Tag Archives: speaking up

The Challenge to Value Myself Over What Others Might Think of Me

I was inspired to share this experience after reading many heartfelt, courageously written recent posts from my blog friend, Alienora.
I spend a lot of my spiritual life in challenges, most of which I haven’t shared. But in different ways I think we all have to deal with this one, sooner or later. I’m still in the middle of it!

September 3, 2014
To Those in the Otherworld Who Walk Their Journey with Me:

It is Wednesday morning, and I am feeling strangely cut off, like somehow I dropped the thread I was winding through the maze of my journey, and cannot find it again. I am exhausted. My bones ache, as if I have gone a long, long way. I worry I am falling back asleep, and then I might fail or be forgotten. I do not know the word I need to live by. I only know the word yes, not yes to doing more and more, not yes to pleasing people. It is yes, I am.

Lately growth for me has not come with trying, working hard, demanding more from myself, pushing limits, proving I can do what I originally took to not be possible. I have, in the course of the challenges I meet, done every one of these things. But then I can’t do more or I fall apart, or I am frozen in fear, or I just can’t keep going: and then I grow.

I grow because I open and unfold across the barriers I built to continue my false sense of security. I grow because I can no longer maintain the dam holding back emotions, they spill over the sides of the space within which I wish they had stayed. . I give up the need to be in control. I let go. I let myself be seen. And I let change take me by the hand, as if I am a weary child, whispering hush through the dark shadowy bits of mind I might have otherwise disowned. I dissolve into endless belonging beneath coming and going. Suddenly I am not lost but at the center of the labyrinth of living. I grow.

This particular morning, I am trying to rid myself of the belief that what others think of me is often more important than being true to myself. I am terrified to say the wrong thing, to confront anyone and create conflict, but definitely could wait a bit longer before accepting this. I think of ways to hold myself apart from past and potential criticism so I won’t get hurt. I think of the defenses I’ll need to build so I won’t feel small when people try to minimize my ideas or cut me down. I wonder whether I can get away with using indifference as a shield against taking what people say personally, at least occasionally.

And then I realize, unfortunately with an even greater sense of alarm and terror, that if I did this there would be no way for you and I to reach each other. It would plunge me into the invisibility that is my greatest nightmare. The possibility is inconceivable to me, like self-imposed exile. It is a choice I will never make again.

Once, I was so hurt that I cut myself off from any world, and lost sight of my own identity. It was the year I started grad school and my parents were separating. I almost never found my way back home. I know what it is like to allow the desertification of the forest of soul. I hid myself even from me, thinking this was a form of self protection. I almost died inside before I admitted how my refusal to live consciously was only a brutal form of self-betrayal.

Earlier this year, life again began to draw me toward that edge over which we fly or fall. There, unconsciousness called alluringly, louder than the din of my over occupied, overwhelmed mind and raging emotions that were threatening to engulf me and pull me in. I lost myself in sleep, dreaming for hours, unwilling to take the covers away from my face or get out of bed. But that was not the end of it, because the stillness I knew to always be with me, in which I learned my worth, in which I came home to myself, called my name. I heard your voices in the silent cry, I remembered looking into your eyes, and found I was enough.

I came too in the midst of a crowd. You all stood with grave, stern faces, devastated by what I had almost done. And you said, “There is nothing we would have been able to do had you chosen not to return.” That was when I promised you, and perhaps more importantly myself, that it would not happen again. And it has not. It cannot.

Etched into my mind is the picture of the six or so of you I could see, incredible sadness searing lines across your faces. And I understood that had I chosen once again to simply go through the motions, we would search for each other and see nothing, you would call my name and I wouldn’t hear you: all because I would have imposed separation on myself. And so once again my world turns upside down, leaving me dizzy and disoriented with the effort of ridding myself of false beliefs, determined to stay present.

Shaking, I tear down the defenses, I break the facade of indifference, relieved that now, there is nothing between us. But there is also nothing between myself and uncertainty, and what others think of me is quite beyond my control. An icy cold runs through me. I start to cross my arms in front of me to ward off the cold, but remember in time how it will help me instead to stand in the way that reflects how I wish to be in the world. I feel like standing is an impossibility, but somehow it continues. Still, I reach out. This is the only way I know to be fully alive and live with the authenticity that comes from not letting the opinions and talk of others destroy my sense of worth and self compassion. And we all know I could use a bit more of both when it comes to this world, when, inevitably, someone won’t like what I do or say, and might even reject me.

being able to do this in my own world is the whole point. I try hard not to think about that now, though, because when I do the world spins around me in 360 degrees, and I’m reaching out again, this time literally for balance.

I can’t recall a time when reaching out was harder. Ironically, as I stumble through and decide I am probably failing, I worry about what you are thinking of me. Of course, this only convinces me that yes, most likely I really am failing. Moving beyond concerns of judgment—yours and mine–and that I’ll be found seriously wanting, is like walking through a hurricane. When I try and move through physical space, the room spins around again dangerously. I bump into a few walls. But Silently, spent of doing, I reach out. And for a moment I am there, knowing how it feels to love myself fiercely, no matter what this world’s reaction may be.

It’s only one short moment. For today it’s enough. I decide that, tomorrow, rather than “try,” I will instead just be. I will accept where I am even if I wish I had learned more quickly, and surrender to silence. I’ll open the door that habit and fear have implored me to leave alone, to find my way through a room littered with the tears and isolation, invisibility and insensitivity that haunted my childhood.

Beneath the insecurity I face, I know that, when you see me, your eyes will be kind. You have been here before. If I fall, you will, gratefully, say nothing in the moment, just help me start again. There are many things I know I’d rather not confront, but they are the guardians to the gates, the keepers of the keys I need, in order to be free to say what I long to say, to be truly who I am. And that is what this is all about. It is all I’ve ever needed to be. I start again.

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In Defense of Imperfection _ Part 2

How many people struggle with doubts, with longing to feel alive, with finding purpose and meaning, with finding what and who they are, and then when they finally get a sense of such things, actually like what they find? (Oh hopefully!) One of our greatest consolations in life should be that we are stumbling around but while we’re doing that, everyone else is too.

Is it as simple as doing the best you can in a world that is capable of embracing you one minute, then swallowing you whole the next? I don’t think so, because defining what is meant by “do your best” is a complicated matter. Doing your best does not mean striving to be perfect. If we were meant to be living exemplars of ideal, we would have been born as something other than human. Surely our standards should exist in proportion to the kind of being we are? We’re fallible, we fall short, we let others down, we are vulnerable, we break easily (I mean this in a literal sense.) Held up to the immaculate, sterile, and pristine light of perfection, we are nothing worth keeping. The short argument against this primacy of perfection is that it cannot be substantiated, and it rests on false premises and assumptions (see the examples.) I also believe that perfectionism partly drives the illusion of separateness, and that if we lived in a way that honored our interdependence on one another, we would be less apt to constantly compare ourselves with each other and we would lead healthier, happier lives for it. But that’s an argument for another time.

Examples of my point follow:

The problem with trying to separate authentic expression from speaking honestly:
Once you say something you cannot take it back. So you should watch what you say. But if you stall out, self-consciously weigh your words each time you want to speak, you will quickly befriend silence. Do you want to be remembered as nothing or as something, consequences included? So while it is important to say what you mean and not be deceptive, dishonest, perfection is not the ideal. Get out there and say what you need to say, and decide later if you could do a better job of it. Too many people, my former self included, shelve their voices believing they are inadequate, not good enough to have something to say. You personally are never inadequate, but the response that does seem to be inadequate is saying nothing at all.

Also, many people believe that an excellent person is always composed. Aristotle’s great souled person comes to mind. Yet although such a person is just and generous, she cannot admit to her own vulnerability and reacts to her own needs with quiet contempt (which obviously she’d never admit to anyone else.) Such conceptions of “right conduct” destroy rather than create honest communication between people. In modern virtue ethics, it is important that a person have both practical rationality and emotional balance. Someone who suppresses her feelings, or who is able to give but incapable of receiving, who believes that to admit to her vulnerability or her anger or her sadness is akin to failure, is someone who has let herself down in the name of some unnatural ideal. Such incidious conceptions of perfection create conditions where a person is incapable of honesty because she cannot even be honest with herself,. If she is ashamed of her own needs, she cannot respect others who have needs of their own. I think it is imperative to be able to express ourselves authentically, realistically, honestly. All three can’t exist without the other. The alternative impoverishes people and renders it impossible to live in the wise and balanced way that is crucial to human flourishing.

The problem with conflating the perfect life with the life well lived:
Aristotle says in relation to living an excellent life, that there are many ways to get it wrong, but only one way to get it right. That leaves a lot of people vulnerable to constant failure or falling short. Should life be measured exclusively by whether you got to the top, “being productive in every waking moment,” (a lovely philosophy professor’s words) and ultimate success? How about the compassion you and others show toward your friends and family?

I would argue it’s the latter. The hand-wavy brief argument goes like this: think of a person who was highly successful but lacked compassion, empathy, patience, balance. Does a tyrant or insufferable CEO come to mind? Or perhaps, instead, have you thought of someone who is generally a good and decent person but is such a perfectionist that she never realizes her dreams, is so obsessive about doing every last thing right that she can’t cook her own meals, get anywhere on time, meet any deadlines, pay her bills, or drive herself home from work? Are you living with a person like this, because if you are your life is probably miserable. Most likely, their life is just as miserable. Any life that makes you miserable is not an ideal one, and just perhaps perfection is the bad ideal in the bunch here.

If there is merit in this, then a good life is one that dissuades the cultivation of only one or two character traits in favor of a balance of dispositions and values that can help shape a well-rounded and integrated, multifaceted person.

Our culture encourages CEOs and other business entrepreneurs, as well as academics and doctors, to choose what people, beliefs, character traits, or values to give up in order to achieve it all, and gain the highest position in our respective fields. We encourage people to learn arrogance, develop splintered highly specialized skills, value work above family and friends, put our own research above our responsibility to teach our students, forfeit our spirits as the process of due course in med school, tear each other down, refuse to cooperate, believe it is normal to never have time to care for our children, and so on.

But, brash and burly people are more often bullies than courageous, a person who gets to the top through ruthless competition and prides herself on cutting down everyone in her way is not strong, but one who has replaced her authentic self with a self image, inert, static, and unable to grow. The med student who has closed herself off to empathy and compassion, even for herself, because it was expected of her lives in a hollow empty shell of the rich and powerful being she once was, the one she was born to be. The person who is so off balance that she allows herself to become single-mindedly obsessed with writing the perfect novel, getting the perfect hair cut, or being the perfect teacher, actor, and so on is not living her life, but chasing after shadows of what her life might have been. These people might be at the top of their field, but why should that matter if, in gaining the world, they’ve lost themselves?

Standards have an important place in living, it’s just that their place is not above human flourishing. Our culture often sells us the myth that we are what we do. Are we who we are, or only who others want us to be?

The problem with equating excellence with achievement, honor with being honored, doing your best with doing it right, and success with status:
Is it always getting it right that makes your life worth living, or is it more getting it wrong honorably? Again, I think the latter is the ideal, not the former, not perfection at the expense of your acting authentically. Because often people get so caught up in being the best, getting it right, that they forget who they are. I think people should stop being afraid of getting it wrong and be really afraid of getting it right, badly.

Not everyone can be, or even wants to be, the best at something either. What happens when you fulfill everyone’s highest expectations of you and die regretting that all along you lived someone else’s life? Who are you? You don’t know, because you never took the time or opportunities to find out. That’s not an ideal, it’s a tragedy.

In part 3 I’ll discuss one person’s partial and incomplete, imperfect solution for breaking out of the cycle of perfectionism and the dual fears of success and failure that accompany it. It is my own point of view, as I can only speak for myself. It’s also subject to a myriad of changes, as most things in life are.