“You, who are on the roadCrosby, Stills and Nash, “Teach Your Children”
Must have a code that you can live by
And so, become yourself
Because the past is just a goodbye..”
This has been a year of finally speaking up for me. Of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. For letting my outside voice say what my inner soul has forever feared would bring me tragedy, rejection, and (gasp) the big F if I let it out. No, not THAT big F (although, jeez that might be nice…but I digress, this is a PG post). I mean the REALLY Big F, as in Failure. Failure to connect. Failure to be understood. Failure to be accepted for what I stood for. Failure to be loved. Failure to bring about the changes I silently hoped for.
Failure and me, we’ve had a toxic relationship over the years. As a result of my other big “F” word… fear.
I have struggled with the fear of failure since my earliest days at school. And no, before I go any further, I am not going to blame my parents for that. They were NOT overbearing; not known for putting any sort of gargantuan expectations upon me that left me immobilized. Nope, it’s definitely a nature problem, not a nurture one. I was immensely loved, accepted, supported, and consistently told to stop “wearing my heart on my sleeve” and “stop worrying enough for the whole family”. But nevertheless, it haunted me anyway, as the dirty secret of my childhood. I did every single bit of homework ever assigned. I took ALL the extra credit assignments. I USED WHITE OUT IN MY NOTES THAT NO ONE EVER SAW BUT ME, FOR GOD’S SAKE. If I was not top of the class, I redoubled my efforts to make damn sure I was the next time. My parents just told me to go outside and play. My report cards brought squeals of joy from my mother and praises out the wazoo from my Dad; NEVER a “well, you could always do better you know”.
So what the actual eff was my problem, anyway? How did I let perfectionism and an abject fear of failure grow to the point where it silenced the “real” me? Wish I knew, and I’m still working on that….
But the bigger issue to me, once I saw the problem clearly, was reversing that behaviour and finding a better way to live.
As a result of this underlying and overreaching life-long fear that controlled every decision I made, I spent the better part of my first 60 years as an obsessive over-pleaser. I would exhaust all my mental resources to make sure that I did everything I possibly could in every area of my life to please those around me. I wanted to be sure that no one would ever be unhappy or disappointed with me; or with my work, my efforts or my love. And yes, it damn near killed me. It stripped me of the joy in the pursuit of goals because not making them no matter what was never an option. It made me question EVERYTHING that I thought was right, over and over, until I would immobilize myself and make no decisions at all. It made me needy of constant feedback and praise. It made me judgmental AF with others, while ironically never being able to just pick a lane myself and get on in my own life.
It also rendered me unwilling and unable to speak up for myself with my own truths, not what I thought was “correct”, because of the fear of making another person angry with me. Or upset. Or wanting to argue my point. I found myself constantly having re-hashed conversations where I imagined what I “should have said”, but didn’t. All. The damn. Time.
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”Audre Lord, American author and civil rights activist
And then, life went sideways. My world was turned upside down and I was instantly alone with only me to make decisions for, to think about, to “manage”. The only person I needed to please now, was me; or so I was told. And it absolutely terrified me. I spun my wheels, like I always did. “You can do whatever you want now!” “Live for you now!” If I heard these things once, I heard them a hundred times. But I had no idea how to please me, or how to decide what I wanted. I continued, doing what I’d done my whole life, avoiding that topic; thinking I needed to worry more about everyone else in my life, and help them to be where they wanted to be, because then everyone would be happy with me and I would get the gold star for support, right? And my stuff, well, it would just work itself out, because setting goals for myself would just lead me possibly to failure, better to go with the flow right? Turns out, nope.
Turns out, there is no bigger failure in life, than failing yourself. Failing to recognize the worth in your own soul, your own truths and your own place of importance in the fabric of this world.
So, now what?? I needed to stop taking the distracted route of worrying about others’ success and happiness, and start working on my own. Deciding what that looked like. But of course, no one gets up one day and completely changes their life (I mean, unless, you know, horrible accident, terminal illness, bad haircut, etc.). I continued to let my perfectionism keep me from finding direction, or declaring my stand on anything, for quite a while. I procrastinated like the crowned Queen of Procrastinatia. And shit started to go not my way at all, decisions got made by default instead of intent, and I let situations and people treat me however they wanted to, because I was so afraid of making a wrong move, that I made none. Fak.
Interestingly enough… sitting in that is finally what snapped me around. Realizing that, yes, I could maybe “avoid” the potential of failing by not taking a stand on anything, but then I was stuck with the result that came with that inaction, and often I really disliked that result more than I feared failing. I didn’t like being perceived as a person with no platform at all, rather than maybe a platform that wasn’t agreeable to everyone. It not only made me look weak… it also made me look maybe a little insincere and shifty. Yikes.
I realized that I would be treated in ways that I didn’t like, simply because I allowed it to happen, by not standing firm in choosing how I DID want to be treated, for fear of pissing someone off. That you earn respect by standing on your principles, even when people don’t agree with you.
I realized that I would end up in situations that felt like failure, even if I hadn’t directly gone there on purpose; I drifted there by default. Same result, but I had put up no defense. And that felt worse than failing. That felt like giving up on life. Which is rather ironic, me being known for always having something to say… just now I realized that a lot of the time that was all just noise, not substance.
And finally… as usually happens to me… my people spoke. My great Uncle Rolla (brother of Nana Sylvie) showed up and inserted himself one time, when I was talking to Nana Sylvie in a session and lamenting a situation I found myself in, asking her for direction… and he just barged into the convo with “WHY ARE YOU SO DAMNED AFRAID OF FAILING?!”. (Some background here… I never met Uncle Rolla…but he felt compelled to dress my ass down anyway.) And you don’t mess with your spirits when they try and tell you something. He sure got my attention and gave me something to think on.
I got so damned angry, frustrated and annoyed at my situation that I no longer cared if I made a fool of myself, or pissed somebody off, or stood alone on an issue. I finally knew I needed to find my real self, and let her speak. That I might not be “everyone’s cuppa” on any topic at hand, but so what, because that was better than being someone that I didn’t really like or really didn’t stand for anything. That a failure to please, or appease, does not mean I failed, it simply means that the other person is not aligned with my values, or my goals. Which is just a difference of opinion, not a fail on my part.
I realized that silencing my own voice was creating more shame than failing ever would.
The first time I spoke my truth was so hard. So. Damn. Scary. But (thanks, perfectionism) I had done all the damn homework (and then some), tested the waters with my “safe” people. To make sure that what I was asserting was true, real, and most important, aligned with my values and the person I wanted to be. Regardless of whether it aligned with what anyone else believed in.
And, the odd thing was, once I evaluated against those three things, picking a lane got a whole lot easier, and I worried almost nil about whether others would like it, or me for saying it. I only knew that to be true to my own self, that I needed to say it. And that the right connections in my life would follow. And they did.
And then, I did it again. And I felt little stronger, and felt more able to focus my energy and have direction on other things, even if I wasn’t dead sure I would be successful. Or accepted for my choices. I just knew it was my truth, and I had to finally, truly, live it.
I realized too, of course, that speaking your truth does come with some ground rules. It comes with the responsibility to keep it focused on yourself, and what is important to you. Because we cannot use “speaking your truth” as a means to try and control others. All we can do is relate, with honesty and empathy, how a situation is affecting us. Others need to speak their own truths, and in the end, they may not align with ours. AND THAT IS OK.
So here I finally am, standing with my values and principles, no white out in sight, living out loud, naked as a jaybird to the world (as my Mama would say). With a lot of my shame and a little of my procrastination shoved back in their cages. (OK, my basement says otherwise on the procrastination, but hey, I’m workin’ on it). I worry less about how what I say and do will be perceived than I do about whether it’s my valid truth. Yes, I do worry of course about respecting the feelings of others, but sometimes, I realize I’m still going to piss people off with my opinions. The difference is that now I know that’s their problem to handle, and not mine; as long as I‘ve done what I needed to in my heart, and not from my need to be accepted.
Lesson learned… and on down the road.
I’m a 64 year old aging hippie with a sarcastic tongue and out of control ginger hair. I am passionate in advocating for women “of a certain age”, especially we single ones, because we aren’t quite dead yet, in spite of the fact that we are often largely invisible and made to feel redundant on many levels. I hope to make you think, make you laugh, and mostly, feel like no matter where you are in life, you are never alone, and whatever dumb thing you think is going to sink you, won’t. Because heaven knows if that were true, I wouldn’t be here.