Sometimes kind words fall on deaf ears.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” my friends would often tell me, and I never knew how to respond. In fact, it was strangely validating. I felt that I had to be hard on myself, to push for an extra measure of excellence that might ward off criticism or rejection. If I could pinpoint and eradicate faults before others identified them, I could spare myself pain.
I believed in this process, I put my faith in my ability to protect myself with vigilance and attention to detail. I never expected anyone to accept me as I was; I simply wasn’t good enough.
Where I got this idea, how these messages were instilled, when the mighty inner critic was born I cannot say. My best guess is around age 7 or 8, when self-awareness begins. I believe I have elementary school report cards on which teachers took note of my exacting habits, using words like “driven” and “ambitious” in ways I felt were affirming. What began as an effort to “be good” swelled to monster proportions as the years went by.
I quit drinking in order to fix the only perceptible imperfection in my otherwise great life. If I could just tweek that, all would be well. Nothing else need change. Thank God, it wasn’t that simple. In order to stay sober, I had to unearth the reason I drank and with that I had to reconsider the effectiveness of constant self-condemnation.
Even as I became more aware of my habits and their negative impact, I faltered to replace them. I had to imagine what it might feel like to be accepted as I am. In wide-eyed wonder, I’d consider “What if it didn’t matter if I said something dumb or wrong? What if i just made a mistake and it happened and I moved on?” I tried it. I went to the grocery store without makeup. I admitted it when I didn’t know how to do something. I stopped overscheduling myself, overcommitting, and overdoing in general.
Little by little, it came to me: I don’t have to earn my place in this world. It was mine to claim on the day I arrived in my mother’s arms. I already felt that way about my own children, and I believed it was true for everyone else. Then I stumbled upon the work of Brene Brown who gave such wonderful language and perspective to these ideas I struggled to understand. Her phrase “hustling for our worthiness” made it all so clear.
And then came another bonus of recovery. Just as I did not expect that healing from addiction would also mean undoing my entire concept of self-worth(lessness), neither did I realize that learning to value myself would change my appreciation for others.
You see, the belief that I was an unworthy person implied an inherent truth that human life can be valued in varying degrees. No one’s life is worth more than anyone else’s. There is no such scale. It doesn’t exist. It isn’t true.
I was always working to avoid being hurt by others, and this caused me to constantly judge and assess other people. Who might hurt me? Who might be critical? Who to avoid, to befriend, to please? The harder I was on myself, the harder I was on those around me. I learned that being a people pleaser is a form of manipulation. Manipulation?! Yes, and that one really turned me around.
It is all starting to sink in, and I see the difference in how I relate to myself and others. Last week I attended a She Recovers retreat (fabulous, and wonderfully described here by Anne of “A in Sobriety”) and nervously entered into a sharing circle with 28 other women. In the old days, I’d have been trying to figure out my place in a group like that; sizing up each person and preparing how to handle them. Thanks to the work of recovery, I looked at each new face and wondered what we could learn from one another. 28 new friends! It never even occurred to me to brace myself for rejection or to prove myself worthy. I’m sad that I ever thought I had to live that old way, and grateful that I can see things differently now.
I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Wayne Dyer speak earlier this year, and something he said resonated with me. He explained that when an orange is squeezed, orange juice comes out for one simple reason: because that’s what is inside. Likewise, he went on, we can also expect that what comes out of us when we are under pressure is an indication of what we hold inside.
If we fill our hearts with anger, we lash out under pressure. If we are full of hatred, out it sprays when the chips are down. And if we fill ourselves with love, positivity, grace, and acceptance, that is what we spread to others even in the worst of times.
That is the dot on the horizon I want to get to, the one I want to be: a woman who responds kindly in all circumstances.