I always know when it’s time to sit down and write, because my brain gets full to overflowing and I can’t fully process any of the things swimming around up in there. Lately I’ve been thinking and wanting to write about: dehumanization (h/t Dr. Brené Brown); life and love lessons to share with my nieces; fears about how the world around us is changing, people and connections devolving; defense mechanisms – how they reveal themselves and what we can do to recognize, abide, and overcome…
It’s a lot. As usual. 🙂
But right now, all I can think about is how very free to be me* I feel these days, and how much of a 180 that is from most of my life. What an impact it’s had on my sense of self, my sense of security, my sense of belonging and my place in the world.
*With this comes the very necessary awareness that a lot of this freedom stems from being a white cis het woman in America. While being a woman has its own built-in challenges (harassment, lower pay, healthcare decisions being made by old white men, etc.), it is, for me, not compounded by intersectional challenges of skin color, sexual preference, or gender identity. All the more reason it’s on me to do the work of learning how to be not just an ally, but an accomplice.
So, with all of that said, here’s what I mean.
I’m not sure when or where it started, or what caused it (although I have some ideas), but at some point in my early years, I came to the conclusion that I needed to be someone other than myself for people to like me. For people to want to spend time with me. For people to stick around. I felt like I wasn’t good enough as-is, so I would take on characteristics of those with whom I spent time, whose company I wanted to keep, those from whom I sought acceptance or love. I figured, the more like them I tried to be, the more likely they’d want to be around me.
The problem was that I could only pretend to be like one person at a time. I couldn’t emulate more than one because it was too hard, too confusing… so I wound up having one really good friend at a time, or a boyfriend, but rarely both at the same time and certainly not more than one good friend at a time. At some point in those relationships, I’d realize the persona I’d been trying on no longer fit, which meant the relationship itself would fizzle and I’d move on.
The friendships were always “easier” to sever. It was the relationships that were a struggle, because my entire self worth was wrapped up in the other person, making sure I did whatever I could for them to like me, and when it didn’t seem to work, I’d double down and try harder. Take it personally when it eventually and not surprisingly didn’t work out.
Even into my 30’s and 40’s, much to my shame and chagrin, I found myself denying who I really am in an attempt to make a go of it with someone else. I’d leave my critical thinking skills by the door, my common sense in the trash, and let my sad and desperate heart do the “thinking.” And by that, I mean I’d deny what I knew to be true – that the person wasn’t at all a good fit, and that I shouldn’t be anywhere near that relationship, such as it may have been. On occasion, they were good dudes who just weren’t right for ME. In a lot of cases, I knew deep down they were abusive, manipulative, or otherwise harmful, but instead of standing up for the real me, I’d try to get smaller and fit into the space that might could occupy part of this person’s life, if they’d be so kind.
The hustle for worthiness, as Brené says.
Like, the last person I dated before meeting my husband (eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!! still not old!! SO WEIRD!!!!! hearts and stars!! <3), for example. If you had a list of every bad thing you could find in a person, he’d meet all the criteria. You’d think, if you know me at all, that I wouldn’t give someone like that a 2nd look. And maybe it just had to get THAT BAD for me to break this lifelong habit of mine, who knows? Anyway. It wasn’t long – like, a month, maybe? – before I started getting anxiety around him, around our situation… all of it. And the more I doubled down to try and make it work, the more anxious I became. It affected my work, my school, my friendships… all because I was trying to force this thing to happen when it never should have. Friendships lost, quality of work suffered, my ability to focus and tend to regular life things all but disappeared, all because my brain was too busy trying to figure out WTAF I was doing, and why.
Certainly, anxiety is bound to happen when you’re trying to have a healthy relationship with an unhealthy person; there is no way to meet crazy with sane and have it come out okay. The two don’t mix, and in fact, the crazy can – and usually does – start to wear off. But that anxiety, though. It was telling me something. Not just that he was unhealthy, sick, and not worthy of my time and effort… but that I was going against who I am by being there in the first place. Denying what I want and need and deserve, and have every right to expect in a relationship.
I shouldn’t have to make myself small to be with someone else. I shouldn’t have to change or hide who I am to get someone to like me. I shouldn’t have to pretend to be something I’m not, pretend to like or want something I don’t, just for the sake of someone else’s favor.
I’m married to someone with whom I feel safe to be completely and entirely and unabashedly ME. I can sing and dance in the grocery store while we’re shopping; he smiles and looks at me like he just discovered a way to love me even more than he already does. There isn’t a single thing I’ve thought or felt that I couldn’t share with him, even if it was embarrassing or made me cry; he will always respond with a kind and loving heart. He thinks I’m smart, funny, competent, and beautiful, even on the days when I definitely don’t. There hasn’t been one single day when I felt like he was attempting to manipulate me, to lie, to try and get me to be anything other than who I am… and instead, he is just excited to get to know the real me even better.
Talk about freedom.
THIS is what it’s all supposed to feel like. Our relationship isn’t work, because we’re both willing participants in it. All of it. Yes, sometimes we talk about hard or scary things, but that’s not really work, either. It’s what you do when you feel safe enough to go there with it, if you’re at all inclined to dig deeper and show your true self to the other. The only insecurities I’ve ever suffered with him were old things that I needed to let go of, and that’s just going to be a work in progress.
But it’s not just my relationship with my husband (heheheheh); it’s how I show up in the rest of my life, too. I work in a place where I absolutely get to be myself, too, and am loved and appreciated for it. I am honest and direct, and make no bones about how I feel. I might do well to temper that sometimes, but man it feels good to be honest and tell the truth as you see it. My opinions and insights (and humor) are valued just as much as the work I do, and that’s one of the many reasons I’ve been reticent to look elsewhere for a new job, despite money being a significant (and growing) stressor. You don’t find workplaces like mine very often.
I wonder sometimes if this “settling into my own skin” business has anything to do with getting older, and realizing the folly of placing my self worth in the hands of others. I mean, it sounds funny to say that, considering I just waxed poetic about how free I am to be myself with my partner and my co-workers… but they don’t hold the key to my worth; they simply give me the safe, comfortable freedom to explore and express it, and then reflect it back.
When you try to deny who you are, what you want, what you need… it prevents you from showing up. I mean, you can’t. Right? If you’re busy pretending to be something you’re not, then you can’t fully show up anywhere. And that means you’re not being accepted for who you are, and you know it. Deep down, you KNOW you’re relating and engaging under false pretenses, even with the best of intentions. If you are in a relationship where you feel like you’re settling, just to make it work? You’re not showing up, and you’re selling yourself short, if not out. Whether it’s because you’d rather do that than be lonely, or you are convinced there’s nothing better out there, or you think this is how it’s supposed to be, or maybe you realize it’s because you just don’t think you deserve to try harder and do better (or different)… authentic connection can only happen when you show ALL THE WAY UP.
And if the person you’re with does anything to try and prevent that, then maybe it’s time to find someone who won’t. Find the person who will celebrate your arrival instead, someone who gives you the room to keep blooming.
It is all of this that finds me trusting my voice, finally seeing and knowing who I really am. Trusting I have insight and wisdom and a heart to share, that I have every right to be here; to want what I want, seek what I’m after, to demand and expect I be seen and heard, just as I am. I still get scared on the inside that I’m a fraud or a fake and that other people will see it or figure it out, but I think that’s because I’ve got about 30 years of programming to undo. I am, in fact, smart, competent, funny, kind, insightful, and, as DeRay says, “flawed. & (still) worthy.”
I feel like I’m repeating a lot here, talking in a circle around what I’m really trying to say. I guess it just all comes down to the realization that I am finally comfortable in my skin most days, and now that I’m no longer trying to hide parts of myself, I can put all of me out there to pursue more. Like seeking true and real connection with others, whether via friendship, or a common goal (like getting people registered to vote and to the polls!!!), or whatever. Now that I know and (mostly) love who I truly am, now that I’ve settled into a comfortable space in my own heart, I can show up everywhere else. I don’t have to hide from the people who know me and could call me out; I don’t have to pretend to be something or someone I’m not; I don’t have to force friendships or relationships… I just get to show the hell up.
It’s pretty spectacular.