A Hellish Year, Part 4: On Unsustainable Patterns

For many years I had a post-it note above my desk with the words TRY HARDER on it. The letters were in all caps, scratched angrily into its small yellow square.


If I didn’t find the time to write during the day: TRY HARDER.

If I felt too tired to make a balanced, delicious meal, or clean the bathroom, or play with the kids instead of propping them in front of the TV for an hour: TRY HARDER.

I feel exhausted just writing about it.

My need to TRY HARDER comes out of a very complicated place. It definitely has its roots in my low self-worth that I spoke about in one of the very first Hellish Year  posts: the idea that I am not enough, that I am unlovable. But not in the way one might think.

Because, and as hard as it is to admit to myself at this juncture, J made me feel loved. And in our early years he asked me this question:  if I thought so low of myself, what must I think of him for being with me? What did that make him, who chose to be with someone who sucked so badly?

I heard and felt that question the way you simultaneously hear and feel an earthquake: it was a sonic boom that shifted everything inside me.

I was loved. Somebody loved me. I could no longer believe that my actions did not matter. Somebody else would be affected by what I chose to do.

Now, it is not that I thought I did not deserve to be loved – everybody deserves to be loved. It is just that before this moment, I never really believed anyone outside my family did.

But now there was this man who loved me enough to get angry with me when I spiraled into one of my shame rants.

There was no way I was going to take that for granted. I would do everything I could to be worthy of that love.

And thus, the TRY HARDER  mantra.

In a way, I am grateful for my low self-worth. I am grateful that I do not take the people around me for granted (at least I don’t think I do. I really, really hope I don’t.) That I realize that being loved is a miraculous thing, something to cherish and treat well, that requires maintenance and care. I am proud of that. Though it might have come from a dubious place, not taking people for granted is a practice I intend to continue.

The problem, though, is that I did not love myself (I know. I apologize for any inadvertent Jack Handy moments). No, that is too simplistic. It is not that I didn’t love myself (honestly, to this day I am not sure what that even means. How do you love or not love yourself? How can one separate oneself from oneself to project these emotions as if we were separate from ourselves? It confuses me, I won’t lie.) And I never hated myself, or at least I don’t think I did. I just wanted to be Me but Better.

I thought I could make myself a better person by beating myself up, by forcing myself to try harder, do more, be thinner and more attractive (I will tackle that can of worms in a later post when I work up the courage) like I was both drill sergeant and recruit in a  BE A BETTER PERSON boot camp.

Thus the cycle of making unrealistic expectations for myself, failing to meet them, beating myself up about it, making more unrealistic expectations and so on and so on. In short, an unsustainable pattern.

This came clear to me in the months that followed J’s announcement. The first self-help books I gravitated towards were about women and sexuality (because obviously, if a man wasn’t interested in me anymore it must because I was somehow physically lacking, right? I know. I take solace from the knowledge that this is in part an internalized gendered response to the situation).

Anyways. Ironically, the most helpful thing I learned was not about sex at all. It came from a great book (which I think every woman should read) called Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski. She is talking about the need to replace self-criticism with self-kindness and women’s response to this:

“…When women start to think concretely about it, they begin to discover a sense that they need their self-criticism in order to stay motivated. We believe it does us good to torture ourselves, at least a little bit.

As in: “If I stop beating myself up for the ways I’m not perfect, that’s like admitting to the world –and to myself — that I’ll never be perfect, that I’m permanently inadequate! I need my self-criticism in order to maintain hope and to motivate myself to get better.”

When we tell ourselves, ” I can’t stop criticizing myself or else I will fail forever!” that’s like saying, “I can’t stop running/fighting/playing dead, or the lion will eat me!” [this is speaking about the stress cycle]. That’s absolutely what our culture has taught us, so it makes sense that many of us believe it. Its so entrenched in our culture that it sounds…sane. Rational, even.

But it’s not.

Think about it: What would really happen if you stopped running from yourself or beating yourself up? What would happen if you put down the whip you’ve been flogging yourself with for decades?

When you stop beating yourself up — when you stop reinjuring yourself –what happens is…you start to heal.

I read this and bam! Another sonic boom in my head. Because I have actually said those exact words out loud to people: if I am not hard on myself, how will I get better? Nagoski also asks the reader if they would say what they say to themselves to their daughter or best friend.

I read that and thought about all the things I tell myself. And then I imagined telling them to my daughters.


And also, ouch.

So. This is what I am working on: self-compassion. It has been sorely lacking through out my life and now I need to make up for it. This does not mean that I won’t continue to try and be a better person. I hope I always will (or else where is the meaning in this crazy journey?) The difference will be that I will stop the self-flagellation, the psychological hair shirts. I will practice treating myself the way I treat (at least I think I do) those I love: with kindness, respect and compassion.









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