I had been taught the value of helplessness and victim-hood early on to the point that I allowed and even welcomed it. It was familiar and seemed much safer than venturing out into the possible failures necessary to explore one’s abilities and resilience. Unfortunately, that also meant I deferred to others to decide what I was capable of, and what I was not able to handle.
At two days old, my left kidney and the life-threatening tumor residing on it, were removed. My mother and maternal grandmother out of best intentions, overcompensated and overprotected me. They swooped in to rescue me from any future pain or consequences they could. They were tireless in reminding me that I was not like other kids, and in the same breath, how precious I was to them. There was a bubble around me defining what physical things I was not allowed to try. And maybe because of this, the emotional fortitude needed to take responsibility for my own life’s course also seemed too overwhelming. I had not been allowed to fall, so I feared it. I was stuck being overly aware of dying and ensuring I was safe at all times, and when I fell apart, my mom and my Nana picked up the pieces and planned and executed my life’s decisions for me.
I remember so well the 4th grade project on pollution my mother pulled together for me the night before it was due. Instead of letting me fail, she pulled out her large sketch pad, calligraphy markers, and a can of rubber cement. She turned each page of a gigantic pad into an artful presentation of facts, drawings, and pictures, all titled in her perfect penmanship. The final page was a collage of found objects from our garbage can in a masterful arrangement as if the wind had collected them in some gutter and had arranged them perfectly as a tableau. The lesson was clear: if I just stalled and struggled long enough, someone would recuse me and with an end product far better than I could ever produce. So, I let her and others step in, and I missed the important experience of my own failures and successes building a core of self-trust.
This continued on both small and large scale throughout my life. I sat back and let my mother come up with suggestions of colleges to which I should apply. And when as a freshmen I was unhappy at college, she decided I should transfer, to where, and sent me the application. When after college I was lost and unhappy in New York City, she and my grandmother talked me into moving closer to home, and sweetened the deal by house shopping for me. I don’t blame them for trying to protect me. Almost losing her first child three times within the first eighteen years of that child’s life had a lasting effect on my mother. And, I don’t blame myself. I had no idea the developmental stunting effect I was creating by not walking into the fire alone and proving I could survive it. I learned to follow the path of least resistance in all areas of my life.
Ironically it was my mother who in the final year of her life became my greatest teacher. She succumbed to cancer born out of anger, resentment and bitterness at what her life could have been. She spent her final years inconsolable over her lost dreams. Reading her diary from those final years, I had to acknowledge that despite my on-going condemnation of her for not taking action to change her unhappy life, and regardless of the work I thought I had heroically done to not repeat my parents’ failings, I was just as unfulfilled and unhappy.
It was then I took hold of the mantra, “I am responsible for my own happiness.” I saw that years of being jealous and angry with my brother because he seemed better off, and isolating from those who had taken advantage of the opportunities I had turned down out of fear, had not made me feel any better about myself. Even surrounding myself with those who seemed less successful did not make me feel happier. Ultimately, it made me feel worse. The knowledge was ever-present that I hadn’t done as much with my life as was possible. I was ashamed. But in this awareness was the simultaneous opportunity to do what my parents had not. I could take responsibility for my own happiness and could stop blaming it on bad luck, a sad victim story, and pretending I was doing better than I really was.
I took hold of my inner fear with both hands, shook it, and completely owned that everything was not good enough in my life and that I had been the one who had allowed it.
I quit my job, placed my victim story in the palm of my hand, and blew it away into the wind with gratitude. Then, knowing that no one else could save me or make me feel better about myself, I identified the most basic reasons I had balked at leaving the safety of my limited and self-confined world. Even more importantly, I asked what I could do about it. When I answered those questions, I had a map to taking the first steps back into freedom. I started exercising regularly, lost some weight, and bought a few outfits that would carry me out of fifteen years of casual, if not sloppy, teacher clothing. I was just comfortable enough to start venturing back to reconnect with old friends I trusted would accept me no matter what, and after that, dared to jump back into groups that intimidated me most.
Like any journey into the unfamiliar, this has not been a straight line or with one end goal.
I started with surface level self-esteem repair, and finding some traction there, have begun delving into deeper layers that really have not received much attention or instructive modeling before. I became willing to lose relationships instead of settling for less than I deserved. I allowed my anger, disagreement, and protests to be voiced. I asked questions even if the answers might create discomfort and the need for change in me. I have allowed truths about my smaller/less-evolved self to be stated without denying or defending them, and have bucked up to act more in alignment with how I actually want to be seen. I have challenged my marriage by looking at where I needed to grow and change as well as standing strong on what is unacceptable to me. I am daring to explore beliefs, studies, and thoughts that I had been taught were not of value but now feel very important to me. Most of all, I am allowing my ideas to move beyond dreams by stating them and taking action to see them through.
It is extraordinary that two years could unlock so much that had been built up and cemented in place over fifty some odd years. I can still point to regrets, but I am no longer just a sole embodiment of them. I have many failures from which to to learn, successes to surpass, but risk no longer feels like something I have to avoid at all cost. I have learned that it is completely up to me whether I like and am proud of my life, or not. It all comes down to whether I am willing to do the work or not.
It has all really boiled down to building self-trust. Trust that I can and will follow through. Trust that I am capable. And possibly most importantly, trust that I am worthy.
I now risk vulnerability without so much neediness. I reach out and ask for help and advice. I communicate directly with my husband and ask for what I need to feel safe and valued. I am even willing to walk away from what is not in my highest and greatest good.
Every morning I ask myself, “What is it I can do today that scares me and will give me the biggest bang for my buck?” I push myself to attack that task first. And when I feel my desire to say no and to hide coming up, I talk myself into saying yes because it will feel so much better in the end.
Even in this short time, I feel more comfortable in my own skin. And, the proof of the work I have done is this: if my life were to end tomorrow, I would not face it with the deep regrets and unhappiness of two years ago.
Are YOU taking responsibility for your own happiness?
Wilderness Walker – Costa Rica