The last few months were a bit of a mini earthquake for me. The big earthquake had already happened before, when I lost all that I had held dear, my marriage, my emotional home and my job satisfaction. The mini earthquake came as an aftermath of what had happened. It’s all the realizations I have had since. And they are no less disturbing than the previous events. The only thing that’s “mini” about them is that they are not easily seen on the outside. As they happened on the inside.
I’ve have basically come down to a point zero where, for the first time in my adult life, I’m questioning the very basis of my previous fundamental beliefs about life and myself. For the simple reason that those hardcore pain events have shaken me up so deeply, so violently, that I can no longer go on as I did before.
The result, or intermediate result, I’m starting to realize, is not necessarily a bad one. In fact, I already have a hunch it will be a good one, from retrospect. Only, I’m not yet able to harvest the fruits of my labour. So far I’ve only come to realize that a lot of my old habits and beliefs have turned dysfunctional and that I’m well advised to follow the inner voice that is telling me, very clearly and loudly, to shed them.
Have you ever tried to shed an old habit, one that you have cultivated for your entire life? Well, then you know. It’s not a piece of cake. It’s more like a mission impossible. The bigger the guns you get out to fight them, the harder they fight back. I have, however, discovered a little secret. Okay, I’m not the first one to discover it. But it’s well hidden in the heaps of literature and videos you find online, buried under mountains of good advise of how to rid yourself of them.
The secret is not to try to rid yourself of them.
The secret is to become aware of what need the habit serves. And then to address that need and fulfill it differently, appropriately.
One big turning point for me was a book I recently read. Present over perfect. Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, by Shauna Niequist. It deals with her long practiced drive to perform and to be perfect at the highest level in her job, without break or regard for her body and energy reserves.
It had slowly but surely drained her to the extent that she could no longer scrape together the energy to do what she really wanted to do but what somehow always came last, when all the to-dos were ticked off (and they never were): to be with her family, take care of the ones she loves, including herself. Have some fun. Enjoy herself.
I’ve always given my best energy to things outside myself, believing that I’d be fine, that I was a workhorse, that I didn’t need special treatment or babying or, heaven help me, self-care. Self-care was for the fragile, the special, the dainty. I was a linebacker, a utility player, a worker bee.
I kept marking paragraph after paragraph. So much of it applied to me, too. Until I reached this one:
I believed that work would save me, make me happy, solve my problems; that if I absolutely wore myself out, happiness would be waiting for me on the other side of all that work. But it wasn’t. On the other side was just more work. More expectations, more responsibility. I’d trained a whole group of people to know that I would never say no, I would never say “this is too much.” I would never ask for more time or space, I never bow out.
And so they kept asking, and I was everyone’s responsible girl. And I was so depleted I couldn’t even remember what whole felt like. I felt used up by work, but of course it was I who was using work, not the other way around. I was using it to avoid something, to evade something. I was using it to prevent myself from becoming acquainted with the self who sat hidden by all the accomplishment.
This last sentence hit me like a rock. I was avoiding something? I had never thought of it that way. My reading slowed down, from frantic to very careful. And I reached this paragraph:
Here is what I know: I thought the doing and the busyness would keep me safe. They keep me numb. Which is not the same as safe, which isn’t even the greatest thing to aspire to.
So it all came down to the need to feel safe? From what?
From the fear of what would happen if I ever stopped being a responsible girl.
I felt catapulted back into my childhood where being a responsible girl had started. At some point it had become my way of staying out of trouble, trouble I could not control but that I could at least contain, by not speaking up, by suppressing my emotions, by denying my needs. By extinguishing that part of me that wanted to speak up and revolt but that would cause disapproval because it would disrupt my parents’ already tumultuous lives even more. Shutting off this part of me had become my coping mechanism. My roundabout way of feeling safe. And it served me well. Then.
It no longer does, though. A good thirty years later I sit here, looking at the rubbles of the life I once had, the accomplishments I have achieved and the fake success that I prided myself in. I can no longer ignore that something has gone terribly wrong – or right, depending on how you look at it. Either way, I am forced to look at what is now, and how it came about so that, hopefully, I will never have to experience it again.
So for the first time in a long time I just stopped – and turned around. To face what I was running away from and what would stoically follow me, as long as it would take, to tell me what it needed to tell me all along.
When you decide, finally, to stop running on the fuel of anxiety, desire to prove, fear, shame, deep inadequacy – when you decide to walk away from that fuel for a while, there’s nothing but confusion and silence. You’re on the side of the road, empty tank, no idea what will propel you forward. It’s disorienting, freeing, terrifying. For a while, you just sit, contentedly, and contentment is the most foreign concept you know. But you lean it, shocking as it is, day by day, hour by hour. You sit in your own skin, being just own own plain self. And it’s okay. And it’s changing everything.
The contentment, well, it’s still not quite here yet. It’s on the horizon, though. I can already see and feel it take shape. And already it has changed everything for me. The way I look at myself. At my urge to work like a worker bee. At my urge to be a responsible girl. Just like Shauna I have embarked on a journey, “retracing the steps I’ve taken across the last several years to find the woman I used to be – she’s definitely nowhere near perfect, but I like her better, and I’m determined to find her again.”
The moment I reached this point, the moment I did no longer reject my need to perform and to be perfect anymore, but embraced it for what it was – a way to escape my fear of not feeling safe – was the precise moment my need to perform and to be perfect subsided.
Weirdly, I don’t feel that urge anymore the way I used to. It still sometimes pulls at me. But it has lost a lot of its power, its stale grip on me. Because I’m learning new ways to deal with my fear and discovering another, more appropriate, way to feel safe, or rather less afraid of the uncertainty that goes along with being truly alive. The first step is to proceed slowly from now on. And allowing all that I have tried to outrun to catch up with me. To see if it actually feels as bad as I think it might. And then take it from there.