Tag Archives: authenticity

Responsibility

One of my favorite things about life is that changing one subtle thread in the pattern of our behavior and identity can change the whole picture in unexpected but beautiful ways. The overculture promises this if we buy the right product, but that’s a hollow promise. If we really want change, we have to work internally, which is messy, confusing work, often filled with anguish—much less sexy and fun than buying a new pair of shoes or trying a different hair color.

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As I navigate through the process of submitting my first book manuscript to agents and publishers, the necessity to write a strong and appropriate query letter, synopsis, autobiography and pitch has forced me to come further out of hiding than I ever have before.

While sitting on the lifeguard stand at work last week, it occurred to me that one word sums up the change spurred by my creative ambitions and rippling into all areas of my life.

Responsibility.

This is an amusing twist of irony because I have always been overly responsible about everyone and everything other than myself. I’ve believed myself responsible for the health and happiness of every person and animal around me since I was a child. When things become challenging or unpleasant, I’ve blamed myself. When accidents and misunderstandings occur, I’ve blamed myself. When others make self-destructive or boneheaded choices, I’ve blamed myself.

It goes without saying that I’ve certainly blamed myself for all my own real and imagined flaws, weaknesses, mistakes, blue eyes, wide hips, wild hair, cellulite and countless other things.

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Futility doesn’t begin to describe the kind of life this behavior creates.

The literary submission process was not the only catalyst prompting me to reverse my old pattern of taking on responsibility that doesn’t belong to me and ignoring that which does, but it’s certainly a big one.

I’ve been so uncomfortable with trying to present my creative work in a professional, objective, supportive, respectful manner that I haven’t had the time or attention to sit back and view the last two or three weeks with any kind of objectivity, but that particular hour of lifeguarding gave me the pause I needed to see the changing pattern of several different areas in my life.

In my primary relationship I’m gradually becoming more authentic and less concerned about taking responsibility for the needs, wants and preferences of my partner. He’s a grown man, intelligent and able to speak for and take care of himself. He’s also able to adapt, adjust and take his lumps like everyone else. It’s not my job in life to see to it that he (or anyone else) is never uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable all the time, and I manage to live through it.

Letting go of what I was never responsible for in the first place is an enormous relief, but the truth is I’ve always preferred caring for others to caring for myself. It’s not that I don’t know who I am and what I want. I’m not a bit confused about that. Since I came to Maine, I’ve learned to know and love myself.

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What keeps me caring for others rather than myself is the belief that I’m the only person who can love me. Choosing to be more open and real about my own needs, wants and preferences, even though they might conflict (and often do) with those around me, seems like a life-and-death risk. Even sitting here writing about It gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want to be responsible for myself in this way.

I have a warm, gregarious, big-hearted friend who frequently invites me on activities and play dates of all kinds. At least half the time I say no. I cringe when I say it. I worry. I brace myself for the end of our friendship every time. But no is the honest answer—the real me. I’m a hermit. I like nothing so much as a quiet day or evening at home. My few social needs are well met, and I have no desire to be out and about in the world more than I already am. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty …

See? There it is again. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty, as do I, and that means I must take responsibility for my truths: knowing them, speaking them, and accepting that others will inevitably be affected by them.

I don’t want the responsibility of making anyone uncomfortable or unhappy. Ever. Under any circumstances. (Well, unless I’m really pissed off, like when the fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy at the pool announced during an exercise class that people with tattoos don’t have jobs and he wouldn’t have any such person in his house. Note: I have a tattoo on my left shoulder that’s quite obvious in my bathing suit, which is my work attire (you know, for my job), and I was present at the time. Also, two of my colleagues have tattoos, clearly visible in their bathing suits, not to mention many of our patrons. Fortunately, I’m able to be professional and keep my obnoxious opinions to myself in public.)

One of the greatest gifts of my current relationships is how often I’m forced to be authentic and speak my truth, trusting that those I interact with are adults who can deal with their feelings about my choices (I’m talking to you, fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy), just as I deal with my feelings about theirs. If others are not adults and refuse to take responsibility for their own feelings, well that’s not really about me at all, and those are not the kind of relationships I’m available for.

Suddenly, everywhere I look, I’m watching myself openly say yes or no, ask for what I want and/or need, state my feelings and preferences without apology or justification, and present my creative work with pride, love and belief in its value.

When I reread this, I smile. It sounds so smooth! It’s not, though. I feel a lot of anxiety as I come out from under cover. Challenging these old patterns gives me a greasy feeling of imminent doom. How can I expect anyone to love or even tolerate me if I insist on being a real person with needs and preferences? How can I admit openly what I think, feel, need and create?

No, it’s not smooth. It’s terrifying and exhausting.

It’s also exhilarating and freeing. Life is a lot easier when I give up taking care of anyone but myself. One of the great gifts of aging has been my gradual journey from a people-pleasing shell to sensual creativity, warty wisdom and vigorous connection to my own power and intuition.

Responsibility for myself. My daily crime.

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Why Am I the One?

This week I’ve spent hours working on finalizing a query letter for publishers and literary agents, as well as shaping a 1-2-page synopsis of my first manuscript.

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I approached this task in my usual methodical way. I researched writing queries and synopses.

As so often happens, I found lots of advice, much of it conflicting.

I took notes, bookmarked sites and started rough drafts. My research mode doesn’t usually last more than an hour or two. At the point when much of what I’m finding is repetitive and I feel more bored than interested I know it’s time to switch to writing, no matter how tentatively or sloppily. One can’t begin editing and refining unless there are words on the page.

Out of all the templates, formulas, critiques and examples of “successful” queries and synopses, one shining question stood out, and I didn’t find it on a search. I found it on a literary agency website. “Tell us why you were the one who had to write this book.”

Why am I the one who had to write this book?

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I’ve been carrying this question around with me all week, as I lifeguard and teach swimming lessons, as I spend hours working on my laptop, as I sit in the barn and sort through boxes of things from my old life.

I realize that this question is the opposite of my usual frame, no matter what I’m doing. My conviction of my own inadequacy and that others will invariably be disappointed in me means that I’m focused on all the reasons why I’m not qualified to write a book—or do almost anything else. What makes the submission task so daunting is coming up with a realistic, concise, clear evaluation and presentation of my creative work—and I’m extremely resistant to trying.

Yet the hardest work of the query has actually been going on for months, or even years, as I wrote, edited, rewrote, re-edited, and nurtured a tentative, almost shameful feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and amazement that I actually wrote a book—a long one!

Thinking about why I had to be the one to write The Hanged Man turns me away from all the things I’m not and asks me for what I am.

I have little confidence in anyone else finding my work valuable, but the fact is I find it—and myself—valuable, so I can write about that. I can speak for myself and my vision. I cringe when I’m asked to write a short biography, but I can write about why I’m the one who had to write this book.

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As I began to answer that question, writing the query suddenly got easier. I was able to evaluate my creation more clearly, and find a comfortable balance between overconfidence and no confidence at all. I stopped worrying that I’ve never been published before, I’ve won no contests or awards, and I’ve received no formal or traditional higher education for writing, and started thinking about all the reasons why I, and only I, had to write this particular piece of work.

It made a nice change.

Obviously, I want to get published, but I wonder if the submission process itself is not the biggest payoff for me, regardless of the outcome. The necessity to stand up, speak up, support and believe in myself in order to be the writer I am is driving me to push myself in ways that nothing else could, because nothing else is as important to me. It would be much easier to coast along with my old paradigm: I’m no good, and neither is anything I think, say, make or do. It’s my familiar story, and I feel anxious when I think about rewriting it.

I notice this tension between believing in myself and having no confidence in myself at work, too. I watch a colleague teach a water exercise class and admire the way he structures the class and his manner with the class participants. I think about the next time I’ll be teaching that class, and how I’m so much less than my coworker. I prepare and worry, knowing I won’t measure up, knowing the class would rather have another teacher, knowing I won’t do it right.

Then I get into the water, stop thinking and anticipating, assess the participants and their physical and social needs, and off we go. I have a good time. I feel calm and competent. I stop fearing that I’m not good enough and give it my best. By the time the class is over, I wonder what all my fuss was about.

Why am I the one who had to write this book? Why am I the one who has to teach a class on any given day?

Maybe simply because I’m the one who did write it, and teach it. Maybe I was engaging with those activities because I was the best one for that particular job.

“Why can’t you be like …?”

Others have asked me that question, but not as often as I’ve asked it of myself.

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I can’t be like all the other wonderful, competent, gifted, beautiful people in the world because I’m not them, that’s why. I can’t follow their paths. Their definition of success may not be the same as mine. I can’t look like them, teach like them, write like them or make choices the way they do.

The piece I never think about is that they can’t be like me, either. Because they’re not me.

We can learn from each other. We can support each other. We can tear each other down. At the end of the day, though, we can only be ourselves. Everyone else is taken.

I have a query letter I feel good about now. I followed traditional conventions and standards for such a letter—to a point. But I also let my own voice and style shine through. No one but me could have written the query or the manuscript accompanying it.  The day I finished the query I submitted to my first agent. The next agent I want to approach requires a synopsis and a query letter.

Sigh. Back to the drawing board. This time for a synopsis only I can write.

For the most part, I love living the life I have. I don’t find myself or my writing either inadequate or disappointing. Maybe an agent and publisher out there will agree with me.

I’ll never know if I don’t try.

And I’ll find my own path through the query and submission process, a path only I can make.

My daily crime.

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No Is a Complete Sentence

One of my first posts on this blog was about saying no . As I learned emotional intelligence and began applying it to my life, I started to understand how imprisoned I’d been by my inability to say no.

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In the interests of full disclosure, let me tell you that saying no in the context of long-term relationships in which I’ve never said it before has resulted in unforeseen heartache and grief. I rejoice in reclaiming my power and authenticity, but some of my nearest and dearest are not celebrating my growth and healing, and connections I thought were unbreakable have, in fact, broken.

These days, I immediately exit any relationship in which my no is consistently ignored. At this point in my life I’m not interested in connection, intimate, workplace or social, in which no is not an acceptable answer.

In my experience, people who refuse to accept the answer no fall into two camps. The first camp is the controllers. Their goal is power. They view anyone with the ability to say no as an insult and a threat, and immediately react in the form of intimidation, emotional meltdowns, rage, manipulation and constant pressure to change the no to a yes.

The second camp is those who can’t say no themselves and are infuriated by those who can. Their goal is to undermine the power of others so they can feel better about their own disempowered state. They’ve stored up years of resentment around all the times they said yes when they wanted to say no, resentment which they vomit up at once if someone says no to them. They throw around words like “duty,” “responsibility,” “loyalty” and “obligation.” No is a personal rejection, an abandonment and a cruel betrayal. They frequently have all kinds of expectations of others. They use the weapon of shame.

These camps can and do overlap, but there’s no mistaking the resistance to no.

I confess that it still stuns me that long-term primary relationships have fallen down and died right in front of me because I said no. I’ve even checked out my perception, disbelieving my own experience and the words I was hearing.

“So, from your point of view, me saying no is unforgiveable?”

“Yes, it’s unforgiveable.”

So far, I am still unforgiven, because I stood by my no.

Unbelievable.

I ask myself if it’s possible I’ve never said no in the context of these relationships before. It seems unlikely. Perhaps I’ve just never said it about anything that mattered to the other party? I resolved to mindfully practice saying no, and also to observe carefully the effects of such a response.

I immediately discovered that the effects of saying no on me included panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD and extreme stress. All my life interactions with others has consisted of “reading” them in order to please. Any question they might ask was answered in whatever way I thought they most wanted to hear.

Effectively, every question was a test. If I passed the test, my reward was knowing I had pleased and was temporarily safe and tolerated. If I failed, which usually meant I had forgotten myself and answered honestly, the consequence was displeasure, abuse, guilt and shame and/or (worst of all) some kind of a scene.

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Learning to say yes or no based on my own desires meant finding and reclaiming myself, my needs, my authenticity and my power, and trying to ignore what I knew others wanted from me. Saying yes or no became a test of my own courage and honesty, as well as a test of faith and trust in those close to me.

I could hear no from them. Could they hear it from me?

This has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.

I’ve been reading an important book: The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Every woman in the world would benefit from reading this lifesaving and validating book. Here, too, is a discussion of the universally important red flag of refusing to accept no.

We are shaped by our culture, and in this culture women are taught to be cooperative and accommodating. Men are taught to be persistent. These behaviors are deeply embedded and reinforced in our media, entertainment and arts.

Women are not taught to say a simple, assertive, direct no and stick to it. We weaken our no with explanation, justification, mistrust of our own instincts and the desire to not make a scene, be unkind or hurt or embarrass anyone.

The instant a woman allows her no to be negotiated, she has handed her power over and sent a clear message that she’s prepared to be a victim. Strangers, family members, friends and colleagues who decline to hear no are either seeking control or refusing to give it up.

Sadly, the willingness to say no will not protect us. We may still be murdered, raped and otherwise abused, but the ability to recognize a danger signal like not accepting no for an answer is an important survival skill that can help us avoid violence before the worst happens.

Ultimately, no is about boundaries.  No matter how cherished a relationship may be, it’s not healthy if we’re not free to honestly say yes or no. Those who consistently violate our boundaries or punish us for having them in the first place are those who have benefitted the most from us having none in the past.

I value my power to say yes or no far more than any object, possession, sum of money or relationship. The complete sentences of yes or no allow me to maintain my integrity and authenticity, support appropriate boundaries and contribute everything I am.

Saying no. My daily crime.

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