I have given up on my Starbuck’s barista. She just doesn’t care. What if when it came to living out my passion, I saw the rest of the world that way, and carried on accordingly?
Shrinking and shapeshifting to meet expectations
I’ve always been overly concerned about what people think about me. As I open my mouth to speak, I am already reading their eyes and facial expressions for a hint of their reaction. Did I come off too harshly? Could I have been nicer? Was that too much to ask? I can feel myself shrink inside mid-sentence as I shift to accommodate their perceived, unvoiced requests.
Throughout the years, I’ve gotten the sense that my presence and voice are larger than the norm. While this undoubtedly often a source of pride, it can also prick me at times. So, I’ve tried (and failed miserably) at different points to be smaller. When I was in gospel choir in undergrad, my attempts to take on a more quiet persona probably looked more like an extrovert going through an uncomfortable mute period.
I wanted to not be known as the loquacious soprano–the one who earned “unsatisfactory” grades in high school for talking too much in Spanish class, who talked onstage during a performance of Vivaldi with the other violinists because she wasn’t playing during that movement, and who now was talking whenever the choir director was focused on any section other than the sopranos. Wait, was I a soprano or an alto? I wasn’t paying attention.
After a few weeks of trying on a more docile personality, some of the members approached me. “What is wrong with you? You are not yourself!” I confessed to them that I honestly was trying to be better, to respond to what I thought others wanted. This in turn, had weirded them out. They could not figure out what was going on with me. Thus, they simply told me, “Just be you.”
I felt liberated by the realization that I did not need to shapeshift my entire personality, although it would be appreciated if I interrupted practice a bit less moving forward.
Focusing on what others think can be a huge distraction
Over the years, I’ve carried a bag of performances with me, reactions from others that taught me how to interact with the world. They have at times, led to hiding myself in the wings, when I would rather be vibrant and onstage.
Which leads me to this blog. Several times in the past few weeks, people have reacted positively to several of the things I’ve been working on in my personal life–namely, self-care. They ask me why I have not written about them. My honest response? “I wasn’t sure that everyone else needed to hear my approach.”
I was measuring my audience’s interest by the comments they left on the site, even though prior interactions with my audience have taught me that many are not only reading, but absorbing and applying my tips. I felt that because people weren’t leaving me comments, I had nothing positive, impactful, or meaningful to say. I figured they were getting their fill (and leaving their comments) elsewhere. So, without the breadcrumbs of positive feedback and affirmation, how would I know what I should talk about?
This conversation played itself out over and over again, as if I were waiting for the comment fairy to let me know it was okay to proceed.
My inner voice had been on a roll. I read so much from others on the subject of self-care, that I wasn’t quite sure what my voice would add. I guess the hype that was undoubtedly instilled in me at a young age that I was a “special sunflower” who would change the world had faded over time. What did I have to offer that was new? I noticed that we needed to hear from more women of color on this topic, but could I really fill that gap? What if someone else already had? I wanted certainty that there would be room for me at the table, that I would not have to experience discomfort or failure. I had unknowingly attached my passion to a wagon of scarcity, which drug down my creativity, potential, and willingness to take a risk. It also took a toll on my courage and confidence.
It was time to ditch the negativity. I knew that my experiences were not unique or singular, and that by sharing them, I could help others who were having similar thoughts. I knew what I wanted to discuss, things like How do we learn to love ourselves? How do we practice it even when we don’t really believe it inside? How do we start putting ourselves first?
My journey towards self-care
For the past few months, I’ve really been focusing on self-care. This has been informally curated on my Instagram page, where I take pictures of things that delight me in everyday life. I am slowly crawling out of a lifelong dedication to reacting to what others think of me, as this has led to an unhealthy prioritization of others over myself. Along the way, pictures of nature, random t-shirts, various cartoons, and reflection on what I can do is helping me to overcome internal messaging that reinforces only what I cannot do. I share quotes that empower me as I move away from cliches that are spiritual sounding, but have been depraved of context and balance.
Along the way, I realized (probably for the 81st time in my life) that I actually had it inside out. I could only love others as a reflection of the love that I gave myself. Click To Tweet
And so, each day, I find myself waging the war of self-compassion, the opposition being my inner voice, inner critic, or whatever you identify with that tells you to stay on the couch and try life again tomorrow. I try to engage her as she overreacts to the things people do or say, stripping them of intention or nuance. After all, she does the same with me. Each day, I try to give her a hug and say, how about letting go of what everyone else thinks? Some days she agrees and we are successful in having a pretty chill day. And on other days, she isn’t really feeling it and all of my feelings get attached to everything people say or do like cat hair on a rug…with disastrous results.
So, the next day, I try again. I wake up and remind myself of things that I am grateful for. Then, I remind myself to act with gentle compassion as my to-do list comes hurtling towards me. I try to remind myself that the alarm does not mean that we are off to the races and must finish everything with excellence, all at the same time. I try to pace myself so that I won’t burn out. We are still working on all of the above.
I want to close today’s post with a few of the quotes that are moving me right now. I hope to do a better job of being transparent about my journey, and to write as if no one is reading, and as if that does not matter at all. I know that in order to move forward, to make my practice reflective of my values, I must write for my own satisfaction and service. If that helps others, all the better.
“The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much, and forgetting that you are special too.” Ernest Hemingway
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Rumi
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” Toni Morrison
Love after love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Derek Walcott, Collected Poems, 1948-1984
And finally, I leave you with a quote that helps me put fame and success in its appropriate context. It helps me to see myself in a way that provides truth and gentle redirection to my inner critic.
Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.
Henri J.M. Nouwen