I feel an evolution happening within me—a revolution really. I’m beginning to feel free in a way I haven’t before. I’m beginning to feel settled, on the inside.
For decades, I’ve been trying to figure out how to live authentically. I recognized when I was in my mid-twenties that I was struggling to allow myself to be seen. I had developed a habit of hiding behind what I’ve come to think of as my costume, the outer me that I projected to all others.
On the inside, I was someone different from the person everyone thought they knew. I had learned how to observe what people expected from me, what made people respond to me, and how to contort myself into these shapes. When I was very young, I wasn’t conscious of doing this. But as I matured into adulthood, I became aware of the disconnect between my inner and outer selves. It manifested as a tension that threatened to rip me apart. I managed to cross the breaking point without being swallowed, and I’ve been slowly making my way across the other side ever since.
But I’m still not living authentically. Yes, it’s gotten a lot easier to reveal myself in some situations, but there are still too many instances when I bend and twist myself. Why do I do this?
Finally completing a draft of the memoir I’d been trying to write for more than ten years has propelled me deeper into this exploration of why I behave the way I do. This writing has been a way of researching me. And I’ve discovered that I have not valued myself. That I do not value myself.
Here’s what I think happened: As a very young child, I learned to associate the things I did with my value to the important people in my life. If I did the “right” things, I was rewarded with positive feedback and interactions. If I did the “wrong” things, I was either reprimanded, disparaged, or ignored. “Right” and “wrong” in this scenario had nothing to do with morality or legality, though sometimes rules were a factor. “Right” equated to approval; “wrong” equated to disapproval. Simple as that.
Carry this thinking forward: By the time I approached adulthood, I had internalized this methodology of determining what I should or shouldn’t do based on how I perceived others would approve or disapprove. Subconsciously, I suppressed my own values in order to appease the values of others. This led to some disastrous decision making, with long-range ramifications.
Valuing myself would mean making decisions based on what is most important to me. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Only for me, it’s not, because many times when I’m faced with a decision, I get a foreboding I don’t know feeling that often leads to a what will so-and-so think feeling. I describe these as “feelings” because, up until recently, I did not have words to express this phenomenon; I only had this vague sensation of being confused about what I should do, a feeling of dread that whatever decision I made would be wrong in some way, that there was no way to make a decision I would be satisfied with.
To value myself means I would have to believe that I have worth no matter what I do or don’t do, that I am important if I do a thing or if I don’t do anything. I have value simply because I am a living human being.
I usually feel that I need to justify myself. I typically focus much more on what I haven’t accomplished, on what I don’t have, on what I never had than I focus on what I have done and what I do have. I dwell on all I am not. I forget about all that I am.
As I said, I realized a long time ago that I had an issue with allowing people to know the real me, the person I am on the inside. This would require putting my hopes and dreams out into the universe without expectations. And I have been all about expectations.
But lately, I find myself saying “no” at times when, in the past, I would have felt compelled to say “yes.” And I’m wanting to say “yes” now to things I have a track record of running from. I realize now that when I get that I don’t know feeling, I have to examine deeper: Am I unsure because I fear disapproval—meaning, if I say “yes” I’m likely to regret it? Or am I unsure because I fear being authentic—meaning, if I say “no” I’m likely to regret it? The fear of disapproval often makes me agree to do things I really shouldn’t take on; the fear of being authentically known leads me turn down things I really should try.
Both of these fears keep me from being whole. I want to be whole. To be real. I want to let go of worry. I want to throw away my costume. All of my costumes.
I want to be me—just me—always, everywhere. In order to accomplish this, I have to be aware of and admit to who I am and who I am not. Again, this sounds easy, right? Ahem. Doing this means I need to become comfortable with how small my life is, how small I am. And also, with how large my life is, how large I am. I must remind myself that I have already lived a very full life, that I have already accomplished important goals I had set for my life. I must acknowledge everything of value to me that I have right here, right now: my family, my home, the place where I live, the time I’m able to spend as I please, the peace in my life, the joy, the beauty.
I must reprogram my subconscious thinking. In order to do that, for some time I will need to be vigilant about recognizing my reactions, identifying the what and the why of them, and consciously engaging in a decision making process in which my own values—what is important to me for my life—trump everyone else’s.
And I must stop chastising myself—for taking so long to heal, for not being as accomplished as I’d like to be, for not achieving more sooner. I need to be kinder to myself. I need to be on my own side.
I am flawed and I am valuable.
Family has always been most important to me, and I have set up my life in a way that supports the strength and health of my family first and foremost. It’s no accident that I became a stay-at-home mom after my first child was born. This was always my plan, even before there was an actual child to consider.
Second on the list of priorities for my life has always been self-expression. This has taken various forms over the years: I’ve kept journals, I’ve composed and performed songs, I’ve written poems and essays and stories and blogs. Self-expression for me equals creativity.
Money is not important to me. Please don’t misunderstand—I’m in favor of earning money and I panic at the thought of not having enough money to live on. But panic is not a value, it’s just plain old fear, and a life lived in fear is no life at all. I’m smart enough that I’d never allow myself or my family to go bankrupt if I could help it, but I’m not motivated in a meaningful way by the prospect of earning money.
Who I am and who I’m not. And becoming comfortable with that reality.
Writing has been important in my life since I was very young, and it began in the privacy of my childhood bedroom, in notebooks I never intended for anyone else to read. The idea of publishing my writing began to take hold much later, when I was fully grown and entirely independent. I never published anything before I turned forty.
These past several years, I’ve struggled with this notion that respected writers must follow a certain trajectory, must want certain things, must be a certain way. This was my need for approval kicking in hard. This was my insecurity about beginning so late in life.
Hell, forget about respected writers. A strong woman in her mid-forties should want certain things, be a certain way, shouldn’t she? She should have accomplished something outside of home. She should earn her own money. The last thing on earth I ever wanted to be was weak.
Here’s what I forgot: Today, right now, this minute I value the exact same things I did when I was a little girl in my bedroom writing in my first journal. I need the same things—a loving, supportive family and a means of expressing myself creatively.
One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” I want to spend my days enjoying my family and creating new work to send out into the world. That’s it. My life goals in a single sentence. When everything I do serves these goals, I will be living authentically.
Here’s the thing about being the kind of writer that I am: Putting down words on paper and then sending that written piece out into the world is equivalent to making a piece of art out of materials found within myself and then putting it on public display. Imagine bits of brain matter and blood and intestines arranged on a canvas. I don’t always manage to create a piece with my words that conveys to a reader what I hoped it might, but everything I write incorporates a real part of me.
For a person who has spent her entire life struggling against the urge to hide, writing down words that are true and sending those words out into the world feels like throwing open a door to the secret room inside myself where I’ve kept the real me safely stored and inviting strangers off the street to come in and poke around with a sharp stick.
But the evolution happening within me these days is in large part due to the writing. The writing is something I need, something I must continue to do, even when it hurts, even when it fails, even though some days I want more than anything to not be seen at all by anyone. Some days I want to slam the door shut and scream at everyone go away!
These are the days I have to repeat kind words to myself. These are the days I have to make lists of what I do that is good, that sustains the people I love, that constitutes another small yet important step on my creative path. I have to speak to myself the way I would speak to one of my children—with kindness and encouragement.
I have to value myself, exactly as I am right now. And then take another step.