That feeling that something has to change … or else.
We’ve all felt it at one time or another.
Some people seem to feel it all the time.
Here’s the thing about insisting on change: the world will not change for you. Other people will not change for you. If you’re unhappy with the status quo in anything, job, relationships, your health, your financial condition, or anything else, the change that needs to take place is within yourself.
Not without yourself. Not your hair color, your clothing style, plastic surgery or a magical cure for whatever your particular health challenges are. Not winning the lottery. Not a drink from the Fountain of Youth. Not more of your favorite distractions and addictions. Not a new family, new friends or a new lover or partner. That’s all just gloss, and it will chip and crack and peel away like fingernail polish and there you’ll be. Again. Same old you. Same old challenges.
I don’t mean that we don’t need change in the world. I don’t
mean that at all. I’m not suggesting we all just throw up our hands and ignore
the injustices and cruelties, the greed and hatred around us. Working for
positive change is important.
Of course, we don’t necessarily agree on what positive change is … And there we still are, after that debate, with the feeling that something has to change, something big, something now, or we can’t hang on another minute.
The change I’m talking about is the hard kind of change, the kind we don’t want to make because it’s too much work. It would be so much easier if we could force others to accommodate us. Some people spend their whole lives trying unsuccessfully to control others and control their worlds. Wasted effort, and wasted lives.
Some people wait their whole lives for someone or something to change so they can be happy. A lifetime on hold waiting for customer service.
Real change is deep and dirty. It’s cleaning out our lifelong septic tanks for the first time and discovering they’re cracked and leaking stinking, sticky sludge into every aspect of our lives. It’s anguished memories and invisible habits. It’s toxic influences from those around us. It’s suppurating wounds and shame.
This is not victim shaming and blaming. This is a call to action. We can choose to stop being a victim.
That one choice, all by itself, is a huge change for someone who identifies as a victim.
It’s the hardest thing in the world to face our demons, to embrace our fears, to feel our feelings, to let go, to forgive, and to take responsibility for our own change. It’s messy, imperfect, deeply confusing, terrifying, and vulnerable.
Last week, Thursday approached, arrived and passed, and I had nothing. Nothing to post; no insights, inspiration or coherent questions. No journeys, organized notes, serenity or discipline.
What I did have was the feeling I was inadequate, ridiculously undisciplined and failing to manage my stress and anxiety. I had a collection of entirely made-up apocalyptic stories about the future and a migraine headache. I had worries about friends and their families, people who were sick and couldn’t get seen or tested for coronavirus or anything else. I had rumors about numbers of infected community people that couldn’t be either confirmed or denied. I had pacing, restlessness, climbing the walls, apathy, and a feeling of futility and disconnection I called depression. I had hours invested in online Mahjongg solitaire.
I also had squirrels in the ceiling of my attic aerie, scampering, wrestling, playing, gnawing, and making soft sweeping noises that sounded very much like making a nest. By day, the noise was distracting, even if I did smile in sympathy because it sounded like they were having so much fun. The gnawing, however, was maddening, as we could neither locate the exact location of the animal(s) or the access point(s). It sounded like they were going to come through the wall into the room any minute.
By night, their noisy activity was beyond distracting. As I lay staring up at the ceiling over my bed, I thought bitterly that they were having much more fun this spring than I am. They also had a lot more energy than me. Nice for some people to have a night of romance, play and planning for a family in a cozy, sheltered place.
Squirrels are rotten roommates.
My partner and I missed walking for a few days due to
weather (cold, windy, and more snow—Aargh!), and just feeling out of sorts in
When we finally did get out again during a breezy but
reasonably mild sunny afternoon, as we walked up the hill my partner asked me a
“Have you ever felt yourself to be a good girl?”
Wow. What a terrific question. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I had never asked myself that question before.
It didn’t take any thought.
One of the first things I knew about myself is that I was not a good girl. I am not a good girl. Not in any sense of the word. I’m not a good female. I wasn’t a good daughter, sister, mother or wife (especially wife!).
After that immediate knee-jerk response, though, I really
thought about the question, at which point I wondered what, exactly the
definition of good is. A little bell began ringing in the back of my head.
Hadn’t I written about good and bad in some other context lately?
As we walked that day, my partner and I played with the concept of being good or bad, how we form such pieces of identity, and how we are shaped and influenced by our self-definition. My partner said that being a “good girl” means being an obedient girl.
Well. If that’s true, no wonder I’ve never been a good girl! My best friend couldn’t truthfully call me obedient. I noticed that I immediately stopped feeling hopeless, worthless, tearful and miserable, thoroughly distracted by the conversation. In fact, I suddenly felt amused.
Somewhere inside me is a three-year-old who equates being good with feeling loved. I know, intellectually, that’s nonsense, but evidently I can’t quite get it emotionally. I keep thinking I’ve dealt with this thing as I’ve worked on my pernicious habit of people pleasing and deconstructed so many old beliefs and patterns, but a certain kind of stress and experience dumps me right back into my three-year-old self before I know what’s happening.
At that point, I temporarily forget every step of the long
journey I’ve made in reclaiming myself and my power.
I went back and found my post about good and bad creative work. It made me smile, because as I wrote it, it never occurred to me to take the concepts of good and bad a step further and think about them as they apply to who we believe we are as people.
Here’s a brief review of the definitions of good and bad from Oxford Online Dictionary:
Good: “To be desired or approved of,” “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad: “Of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”
So what have we got? Two entirely subjective black-and-white descriptors, that’s what we’ve got. Furthermore, neither have a thing to do with unconditional love, which is the only kind worth giving or receiving, as far as I’m concerned. “Love” predicated on compliance and obedience isn’t love at all, it’s a toxic mimic and a control tactic.
If being good is being obedient, I have no interest in it. Neither do I have interest in being bad. Both are non-concepts. Good and bad have no power unless I have no power.
Goodness and badness are as impotent and limiting as compliance and obedience. There is no there there, no wildness, no creativity, no complexity, no gravid chaos, no resilience or flexibility, no authenticity, and no personal power.
Am I a good girl?
God, no! My whole life I’ve been so much more than that!
In the last 24 hours I’ve had an Aha! moment that represents
one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life.
I have always defined myself as a failure. This morning,
before 7:00 a.m., I became a success. Just like that, in one blinding moment of
epiphany. I lay there giggling to myself like an idiot. I’ve been doing that
all day, in fact.
Standing in the shower, I had another staggering revelation. I suddenly realized when and why I created the identity of being a failure in the first place. It happened when I was very young, before I had the language or ability to understand or explain what I was up to. All I had at that age was my heart, intuition and empathy.
We had a troubled family system. Bad and scary things were happening that I could not understand. My reasoning was that failing to please was Bad. Pleasing was Good. If I chose failing to please, if I flaunted it, if I accepted it, I would be Bad and others could be Good, and therefore loved and safe.
Of course, I didn’t think of it in any kind of logical or adult sense. What I did have, however, was a great ability to love that even then was unconditional, deep and tender. I loved, do you understand? Only that. Just love and the willingness to do whatever it took to protect my loved ones.
In those dim years of childhood I embraced being a failure
and forged the bars that were to keep me in that prison for 50 years. Failing
to please was Bad and terribly painful, but I was comforted by the abilities of
others to please and therefore be loved. I believed becoming a lightning rod
for displeasure shielded them.
As an adult, I had two children of my own and made exactly
the same choice. I endeavored to shield and protect them from physical and
psychological harm, no matter what it took. They could not understand, and I
could not explain my choices to onlookers because I was protecting so many
different people on different levels. I could not tell the truth. There was too
much at risk and the truth was too damaging to all of us. I was afraid of the
repercussions on those I was trying to shield.
My sense of failure was reinforced at every turn. I was told
in words how disappointing and inadequate I was, but far more powerfully, I
understood it from nonverbal communication and from the choices of those around
me. Once again, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was doing the best
thing for those I loved with my whole heart. I didn’t much care what happened
to me if my loved ones could only be protected and happy. One day they would
understand not only my choices, but the depth of my love.
The years rolled by. The children grew up and suddenly were adults. They expressed confusion and a sense of loss because of some of my parenting choices. I explained, confident of their understanding.
I realize now my explanations sounded ridiculous, but not because I failed.
I had a lifelong reputation for being dramatic and hypersensitive, which effectively erased my credibility within the family. I had no intention of burdening my sons with old family dynamics and problems that existed long before they were born. I didn’t want to hurt or betray anyone. I didn’t want the boys to have torn loyalties or make them feel they had to choose sides.
Anything I could say, calmly, neutrally and without emotion, wasn’t even loud enough to get their attention. Trying to convey the authentic truth of my experience would have sounded (I imagined) hysterical and unhinged or, even worse, made them feel they had to take care of me. Come what may, I was never going to ask my children to parent me.
They could intellectually understand my explanation about the choices I made as a parent, but they couldn’t emotionally understand, exactly the outcome I worked for all those years! To them, it just sounded like Mom, talking too much, being embarrassingly emotional and making a big deal about nothing. (She does that.)
Do you see the exquisite irony? My explanations sounded ridiculous because I had succeeded in shielding them so well they had no idea what I was talking about. That was the flip. I didn’t fail at all. I succeeded.
Can you hear the Gods laughing? I can.
When I realized the unintended consequences of my maternal
protection, it certainly caught my attention, along with changing my relationship
with my kids in deeply painful (for all of us), and, I fear, permanent ways. I
have never known such grief, but privately I chalked it all up to another
failure of mine and a grief I deserved.
My failure label stayed firmly in place, as solid a part of my identity as my blue eyes or wild hair. It never occurred to me that I could take it off.
Until yesterday. Yesterday, another loved one I have protected made it clear to me how successful I’ve been in protecting him as well. My stoicism, my unrelenting commitment to healing and understanding, my fierce independence, and most of all my love and unwillingness to be disloyal or reveal unwelcome truths that might upset others have been so successful that the truth of my experience sounds like hysterical, made-up, unkind, exaggerated nonsense.
It was the kids all over again.
This time, though, I finally got it. I finally understood that I have succeeded, not failed, in everything I wanted to do out of love for others. Every single thing! I have failed to please, yes. I’ve failed the expectations of others. I’ve failed to be perfect. I’ve failed to keep the family glued together. I’ve failed in trying to force others to be happy and healthy. I’ve failed, most miserably of all, at protecting others from themselves. But none of those failures are real. None of those things were my job or within my power in the first place. They were impossibilities, not failures.
On the other hand, I have succeeded at failing! I did manage to attract negative attention so that others were at less risk. I did carry and sometimes express the emotional burdens of those around me who couldn’t deal with their emotions. The role I chose as a scapegoat did, in a fucked-up kind of way, help keep the family functional enough that we all survived. My “failures” made others look more successful by contrast. My willingness to be the problem child, the dramatic one, helped keep my loved ones out of the line of fire, at least a little bit.
As a parent, I succeeded. I raised two sons. They are not
perfect. I made mistakes. They have baggage to unpack like all the rest of us.
Their wounds, however, are different than mine. They were not hurt in the same
ways I was. I successfully shielded them from the bombs and grenades that
shattered me. I believe they know they are loved and worthy, and that I am
proud of them.
What I’m most proud of is my success at loving. Just that. Loving myself and loving others. Nowhere along the way have I lost my ability and willingness to love, absolutely, completely and unconditionally. I love my family of origin. I love my children. I see now we don’t always get it back, the unconditional love, respect and loyalty we lavish on others. That’s okay. Invisible love, refused love, unrecognized love and unreciprocated love is still love. It’s The Right Thing To Do. It’s the only thing to do. It’s the best I have to give.
As for myself, I feel reborn. I am not a failure. I have never been a failure. I have succeeded in loving and doing my best against all odds. I accept that others may not understand my actions and choices or believe in my love, but that’s their failure, not mine.
This day has revealed to me that every ten minutes or so I call myself a failure, no matter what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’ve paused to examine all those so-called failures and discovered . . . nothing. My identity as a failure is nothing more than a mindless habit. It’s my automatic apologetic response when I cook the bacon too long, don’t properly anticipate my partner’s wishes, want to go to bed early, am standing in the way (nobody ever stands in my way—it’s always me that’s in the wrong place!) or blow off doing an hour of exercise.
I have successfully mastered the art of failure. Bored now. I’m going to go be successful.