A few weeks ago, a simple spat of teasing with someone I’m close to quickly triggered something in me: the feeling of being abandoned, being rejected, feeling unseen. And I immediately shut down.
It was such a simple, silly thing, but I couldn’t argue with my body’s response: It sensed danger (“You will be hurt”), and went into self-protection mode.
In the moment, none of it looked particularly dramatic. I just withdrew, as I do. I retreated. I shut down.
Less than 24 hours later, we were back to normal. But there were 24 hours of us trying to navigate how something so trivial had triggered such a response. And there were 24 hours where I wondered: How is this still coming up for me?
I’m rather preoccupied with wanting to be “fixed”; with wanting to identify and cure all of the emotional ailments that make me an unfit daughter/friend/partner/person. It often manifests itself in the self-help aisles of my local bookstore (and later, at the cash register, of course). It also shows up as exorbitant charges for in-person workshops and online courses that I’ll never complete.
The problem (to me) is that none of it ever fixes me. Even after 34 years, even after recognizing my wounds, even after reading the books, even after attending the workshops . . . one sentence (said in jest!) can send me into a triggered tailspin.
I come from a family of very emotionally tough people — people who don’t cry often and who take no shit. And for many, many (too many) years, I think I did a good job of pretending I was like them. Not because they necessarily wanted or needed me to be, but because I needed to be. My emotions, my trauma, my exploration of it all seemed weak — or rather, I feared it would seem weak to them (and to the world), so I covered it up as best I could.
I don’t regret that some of the workshops I’ve taken and a few of the many books I’ve read — and hell, some pretty life-altering experiences — eventually cracked my shell. Whether or not it seems weak to the world, I am an emotional creature. I embrace that now, and mostly, I’m okay with it.
What I struggle with still is the unhelpful, unhealthy emotions. The anxiety or sadness or anger that shows up — not as a legitimate response to real trauma — but as a patterned response to experiences from long ago. I struggle with the fact that these emotions — the ones that I’ve tried for so long to quit — still show up, and threaten the healthier relationships and experiences and life I’ve worked so hard to build.
Two and a half years ago, I stood on a stage and spoke about the power of changing your story. While I relished in the opportunity, in the days and months afterward I sort of spiraled into a retroactive impostor syndrome: Who was I to speak about changing your story when I still held tight to so many harmful personal narratives?
I’ve learned to be a little bit gentler with the imperfect girl who stood on that stage, but it’s still a process. I have to remind myself that this shit. takes. time. And I wonder: Can I turn this frustration with not being “fixed” into a gentle self-awareness and opportunity to shift something? To finally do things different?
One of my favorite writers recently shared a poem called, “You Could Be Soft Instead”:
You could be kind instead, she says.
You could love yourself into a new way of being.
Since there never seems to be enough hate
or blame, or shame, or punishment
to get the job done anyway.
You could run toward the world you want,
instead of escaping the one you don’t—
even as your eyes are blind, even though you cannot yet see, or feel, or touch—
what is waiting for you there.
In this constant quest to “fix” myself (and do it fast!), I often assume I am running toward the world I want, but I think I may actually just be escaping the one I don’t. I never want to make the same mistakes, but sometimes you have to make them again and again (and again) before you figure out how to do it differently.
Perhaps it’s okay for me to walk as I am, with new stories and old stories — and the harmful stories I’ve yet to start telling myself — toward the world I want? Because there’s enough hate or blame or shame or punishment.
And I could be kind instead.
If I can stay present to each little shift, all of my growth, where I am now versus where I was three years ago versus where I was ten years ago and so on . . . I can see that I am always changing my story, even if only one page at a time.
A version of this essay was originally published in my newsletter on March 17, 2019. Sign up here to receive personal essays, reading recommendations, and more every Sunday.