad. Who have you helped make feel better today?”
We didn’t see being human as a birthright. We didn’t see ourselves as lovable or even likable. We were terrified that who and how we were was deeply flawed, wrong and bad. We were trying to prove our own worth, to sell ourselves, not just to others, but to ourselves. And it was more than that. Despite our desire to break family cycles, and how good and nice we seemed to others, we were both cruel to ourselves. We abused ourselves. We abandoned our own needs. We felt guilty for taking so much of life from life.
The reason I bring Jen into this is that I didn’t know Jen before her mid-life and she didn’t know me before mine. For each one of us, it wasn’t until life exploded in our faces and didn’t go according to plan that our relationships with ourselves changed. For both of us, it took major relationship betrayals and shocks to wake us up and force us to re-examine ourselves, our lives and our assumptions. It took moves, depression, divorce, post-traumatic stresses and varied heartbreaks. It took seeking, creative discovery, self-exploration and endless lifestyle adjustments to see how desperately we were running from ourselves.
Now, we are peeling back layers to uncover our deepest selves, the real people who exist under a lot of masks, good intentions and pain.
Our lives look less white-picket-fence, but we both feel more honest, connected to ourselves and authentic. We are kinder within, more supportive and gentle. We both agree we would rather be disliked for who we are than loved for who we are not. That was not always true.
The process of reclaiming the abandoned self can be as painful as hell. There are many people who loved us when we met their needs but love us less when we are better at meeting our own. Some don’t want to see us go off script or venture into new territory.
Who can blame them? I know that I no longer anticipate the needs and wants of others. I am no longer as available or present to others, not because I love them less, but because I love myself more. Plus, I no longer assume I should know, or even could know, what someone else’s needs are without them sharing them or asking me to meet them.
Thoughtfulness can be kind, but it’s also controlling and manipulating when done to make others like you more.
In the past, I was trying to earn love and support and was giving myself away hoping others could give me back to myself. Now, I don’t have any idea how any other human being should live his or her life, and I am suspect when anyone thinks they know best how I should live mine.
It’s wonderful to connect with others who are undertaking a similar re-birth. My friendship with Jen makes me think that what I’m going through and what she is experiencing, might be common at mid-life or in times of big transition.
Maybe the person who left the sign knew all of this already.
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Assistant Ed. Jane Henderling/Ed: Bryonie Wise