Like You Mean It

My daughter and I were having a conversation the other day about my marketable skills.

I will spare you the details and the discouraging situation that I find myself in regarding balancing health and finances.  If you have not already become familiar with that situation, hit up some earlier posts to get up to speed.

But the outcome of that conversation led me to a new understanding of an old problem:  I don’t think I am good enough.

I’ve literally tattooed the word “Enough” on my left arm.  I deliberately put it in a place that I would see in the mirror every day, because I need the constant reminder that I am enough and good enough and allowed to set boundaries that say to others, “Enough. I won’t tolerate that anymore”.  Despite that reminder, I still slip into a space where my mind convinces me that I cannot accomplish or become or produce in positive ways.  I get sucked into perfectionism.  I get stuck in a mindset that sees criticism as punishment for what I lack.  I get trapped by self-defeating language.  I doubt that I am capable enough, or good enough, or talented enough.

So, while talking with my daughter, and positing a question about whether or not I might be successful in a particular venture, I came to understand that I don’t quit things, and I don’t fail.  I start something new.

I tell myself, “I am an author.  I’m going to work at being an author, and commit to that field.”  And then, a few months later, I am telling myself, “I am going to become a nutrition counselor.”  I take classes and start that venture.  Then, a few months later, I am telling myself, “I could sell my work on Etsy.  I would make money from what I find therapeutic—my art and crafts.”

And, suddenly, I am working toward everything and nothing.  I have too many starts and not enough follow-through.  I have no follow-through not because I can’t do the things, but because my energy is split and traveling in too many directions.

Life has always been this way for me.  I am a visionary—I start things all the time, and I have big dreams, and I am a great problem-solver.  I am not confident that I can be fabulous at any of those things that I start, and dream of, and find solutions for.  I start to doubt my ability, and I put the thing I was working toward on hold, while I think of something new.

I am writing three books.  By writing, I mean not working on at all, but having the idea that the books will someday be finished.  I am an amazing author, but I doubt that talent often enough to not complete any published works.  I am studying nutrition and holistic care.  And by studying, I mean that I am half way through an online study program that I have not even looked at in months.  I doubt that I can be successful in the field, or that people will take a sick, overweight person’s advice regarding wellness and weight loss.  I am opening an Etsy shop.  And by opening, I mean that I have a store name picked out and ideas for what art I will put in that store eventually.  I doubt that people will want or pay a fair price for the things that I have created, and that I will lose money, rather than make money.

My doubt rarely paralyzes me in the physical sense.  I don’t panic and freeze and lose my shit out in the world.  I look and act like a really “normal” person most of the time.  But, on the inside, I put myself into a space where I cannot accomplish anything, because I don’t believe that I can accomplish anything well enough.

Some of this perfectionism comes from my upbringing.  My mother and my grandmother before her were both very concerned with appearances, and with having everything “just so”—at least on the outside.  That desire to look perfect affected my generation as well.  And, at times, I think I am accidentally passing that perfectionism down to my daughter.  But, my family tree is not the only factor.  I also suffer from C-PTSD, a complex form that adds layers of struggle beyond those of the type of PTSD you usually see depicted in media—the combat-related type.  Perfectionism is a symptom of my disease.  When you are in a prolonged state of abuse, such as childhood molestation or domestic violence, your brain behaves in ways that make no sense, but are totally understandable.  You start to work really hard at pleasing people.  You start to do all that you can to make life, home, and self perfect, because you believe that the abuses are your fault—which is part of the terrible genius of abuse tactics.  If you can just do everything “right”, maybe you won’t be hurt, harmed, assaulted, yelled at, molested, or raped.  If you can be perfect, then there won’t be a reason for them to harm you.

But there is always a reason for them to harm you, because the harm has nothing to do with your performance, accomplishments, character, or way of being.  The harm has to do with them and their issues.

I can say that now.  I can say that the people who harmed me did so because of them, and not because of me.  But, even though I can say it, I am not integrated in my logic and my emotion.  Those things are split apart in the long-term abuse—the horror of captivity.  And, while I can say that I didn’t cause the abuses directed toward me, I cannot often feel that I didn’t cause those abuses.

Not being able to feel what I know is complicated.  It is also annoying and frustrating.  Reason and emotion are not tied together in the ways I want them to be tied.  So, I feel not good enough, even though I know that I am capable and strong and beautiful and good and honest and brave and brilliant.  What I know and what I feel cannot connect in the way that I would like them to connect.  So, I still strive for and do not reach perfection.

Perfection doesn’t exist.  You can never reach it, because it isn’t a thing.  Perspective, cultural difference, brain chemistry, opinions, different philosophies, and more make one idea of “perfection” impossible.  There is no such thing.  So, by striving for this goal, we sabotage ourselves.  We are fighting for a thing that is not achievable.  And that constantly disappoints us, and makes us doubt our ability or character or worth.

All of the above considerations came out of that one conversation with my daughter.  And I decided during that conversation that I need to “write like I mean it”.

I decided that I need to take that thing that I love and that I am good at, and I need to keep doing that thing until I can feel what I know.  I need to stop turning in different directions and dividing my energy.  I need to put my efforts into the things that I know I am and should be:  an author and an artist.  I need to act upon my belief that I am a good author and artist, and keep acting upon it until I feel deeply that I am talented.

Under different circumstances, that might sound like a very selfish and narcissistic way of thinking.  But, because I am so conditioned to judge myself “not good enough”, proclaiming my talent and putting all my energies into praise for that talent is a corrective measure that brings balance.

I’m going to put all of my eggs in this basket.  I’m going to write and create like I mean it.  I’m going to make this my life—not because I need to strive for a goal of perfection, but because I love writing and creating, and because I am exceptional in these areas.

Perfection isn’t real, but it still ruins so many of us.  While my C-PTSD makes the struggle against perfection more difficult, and a symptom to be managed, you don’t need to have a history of trauma and a mental illness to strive for things that you need not strive for, and cannot achieve.

I’m not saying to give up.  I’m trying to say the opposite.  I’m attempting to express that what you love is what you ought to pursue, regardless of what “perfection” might be getting in the way of that pursuit.  And I am attempting to express it for me as much as I am for anyone who might read this post.  Because sometimes the word “Enough” tattooed on my arm is not the only reminder needed.  Sometimes we need to keep telling ourselves a thing until we feel its truth, not just know or understand it.

I need to keep telling myself that finished is better than perfect.  I need to keep telling myself that writing and painting and sewing and covering surfaces in comics are worthy pursuits.  I need to keep telling myself that my belief that I am good enough is the truth, and that the feeling that I am not is the lie that I have been conditioned to accept.

I need to keep telling myself to write like I mean it.  This is my goal.  This is my life.   This is my contribution to the world.  This is what I love.  And I am not going to let “perfection” get in the way of doing what I love.

Whatever you do, do it like you mean it.  Because it is, and you are, enough.

Excellence

Sometimes it feels like a challenge to hold on to the good qualities I have, and not get stuck in an endless cycle of negativity.  The whole growing up in a Dutch Reformed area where you are constantly told how depraved you are thing probably didn’t help matters.  Having a mother who followed compliments with a “but…” certainly didn’t help matters.  And the added weight of shame and confusion and pain from childhood trauma compounded the focus on the bad things, and the distance between me and the knowledge of my skills.

And our society didn’t help me to hold the good qualities.  I was recently reading a theory of how school takes what was creative and forces it to be linear.  Blobs with legs are left behind, and in their place sit letters and numbers with distinct requirements and a lack of creative expression.  And as we become more and more focused on the “correctness” of penmanship and math equations and memorization, we start to lose confidence in the blobs with legs and the ways that we expressed our thoughts and emotions through our drawing or singing or dancing, without a care of skill or proper technique.  This theory struck a chord with me (no pun intended).

I was one of those children who loved to draw and paint and sing and dance and run and climb and express myself with abandon.  I know this, not because I remember doing those things as a child, but because my spirit still cries out to do these things.  And I rarely do them, despite those cries.  I haven’t sung alone in public since high school, perhaps.  I haven’t painted a picture since elementary school, I would guess.  And dancing only happens when I drink too much at a club or when I am shuttered away behind the most closed of doors, even though my body wants to throw out my arms and twirl more often than I might like to admit.  Something in me still desires all of that expression.  Bits of it spill out at times:  singing in the college choir, decorating a cake, doing a bit of DIY furniture refinishing, tapping my foot in time with the music streaming through my headset while I ride the bus.  But, for the most part, my artistic self is hidden behind walls of “not good at” and “not appropriate” and “just something I threw together” and plain old avoidance of the production of art.

“But you write, Christy”, might be a response that has occurred to you already.  It occurred to me too.  But I realized that it has taken many years to for me to embrace my writing as a skill or an art form or an outlet for emotional expression.  And I also spent many years practicing that skill and art in secret … writing poems or letters in hidden notebooks that never met eyes other than my own.  And I did so, because I feared the judgments of others, and felt like my expression wouldn’t be “good enough”.

I have the word “Enough” tattooed on my arm.  I see it every morning when I get dressed.  That tattoo is meant for the whole of me—to see myself as enough as I am, without outside affirmation or some need to perform as others would prefer.  But I think that this word also applies to accepting my expression as enough, whether others judge it so or not.

I remember when I was in elementary school I loved to work on my paintings.  And at one point, probably around grade five or six, there was an art competition for our grade.  I spent time before school and at every recess working diligently on perfecting a landscape that would be entered for the competition.  I put all of my heart and soul into that picture.  And it was eliminated in the first round of competition—just picked up and placed aside, for a reason I would never learn, in the pile of rejected art.   It broke me.

Having my expression judged as unworthy hurt me. Deeply.

And that wasn’t the first time, though it stands out as a stellar example.

I remember working so hard on penmanship—practicing the letters over and over and over—and having a big “unsatisfactory” mark on my report card anyway.  I remember sitting alone at a table during the lunch recess and attempting to be faster in the timed math quizzes, and never improving.  I remember working tirelessly to memorize spelling words in grades four, five, and six, because I was a terrible speller, and working my way from the lowest level to the highest and then losing the spelling bee because of the word commitment, which I gave an extra “t”.  Shattered over and over by the ways I tried and failed, I didn’t give up like you might imagine I would.  I kept trying.  But I kept failing.  And it wasn’t that I failed because I wasn’t skilled or creative or capable, but it was failure because I expressed myself in ways that weren’t what others desired from me.  Dark paintings, a loud voice, not the right height for the part, a penchant for modern when what we want is classical, playing by ear instead of reading the notes, and on and on and on.  I was too much, or too little, or too big, or too small, or too raw, or too stiff, or too…

I was never quite right.  My expressions were never quite right.

So, I stopped telling the truth.  I stopped expressing myself truly and deeply and passionately.  I started being what was expected and acceptable, and in the process I stopped being me.  I stopped knowing me, in many ways.

I did begin to write again, in those secret notebooks, after a book I was reading encouraged me to look back at my childhood self and to try and remember what she loved.  As a woman in her twenties, who had a toddler of her own, I finally looked back and saw that I loved to climb trees and to play with my easy-bake oven and to dance around and to act in plays and to draw and to paint and to sing and to express art in all sorts of ways.  One of the first things I wrote was that list of things that I loved as a child, and inadvertently, I sparked the knowledge that I love to write.  I loved to tell stories.  I loved to say all the things.  But I was silenced by modern academic practices and the idea that performing well was more important than the trying and the expression and the feeling of creating.

So, today I stand as one who still, ultimately, judges every word and every post and every page and every canvas and every project and every single thing about her work with harshness and perfectionism, because I can’t seem to be that child who loves to do the things and say the things, even though I now have full knowledge of her and what she wants and its importance in being whole as an adult woman.  Because I am her and she is me and that which was silenced needs to find its voice once more.

I am learning that what is excellent is not, necessarily, performing in ways that meet the expectations of others, or some arbitrary standards, or to the public perception of success.  What is excellent is being free to express the whole of me, and to say and do and create with that freedom.  Expression itself is excellent.

It is our right to express things, in theory—freedom of speech.  But somewhere along the line that “freedom” started to mean the ability to promote the status quo, in the minds of many.  And true freedom of expression is lost to us.  Offering the whole story, or having the narrative be told by the ones who experience the events firsthand, or allowing the narrative to change based on new information, or letting all voices be heard and judged with equal merit and weight, or just listening to a new perspective is practically non-existent.  What we offer instead is the acceptance of that which meets our criteria and the rejection of all else.  People get put in the pile of rejected art, without ever knowing the reason.  Nations get put in the pile of rejected expression.  Religions get put in the pile.  Races get put in the pile.  Redheads get put in the pile.  All sorts of arbitrary conditions now threaten to put you in the pile of rejected expression, because you didn’t meet the standard of expectations.

And I have yet to figure out who created the standard of expectations.  My best guess would be white, male, heterosexual evangelicals in positions of power or with wealth…or both.  Because patriarchal heteronormative expressions with straight lettering and correct math seem to be accepted above all. (Well, the math is questionable, because things like the number of shooting deaths correlating to the number of accessible handguns seem to be frequently ignored or misrepresented.) Because things that declare the name of Jesus seem to be accepted above all (even when Jesus himself NEVER SAID THOSE THINGS).  Because things that make rich white guys more rich seem accepted above all.  Because “traditional values” like the racism and oppression of the 1950’s seem to be accepted above all.  Basically anything that promotes the white, male, heterosexual evangelical with power or wealth or both is accepted above all, so it is safe to assume they are the ones writing the rule book on acceptable expression.

But regardless of who created the standard of expectations, we need not appeal to that standard.  We are capable and skilled and creative whether the current standards say so or not.

And we ALL spent time as children creating blobs with legs and calling them Grandpa, so we all have the capacity to create without the linear expectations of an alphabet controlling the outcome.  We have enough imagination to flood the world with expectation-breaking media!  We have the ability to sing and dance and climb and paint our way into a new world, where each of us is enough, and where nobody gets put in the pile of rejected expression, but every narrative is told and every story is honored and heard.

Rich, straight, white guys don’t get to tell us what to say.  Mothers that don’t know how to compliment us without adding “but…” on the end don’t get to tell us what to say.  Teachers who care more about an Oxford comma than a beautiful expression of life don’t get to tell us what to say or how to say it.  Judges at the grade six art competition don’t get to tell us what to say or how to say it.  We can take back our right to speak, and use it as a form of expression that sets the world ablaze.

I think often of people who set the world ablaze with their expressions.  Organizers,  poets, composers, pastors or priests or popes, writers, philosophers, politicians, bloggers, and parents or teachers or mentors who let the truth of their stories and ideas flow freely and who influenced people or events or movements or generations with their expression are my heroes.  And even the writers of the super hero comics use creative expressions to offer us ideas of justice and peace and good. (Those are some of my favorite expressions.)  Any voice that counters the violence and injustice of the patriarchal heteronormative narrative that is so pervasive in our society and world at present is heroic and beautiful and good, in my opinion.  Because every incidence of counter-expression is a little nudge toward true freedom.  Every example of free expression fights against oppression and fascism and maintaining the status quo. And I am all about fighting against oppression and fascism and maintaining the status quo.

I think my childhood art expressed that fight, regardless of whether anyone understood such art.  The pictures were dark because my life was painful, and my voice was loud because I needed to be heard, and the raw me was too much because it expressed a difficult to bear narrative, and the stiff me was too guarded and kept because I recognized the way the raw me caused people to flee.  And the truth of my self and my story was locked behind closed doors for many years.

As my young self emerges, and as my art emerges, and as my story emerges, I am still met, at times, with judgments and shaming and rejections and people who would prefer all of it stay hidden.  But that doesn’t break me anymore.

My story and my expression and my art have become stronger than the voices of dissent and disagreement.

I have begun to see the excellence in my expression as expression.  I have begun to travel a road toward recognition of my right and my need to place my feelings on paper and to act them out with my body’s movements and to paint them on canvas and to craft them in various ways, and toward recognizing my desire and my intent and my action in doing so as excellent.

Just because you don’t fit in with the normative standard of the society doesn’t mean that you are not excellent.  It might mean that the normative standard of your society is shit!

So, to inspire you, and to affirm me, here is a list of excellence to get you thinking about your own excellent self and expressions:

The Excellence of Christy

  • Christy makes excellent soup
  • Christy has excellent toes—super cute ones
  • Christy is an excellent painter
  • Christy makes excellent baked goods
  • Christy is an excellent advocate for her own health and wellness
  • Christy decorates cakes with excellence
  • Christy finds excellent clearance sales to create a cheap but excellent wardrobe
  • Christy excels at writing well and beautifully
  • Christy is an excellent dancer
  • Christy excels at napping
  • Christy has excellent listening skills
  • Christy excels at showing compassion to others
  • Christy crafts excellent, diplomatic, and kind Facebook comment rebuttals
  • Christy is an excellent friend
  • Christy excels at talking on the phone for hours
  • Christy is excellent at finding value in objects others cast off
  • Christy excels at treating the marginalized like they are human
  • Christy navigates public transit (with one hand and two grocery bags) with excellence
  • Christy is an excellent researcher, teacher, and student
  • Christy gave birth to an excellent child and became an excellent parent
  • Christy excels at seeking assistance when shit gets difficult
  • Christy is excellent at getting others to rally around a cause she finds important
  • Christy has an excellent singing voice
  • Christy excels at inventing songs throughout her day, so it seems as though she lives in a musical
  • Christy excels at watching musicals
  • Christy excels at swallowing a handful of pills at one time
  • Christy performs Harry Potter quizzes with excellence
  • Christy draws excellent self-portraits
  • Christy is excellent at cleaning up after her dog, and at feeding him too many table scraps
  • Christy is excellent at not defining her sexuality
  • Christy excels in finding partners just slightly less neurotic than the last
  • Christy excels at learning tasks very quickly
  • Christy is excellent at pinning items she will never create to Pinterest
  • Christy excels at making lists about how excellent she is (Just kidding…that was actually kind of difficult, but a good exercise, nonetheless, and one I think you should also try—only about you, not me, of course, and then go out and express yourself in those excellent ways! I’m going to make some soup and take a nap.)

 

 

Costume

I remember loving dressing up.  I remember loving Halloween.

My parents were strictly religious, for most of my childhood, but they still, for one reason or another, fully accepted Halloween and the annual costuming and treading through the cold for candy when I was quite young.  There is a photograph somewhere of me and my siblings dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz.  And those cold nights of costumed begging were so lovely.

I made a huge event of Halloween for my daughter when she was young.  I think I remembered how enthralled I was with the act of turning into something or someone new, and I wanted her to have that joy and fun.  …and maybe I also wanted to eat her candy after I tucked her into bed at night. What parent doesn’t?

My daughter still loves Halloween, and we celebrate it like Christmas, with presents and decorations and parties and moments of tradition.  It is a beautiful part of life in our family, and will likely continue to be such for generations to come.

But today, as I started dressing in ways that will accommodate my black cat costume, and wondered if the weather would turn my face-painting into trails of black running down my face, instead of the cute kitten face I have planned, I began thinking about costumes in a new way.

I’ve always been one who loves to pretend.  Theater and dress-up and imagination and creativity were always a part of who I am.  And I love that part of me.

But I have used that part to my advantage for a reason.  I had to pretend.  I had to lie.  I had to shut out the bad I saw in me and my situation and become a different person in a different place inside my head to survive.

I got so good at pretending, that eventually most of me forgot the other girl—the one suffering and struggling in silence.

I apologize to that girl.  I’m sorry I left you there in that little box and kept up the pretending for so long.  I apologize to my sister, because I worked so hard to forget that girl that I couldn’t care if another was suffering the same way, and I left her to suffer and went on pretending.

I didn’t do it knowingly, of course.

The mind is beautiful and terrible in its abilities to shut out what we can’t survive at the moment.  It is equally beautiful and terrible in the way it brings back those moments later, for us to confront in a time and place when and where we might be able to survive facing them.  But it leaves us pretending in the meantime.  And, frankly, there are days I still pretend.

I still fold up the pain and tuck it in a corner and go out with my head held high, pretending I’m not crushed and abandoned and suffering.  I pretend I’m not a mess of contradictions and confusions.  I pretend I’m not afraid of everything all the time.  I pretend I’m not depressed and crazy and poor and struggling and in pain.  I dress up in my costume every time I leave the safety of my home.

Therapists often use the terms “button up” or “zip up” to describe this phenomenon.  It isn’t so much a lie as another coping skill.  You walk into the office kept and held inside your costume, and the therapist works to get your real self to come out.  But only for 50 minutes.  And then it is the job of the client to zip up, and put the pain back in its place to walk back out of the office put together and not pouring out the pain and the secrets.  And eventually, the work we do for those 50 minutes a week is meant to bring me to a place where I am integrated.  Where the pretend woman and the pained woman are one and coping together with life, having found those incongruent places and found a way through them to a more whole self.  But, until I get to that point, I still pretend.

My costume feels more genuine than my true self some days.  And I know that it is working at fooling many in the world.

People call me strong, or brave, or fearless, or brilliant, or beautiful, and I hear it and can’t figure out how they could see that in me.  And then I remember that the costume is exactly that, and that many of them don’t get opportunities to see the scared little girl crying in the dark.  I don’t let her out very often.  I’m an excellent pretender.

But I am starting not to feel as guilty about keeping that strong self out in front of others, whenever possible.  I’m starting to understand the ways that zipping up saved me from more suffering, and the ways that it helps me function in the world today, and to feel less like that self is a complete fabrication.  I’m starting to see that those parts of the costumed self are me.  They may not be the whole of me, but they are me.

When my daughter put on a princess dress and tiara when she was six years old and went out into the night to trick or treat, you could see the princess inside her come out.  The way she walked and waved her scepter and spoke were all royal.  She was that inside, and putting on the costume just let it out for a night, without judgments or questions or disbelief.  And my costume is similar.  It lets me be things I am somewhere inside, even if I don’t always recognize or acknowledge those things.  I am my costume and I am also the little girl fighting to find her way through suffering and confusion.

And all of us wear a costume.  My zipped up self might be more distant from my whole self than that of some people, but we all zip parts inside of the costume, and we all present what we want others to see.  And that can be helpful and that can keep our hearts safe at times, but it can also keep us distanced from one another and ourselves.

So, I am challenging myself to look at both parts of myself today, as I paint on my kitten face—to look at the costume and look at what lies beneath, and to see where I might connect those two, and what might have felt unsafe to uncover before that I might want to expose now.  I’m looking at who I want to portray and asking why that is the face I show, and why I might not want to show other aspects of myself.  I’m digging down and trying to see beyond the costume.  Claiming both the external and the internal parts of myself, and owning and honoring them, will bring me closer to wholeness and the ability to present all of me.

And I think that I need to be able to present that whole woman to myself, as much as I need to present her to the world.  I’m learning to see all of myself.  And it is a beautiful awakening to see the whole, and to accept the strong parts and the weak parts, the brave and the fearful parts, the brilliant and the baffled parts, and the beautiful and the ugly parts.

I know that it will be an amazing moment when I can love all of that woman and I can stop the constant cycle of setting myself free and buttoning myself up.

It will be fabulous to just be me, unbound and undivided.

Wholly me.

 

Happy Halloween!!!