This summer I had an experience that made me question not only my general competency and wisdom but my very right to do the very things I feel so compelled to do. While the details of what exactly happened would be meaningless to the outsider, it is enough to say that someone I loved deeply had negative things to say about my skill and knowledge doing something that meant a great deal to me. The fact that I valued this persons’ opinion a great deal intensified the deep feelings of unworthiness and doubt that bubbled out of my soul along with a tide of endless tears. While the grown up in me was able to recognize that this person had something firmly wedged up her butt and that the issue was within HER and NOT me, the inner child had a meltdown. And the child’s deep sense of being afraid she might not be good enough and wanting to avoid this pain at all costs saw me retreating into my shell and hiding for weeks.
This is not a new thing for me, although I had thought perhaps the wisdom gained in the past couple of years had caused me to grow out of it. I am known to be reclusive – that would be my positive spin on what others might call “Robyn is avoiding human contact whenever possible”. Years of bad personal decisions on my part left me feeling like I should not subject other people to myself except when I was at my best – which was not very often. I know a lot of people in my community and the idea that they might see me when I am not living up to the image I wanted to present can be horrifying. Add to this a history of abuse, the constant physical and emotional contact of being a mom and the shallow, ethereal contact of working retail and you begin to see that any kind, relatively deep connection with an adult can make me squirm.
Yet, the flip side of this is that I am a highly intuitive and deeply spiritual person with a overriding desire to help others find a truer, more deeply fulfilling path for themselves in this lifetime. I have studied with spiritual teachers who claim that I have a profound “gift” that is not intended to be kept to myself. So I walk an uncomfortable path — wishing I could just be left alone in my garden and my writing and not have to deal with anyone unless they were on Facebook or in my golf foursome – and knowing that I have a greater purpose that requires me to extend myself beyond my comfort zone.
So I wonder what is the matter with me that I, a LEO for crying out loud, would prefer to avoid attention and unnecessary connection under most circumstances. I know that I know what I know. But how can I be so devastated by what one person has to say about my performance? Is this a self esteem issue? So I looked it up……
Wikipedia defines Self Esteem as:
Self-esteem is a term used in psychology to reflect a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs (for example, “I am competent” or “I am incompetent”) and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame. A person’s self-esteem may be reflected in their behaviour, such as in assertiveness, shyness, confidence or caution. Self-esteem can apply specifically to a particular dimension (for example, “I believe I am a good writer, and feel proud of that in particular”) or have global extent (for example, “I believe I am a good person, and feel proud of myself in general”).
Psychologists usually regard self-esteem as an enduring personality characteristic (“trait” self-esteem), though normal, short-term variations (“state” self-esteem) also exist.
Synonyms or near-synonyms of self-esteem include: self-worth, self-regard, self-respect, self-love (which can express overtones of self-promotion), and self-integrity. Self-esteem is distinct from self-confidence and self-efficacy, which involve beliefs about ability and future performance. (Wikipedia)
So things seem okay here. I certainly don’t feel like what I lack is self-confidence. If I had to answer the question, I would say that my beliefs (currently) are that I am strong, brave, more or less smart, a decent writer, a loyal friend, a good listener and holder of space to instigate healing for people. Occasionally I am also smart, beautiful, and fun to be around. My behavior would certainly reflect someone who is confident, strong willed, and out-going. I believe that I deserve good things and am still waiting for my fairy godmother to help me purchase the winning lottery ticket.
But as I write these statements about myself – and indeed, the very act of writing itself — makes the sirens go off in my head and I hear some nasty 12 year old girl start shouting at me about how I am so stuck up and full of myself. “WHO ARE YOU TO THINK YOU HAVE ANYTHING IMPORTANT TO SAY, MUCH LESS WRITE OR TEACH? YOU ARE SO NARCISSTIC AND SELF-CENTERED!” she shouts as she pokes at me. She is a nasty little thing, and even though I don’t like her, somehow she latches onto the core of all that I am and chews holes in my soul like a moth in my sweater drawer. So, quietly I try to go about the things that I am driven to do, and hope that I can fly under the radar of anyone who will be the physical manifestation of that adolescent demon bitch in my head.
And so I keep myself to myself more or less. Even while I know I have many fabulous characteristics and loads of wisdom to share, I am acutely aware of all my failures and very public mistakes. Somehow I am ashamed of being human. For some reason I hold myself to an unrealistic moral standard that I would never expect of anyone. I know this and yet I have a hard time moving past it. Instead, I play an outgoing, self confident person in the real life movie about me. The vast majority of people who know me would be shocked at the level of inner angst they never see. Sometimes I draw strength from the fact that if I knew me only as other people knew me I would think I was pretty cool and would skip over the messed up parts. It is probably a good thing we CAN’T see each other’s inner lives or we would all be in a cave waiting to be rescued from the crazies!
This is all compounded by the fact that I dated someone who was once, in the new age circles of the 1980’s, relatively well known and even in the year 2000 was still riding on his supposedly enlightened mystique. He was essentially a good guy, but he was from an era and a healing approach that was very ego-centric and arrogant. The end of our relationship began when I said I loved him, but I didn’t believe in his therapeutic techniques. Well meaning though he was, he was benignly arrogant and narcissistic, and did not apply the things he taught to his every day life. Which were the very things that terrified me that I would be accused of. Having that mirror in front of me made me quit teaching workshops and my counseling practice, because I felt that since I was not even close to achieving for myself what I was teaching others, I had no business acting like the pro. Even though I knew that the concepts I was talking about worked, and I believed in them, I felt I had no right to teach as I was not “Master”. Was this a lack of self confidence? Was I being realistic? Was I just hiding?
One day I spoke to one of my teachers about this and he looked me in the face and said to me “This humility does not serve you. Who are you to determine to not use the gifts that God gave you?”
HUH? My teacher, a man whom I respect not only for his knowledge but his lack of pretention, is telling me that I am down-playing myself too much? Being raised in a religious family, I thought that humility was EXCPECTED of us as spiritual people and especially as a woman. Was he suggesting that I had it wrong?
And so I turn to Wikipedia again wondering what is humility….
Humility (adjectival form: humble) is the quality of being modest, reverential, even politely submissive, and never being arrogant, contemptuous, rude or even self-abasing. Humility, in various interpretations, is widely seen as a virtue in many religious and philosophical traditions, being connected with notions of transcendent unity with the universe or the divine, and of egolessness; by contrast, some schools of thought are sharply critical of humility. (Wikipedia)
Right away I chafe at the idea of being submissive but the rest of it rings true for me. I want to be modest, reverential, and never arrogant. Wikipedia goes on to say….from the Catholic tradition no less….
Humility is defined as, “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a humble opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.”
I am brought full circle to the moment in which someone I loved said bad things about how I was doing things that I loved and felt called to do. Somehow, as much as I rebelled against Catholicism growing up, the very idea that I am submitting myself to GOD/GODDESS/the Divine/Great Spirit for his/her sake gives me courage. I do not write, volunteer, fire-tend, teach, or speak out because I want anyone to feel any particular way about me, or because I have something to gain. I am propelled along this path in the same way the cartoon character Wallace is propelled along by the robotic pants in the cartoon short “The Wrong Trousers”. I have always felt, deep down inside that I was being called….that I had something to say, in a way that people needed to hear that was completely independent of the person I would identify as ME.
So long ago my teacher challenged me to not think that I should shut off the gifts that God gave me because of my own fears of how I would be perceived. Now, as I write and stick my neck back out there again with so much fear and trepidation of being judged harshly, I am reminded of the Martha Graham quote:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.”
It is our responsibility as children of the universe to let ourselves shine. When we get bogged down in other people’s drama about us and in our own hopes and expectations for ourselves we lose sight of what we were put here to do. We may not know what is best for because we do not always see our way clearly through other people’s garbage. And, perhaps the gifts we are given are not to benefit us…to pay for new cars, expensive toys and houses larger than we need. Perhaps we all need to look at our hiding, our denial, and at how we spend our time and energy and try to determine if that is really what our Higher Power intended for us.
Women have been taught for eons that we are to be submissive, silent and non-confrontational in order to have worth and be seen as “good”. While I would not label myself as a feminist, it would be difficult for any intelligent woman – or man for that manner – to look at our culture and not admit to all the ways in which the characteristics of a man: confident, aggressive, competitive, business minded – are valued over those of a woman: communicative, mothering, less assertive, negotiator, feeling oriented, intuitive. And when a woman crosses over into the realm of the “male” she is seen as a bitch, a rebel, difficult, arrogant, slutty and more. No wonder I crumpled into a heap when I was challenged that evening about my right to be an authority – I was essentially being called all the dirty names in the book just because I stepped into my place of power. And this wasn’t the first time I had been silenced by someone’s expectations about what my role should have been….this was a long drawn out pattern that I was determined to put an end to.
I have spent much of my life trying to figure out how to walk a path of knowing and socially and self-enforced enforced submissiveness in order to not look “stuck up” as that adolescent monster would say. I have dumbed myself down, shrugged off compliments, failed to use the strength and power I possessed and often chose to not act on the gifts I have been given in an effort to be acceptable. Yet my kids, and now my young, predominantly male staff, see me as a tough rebel who will take on anyone/anything in the interest of my moral code. There is a contradiction in my life that makes me uncomfortable and makes it so that I cannot easily fully embody either aspect.
Recently I watched the move NINE in which Daniel Day-Lewis’s character director Guido Contini struggles with writing a movie script because he is uncertain which aspect of himself seen through the eyes of the women who “love” him is actually him. The positive and negative aspects of each of his persona’s are shown and he agonizes over how much damage he does in his private life while pretending to be the self confident, wise Director everyone expects to see. He is anxious, unsettled and despondent and retreats to be away from everyone’s expectations. He is discovered in his personal exile by Lilli, a long time friend played by Dame Judy Denche. He tells her that he cannot possibly go back to that life and the only story he has to tell is one of a humble man trying to win back the love of his life.
Lilli says: “There isn’t a single person passing by who hasn’t been touched in some way by one of your movies. That’s your gift. That’s what you’ve been given. Use it. Just use it with some grace for Christ’s sake”.
Like Guido so many of us, myself included, get caught up in the expectations – real or perceived – of the people or society around us, and we neglect our gifts because of our own doubt and the way we want people to see us. We hide, we play dumb, we tell ourselves that our inner voice is EGO and not to be trusted. We lack the self confidence to pursue our dreams not because we are afraid that we are not good enough, but because we are afraid of what may happen if we are. We are afraid that if we become everything we were meant to be, say everything we need to say and do everything we know we were meant to do – we will be seen as arrogant, stuck up and ego-centric.
But what if exactly the opposite were true? What if, like my teacher said to me, our arrogance lies only in our decision that WE think we know better than GOD what to do with our lives? What if, as Martha Graham stated, we choose NOT to express our uniqueness and therefore it is lost? What if there is really an intention for us here on this green world and the butterfly effect is so true that in our choosing NO, we impact the entire world negatively instead of positively?
In the end, we simply need to remember what Lilli says to Guido….” that’s your gift. That’s what you’ve been given. Use it. Just use it with some grace for Christ’s sake”.