In my last post, I mentioned I was reading Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. This is not the kind of book you can read in one sitting. Chasing the things you’ve hidden for the majority of your life is no small task, and it’s usually a good idea not to rush the process.
The hardest thing about connecting with your shadow forces, I’m realizing, is finding where they are. Oddly enough, these thoughts and feelings have a tendency to, well, hide in the shadows, away from casual perusal. And for people like me, who have spent the better part of four decades shoving their darkness as far down into the bottom of the bag as humanly possible, cajoling them out into the shallow light can be quite the challenge.
So Monday, while waiting to see my doctor about a nasty sinus infection that just won’t go away (thank you, Kentucky springs and the glorious allergens you provide free of charge!), I popped on my earphones and started listening to a downloaded recording of one of Debbie’s radio shows from the Hay House Radio archive. And as I waited (more or less patiently), a solution appeared to me from nowhere (as they are wont to do when you are wandering in the general vicinity of the question).
How do you find your shadow?
In the course of one of the programs, Debbie Ford instructed a caller to ask herself how she wanted people to see her. What is the best impression she could give the world? And when the caller responded, Debbie told her to flip it around and find the opposite of that image was her shadow side. That, Debbie Ford insisted, was the shame-based shadow persona the caller was trying to deny.
And then she went a step further. As the caller digested the horror of identifying with the antithesis of her view of perfection, Debbie asked her to find the gift in that quality she despised about herself.
I’d like to say that I had an instant personal revelation about myself and my personal insights. But, of course, that’s when the knock came on the door and my doctor came in to talk to me.
Fortunately, this interruption gave my subconscious mind time to ponder upon the question, and by the time I was driving home, the question reared itself again—this time, ready for me to pony up an answer.
How did I want the world to see me? And what possible gift could I find in the humiliating mirror-image I had locked in the basement of my personality?
Beautiful Me, C’Est Moi!
The woman in the picture about is the lovely actress Janis Paige, a legend of the big budget Hollywood musicals of the 1950s. But my first introduction to Janis Paige was a little after her heyday in such classics as Silk Stockings and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. No, by the time I heard of Janis Paige, she’d become firmly entrenched in the TV guest star gigs, from Alice to Mary Tyler Moore to Columbo.
And she played Aunti Viv on Eight is Enough. Now, next to Mame Dennis, Auntie Viv was my idea of the perfect woman. She was worldly, smart, fun-loving, and free-spirited. She swept into town like a hurricane, fresh from all points strange and exotic, spoiling the kids with gifts and stories and leaving a havoc of creative chaos in her wake. (She was cool like The Brady Bunch‘s Aunt Jenny, but the actress playing her was much hotter than Imogene Coca, so she won.)
So, what is it about Auntie Viv, Auntie Mame, and all those other awesome spinsters/bon vivants that exemplified the person I wanted to be?
- They were worldly. All of them had eschewed the ordinary marriage and kids route for something more daring and glamorous. No dull, country life for this girl—she was meant for broader horizons.
- They were sophisticated. All of them surrounded themselves with the cream of the crop—intellectuals, artists, free thinkers, philosophers—and found depth and wisdom through the complex relationships they shared. It wasn’t enough for them to grow, live, and die with the same six opinions enveloping their lives. They craved variety.
- They were fun. All of these ladies were wacky and, yes, a bit crazy. Never a dull moment with these Aunties, who were just as likely to ride in on a camel as in a cab!
- They were wise and generous. Under the wild exteriors, each of these characters revealed herself to be much deeper and wiser than her persona might suggest. It is the outsider aunt who has the very word of advice the seeker needs at the precise moment they need it most.
- They were mysterious. The Aunties arrived in a whirl of smoke and lights, and departed just as quickly at the end of the episode or film. There was no chance to see the mundane side—the PMS, the monthly bill paying, waiting for a cab in the rain at yet another airport—alone. No, these ladies were always “on” and fabulous!
As much fun as it was to compare myself to the Vivs and Mames and Jennys of the world, eventually I had to move to the shadow side of the question—what is the opposite of these traits I don’t want to acknowledge in myself?
A picture arose in my mind that just made me cringe—the Anti-Auntie.
- She’s provincial. So wrapped up in the local mundane world that she can’t see past the edge of her driveway. Not that she’d want to. Anti-Auntie loves her tiny little world, and how important she feels being a Big Fish in a Little Pond.
- She’s mundane. Bring on the bologna sandwiches and Wednesday night television line-up. Anti-Auntie doesn’t like all that weird stuff. She sticks to the tried and true, preferably if she wasn’t the one who first had to try it. Safe and bland is the way to go.
- She’s boring. Why keep up with news of the world and research and philosophy? That stuff is for other people, snobs who think they’re better than us. Anti-Auntie sticks to whatever everybody else talks about. She doesn’t make waves, even in her own thoughts.
- She’s petty. The highlight of her life is the faults she can find with her neighbors, and she’s always on the lookout for the latest gossip. Anti-Auntie holds grudges for decades, destroys friendships over the most inane offenses, and never once questions the rightness of her beliefs.
- She’s overbearing. Every gathering, every party, every event, there must be a spot of Anti-Auntie. The longer she’s around, the more of a burden she becomes on family and friends who don’t dare insult her by not inviting her (even though they really don’t want her around). Oblivious to the fact that she’s not particularly welcome, Anti-Auntie never refuses an invitation and is always the first to arrive and last to leave.
What a horrifying picture.
And she’s my shadow personality.
That’s Why They Call It a Shadow
So the truth of it is, there are days when I don’t feel all that worldly, sophisticated, funny, or mysterious. There are days when I prefer my dull little routine to more challenging experiences, and times when I’m not above accepting a charity invitation to somewhere I want to go.
No matter how far I go, how much I learn, underneath there will always remain the fact that I grew up in a small town (see our courthouse in the picture above) in an isolated part of the country. To some extent, I will always be an ignorant, awkward, boring small-town hick who doesn’t get the joke and never gets invited to the cool parties.
Not a pretty picture, when looked at in the cold hard light of day, huh?
So Where’s the Gift?
The last part of Debbie Ford’s process is to face that part of you that you hate, and try to find the gift in it.
What could possibly be the gift of being a dull, unimportant hick from a small town in Louisiana?
It took me a little while, but eventually I found the nugget of gold, deep down in the shadowy caverns.
This horrible, narrow, dull little person I feared becoming drove me, pushed me to explore and expand my horizons. Every new idea I delve into, every new experience I have, every person of a different culture I try to understand, and every adventure I am brave enough to embrace—all of these are spurred on by that shadow fear of being dull, stupid, petty, or narrow.
From this shadow fear come the most wonderful experiences of my life, those Do I/Don’t I decisions where I decide to go for it when I otherwise might have shied away from the risk. Every time I was brave, every time I did something crazy that turned out to be a fantastic adventure, every time I tried something new that I learned to love, the Anti-Auntie was in the background, scolding and tsking and telling me not to make a fool of myself.
And Auntie Viv and Auntie Mame and Aunt Jenny were on the other side, laughing and telling me I had nothing to lose.
Easy choice, in retrospect.
Where To Now?
So now, thanks to this little process from Debbie Ford, I have new archetypes I can consciously use when making decisions. Do I follow the path of the Aunties, or the Anti-Auntie? Do I choose expansiveness and courage, or narrowness and fear?
And of course, that leads to the following questions for you, dear readers. Who are your Aunties? What are they like, and what characteristics do they have that you want to exemplify? Who is your Anti-Auntie, narrowing your scope and keeping you shackled to the safe and dull? And what gift has this Anti-Auntie given you, albeit sometimes in a roundabout way?
I’d love to hear what you discover. Please feel free to comment.
Recently a Canadian friend broke one of her own rules and suggested it might be best for me to consider moving north to Canada with my partner. In Canada, she said, not only could I legally marry my partner of 10+ years, but I’d have access to universal healthcare and Social Security that actually means something. In addition to the legal and financial benefits, I’d be out of this insanity that seems to have gripped my home country by the throat.
I have to admit, the thought is alluring (especially when she assured me Canada is not all ice and snow, 365 days a year). I’m currently a resident of my third U.S. state, and I still haven’t managed to live anywhere “blue.” I went from conservative Catholic country to conservative Mormon country, only to land up most recently in conservative Baptist country. And despite the various differences between the three groups, they all seem to be agreed on one general belief: people like me are dangerous, offensive, and definitely going to hell.
Then there is the matter of corporate takeover of our entire way of life, from government to the quality of our food to the music we listen to on the radio. There are the increases in crime and decreases in income to consider. Bigotry against minorities, erosion of educational standards, pollution and a crumbling infrastructure–oh, my!
Let’s face it–the United States of America in 2011 is a freaky kind of place. And my Canadian friend is not the first person to suggest I might be better off leaving America for a more stable, rational locale.
It Wasn’t Always Like This (Was It?)
I was born in the mid-Sixties, just as the Movement Generation started gearing up in earnest. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the GLBT Equality Movements were the soundtrack of my formative years. My earliest lessons were about how you shouldn’t exploit the migrant workers, how girls should have the same opportunities as boys, how we were here, queer, and everybody should just get over it. Gloria Steinem, Sally Ride, and Joan Baez were placed before me as the Feminine Ideal. Sesame Street was my summer home, that glorious rainbow of education, kindness, and creativity.
Somewhere, though, it all started changing. Somewhere the peaceful voices singing folk tunes switched to greedy songs of misogyny and racism, hatred and aggression. Somewhere the idea of saving the world turned to dreams of owning the world, and everything in it. Politics became meaner, society became harsher, and that American dream we all were taught to believe in started looking more like a drug-induced nightmare.
Maybe I Should Leave
In the wired up world, it’s become more and more clear to me that America is not exactly like the rest of the world. This craziness of hatred and financial devastation may exist in many countries, but not all of them. There are places in the world that are not overrun by this rabid, polarized ideological zeitgeist that continues to rip my country to shreds.
Some places are better. Safer, for people like me. Some places seem very much like a haven, a refuge for the weary American worn out by the fighting and the drama and the fear pushed on us by individuals and institutions that prosper from chaos and terror.
It’s hard to say no to the chance at a peaceful existence, where half the population doesn’t consider me a sinner, a pervert, or a nutcase.
It’s Really That Simple
When I look around at the state of my country, the promise of democracy, “the greatest country on Earth,” as we were taught in school, I want to weep. In the richest country on Earth, over 43 million people live in poverty, with a third of them under the age of 18. In 2009, according to Feeding America statistics, over 50 million Americans lived in what they call “food insecure” households. As of September 2010, over 50 million Americans did not have health insurance. One in four American women has experienced domestic violence in her life time, and there were over 6,600 hate crimes in 2009, based on race, religion or sexual orientation.
This is not the America I love. This is not the America I believe in. This is some Mirror Universe America, where the bad guys win, hate is the order of the day, and people just get stupider every year.
At the bottom of it all, though, no matter how much greener the grass may look in Canada or the UK or other countries, I am an American. I was born here. I grew up here. I get the jokes. I know the terrain. I understand the people–at least, I think I do. And I know that we are not seeing the best of America. I know that within this cauldron of diversity and conflict we can find an amazingly complex and potent combination of values and ideas–if only we have the courage to move beyond our fear and prejudice.
As long as I’m here, paying my taxes, casting my vote, contributing to society, I have a voice and the right to use that voice to speak up. I cannot fight the good fight from the outside. Once I leave this country, I leave it for good. I’m no longer “one of us.” My voice will lose its potency, dimmed by the fact that “I turned tail when the going got tough.”
Just like no American has the right to bitch about the government if they don’t bother to vote, I don’t have the right to bitch about what’s going wrong in the country if I move away. (It may not seem logical, but it’s an American thing.) If I want to have a voice in the future of my country, the country where my nieces and nephews will grow to adults, I need to stay here. I need to stick it out, no matter how unwelcome my fellow Americans sometimes make me feel.
The Thorn in the Paw
America, my home, my beloved country, will never pull itself out of this self-destructive quagmire until its citizens stand up and speak clearly. Until voices of reason and compassion rise up to drown out the hatred and propaganda that threatens the true values of America–freedom, integrity, and justice–the fight will not be done. Until human life has more value than corporate profits, and respect trumps hatred, I can’t leave the United States of America.
To my friends in other countries, I love you. I thank you for your concern, and for considering that I might be an asset to your homes. You can’t know how honored I am to know that you would welcome me, were I to turn up on your borders. You don’t know how grateful I am, when I turn on the television and see yet another story on how things are going to hell in a hand basket, to know that the entire world hasn’t gone mad.
But this is America, and I am American. This is an amazing country, filled with beautiful, amazing people. I am a citizen of the world, yes, but this is my home. This is where my family is, where my memories were made, where my values were formed. I won’t abandon it now, when it needs me the most.
When I was a kid, I was afraid of everything. My own shadow, my own voice, my power, my weakness. I was afraid of being right. I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid of speaking up, and even more of remaining silent. I believe my entire life has been a series of lessons trying to teach me for once and for all to be brave.
Most people who did not know me as a child find it hard to believe how frightened I was when I was younger. I’ve sort of made a reputation at work as the gal who will say what everybody else is thinking, but doesn’t dare say out loud. Believe me when I tell you, that attitude did not come quickly or easily.
When I was younger, I bought very much into the Myth of Expertise. Teachers knew about learning. Parents knew about living. The nuns knew about God, and the guy on the news knew about everything else. There was always some point, somewhere in the fuzzy future, where one acquires the education and life experience to call themselves an expert. These people have a superior knowledge of All Things and must be listened to and obeyed at all cost.
From birth, it seems, we are trained out of our own intuition, our own internal sense of right and wrong. Some of us learn the lesson very well, and refuse to think, feel, or act without the prior approval of Someone Who Knows Better. Others are born rebels, going out of their way to resist any form of guidance or instruction in favor of what they know is true.
Self-Confidence as a Form of Rebellion
Back in school, there were a few people I practically idolized amongst my school mates. There was one guy who dared discuss Buddhism with the Brothers in religion class, and bucked the dress code at prom by wearing high tops with his tux years before that fad came and went. There was the girl who wore blue streaks in her hair and spiked leather bracelets at school, no matter how often Sister Barbara Nell glared at her in the halls. And then there was that rare, precious teacher who dared get real with us. The one who spoke about religion in its historical context, acknowledging the inconsistencies and challenging us to find our faith amidst the chaos of paradox that was the Catholic religion.
All of these people had a couple of things in common—they knew their mind and wouldn’t be pressured into silence or conformity. They expressed themselves articulately and with confidence in a way that never made their rebellion feel like childishness or stubbornness. And mostly, they forced me to think, to open my mind and really question my beliefs and values.
Be the Change You Want to See in the World
Growing from sullen teen to disappointed adult gave me ample opportunity to voice my disgust with people and The State of Things. On any given day, I could find myself complaining about one thing or another—conservatives, conformists, preppies, jocks—all those people who didn’t fit into my narrow little tunnel of correctness. (Oh, and don’t forget people who listened to Country Music and anyone associated with nighttime soap operas.) My music was true, my thoughts were authentic, and everybody who disagreed with me obviously fell into the category of idiot, poser, or wannabe. (Okay, we didn’t have the terms poser and wannabe in the 80s, but you get my drift.)
And all the while, as I silently judged everyone and everything around me, I was conforming. I went to a job I didn’t like, in an industry I strongly disapproved of, working among people with whom I had nothing in common. I went home and watched TV and dreamed of a life where I could be true, but did nothing at all to make it happen.
Sometimes Courage Comes When You Have Nowhere Left to Fall
In 1993, I got laid off from my job in That Horrible Industry. I packed two boxes and a duffel bag and got on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, leaving behind everything I knew for a place on a friend’s couch and a job in a bread factory that I didn’t exactly want. I arrived in Phoenix, went to my job, and quit after one eight hour shift.
I did not move halfway across the country to kill my soul in another dead-end job.
I was very lucky. I had wonderful friends who let me crash with them until I could afford a place of my own, and I was brave (or stupid) enough to think I could make it on my own working temp jobs.
And I did. Somehow, despite very low wages and almost no practical job experience, I managed to scrape through.
Courageh is a Choice
Along with my new desert life and my friends and my inconsistent job situation, I made a conscious decision to go out on a limb in my personal life. My first point of business was to expand the mind that had grown horribly closed (or at least narrow) in the first twenty-something years of my life.
Each month, I took a bit of my salary and went to Best Buy. I would go to the world music section and purchase a CD from a country I knew nothing about. That’s how I discovered the Bulgarian Women’s Choir.
I also tried my hand at songwriting. That’s how I discovered filk.
(My song is beautifully recorded here by the Harmony Heifers on their self-titled album from Mystic Fig Music.)
Yes, I wrote that, along with about two more albums full of music and parodies. I performed with some friends at SciFi conventions from Phoenix to Baltimore during the 90s.
For a long time, I was getting myself out there, out on a limb, having fun and being creative.
And Then What Happened?
Somewhere along the line, I got scared again. Somewhere along the line, I silenced my voice again. While I still took time to be creative and have fun, more often than not (especially in the work arena), I found myself stifling again.
I suppose you could blame the economy. The 90s were very good to me financially. I eventually got a great job with a software company doing work I loved. I was surrounded by intelligent, open-minded people. I had good friends and a cozy little apartment and as the new millennium rolled around, I found myself in an incredible relationship. And then…well, lots happened.
And Then What Happened Next?
2001 took the wind out of most Americans. Suddenly, fear was a national pastime, complete with paranoia and suspicion at its side. It was not the time for difference, or for courage of individuality. Instead of focusing on expansion, we as a culture contracted emotionally and intellectually.
I found myself in a world not exactly suitable to me. I found myself in the very real experience of being jobless—on food stamps at one point, going to the local food bank once a week with my hat in my hands. Fey and I supported ourselves and her mother on her SSI check for an entire summer while I looked for work—in fact, in 2005 my gross personal annual income was $2500. (No, that was not a typo.)
There’s something about lack—of opportunity, of freedom, of mobility—that transforms a person. You start to appreciate things you took for granted before. You also don’t ever, ever want to find yourself in that place again.
Capitalizing on Fear
There are a lot of people and institutions that thrive on fear. Fear keeps people docile, and fear keeps people humble, and fear makes people tolerate things they’d never abide by otherwise.
As we grow older, we often sacrifice our dreams and our fun for safety—or at least the illusion thereof. We forget about that book we wanted to write, or the play we wanted to try out for. We put away the paint brushes and woodworking tools and resign ourselves to going to work for someone else and marking the rest of time with television or alcohol or mindless entertainment.
Fear kills passion. It also kills hope.
Finding the Strength
Somewhere, in the past few years, I made a pact with myself not to make decisions based on fear. It took a long time, because I had so much to be afraid of.
Discovering my truth. How can you speak your truth when you don’t know what it is? Before I could reclaim my dreams and my courage, I had to really stop and figure out what my truth was. What did I believe in? What values and traits did I want to promote in the world? How could I make the world a better place through my actions and words?
Living my truth. It’s hard to be truly afraid when you’re living an honest life. In order to dispel fear, I had to clean up my own back yard, clean out those skeletons that might someday come back to haunt me. I’m not talking about murder or corruption—I’m talking about silly things that seem so huge to me (and trivial to other people).
Making my peace. So many of my fears and insecurities have been rooted in experiences from my childhood. People who were cruel to me, mistakes I made that humiliated me, fears and doubts that plagued me. Never being good enough. Never fitting in. Before I could live my truth and be the courageous person I wanted to be, I had to find the grace to let go. Not forgive. Not forget. Just let go. Of the past. Of my disappointments. Of my anger and desire for revenge. Just let go, and make life about today.
So Now You’re Perfect?
Hardly. I still have my fears and doubts and insecurities. I still have days when I fear I will be outed as a complete fraud, mocked and humiliated by my coworkers, and cast out onto the street by my employers.
But I’m getting better. Each day, I make a conscious effort to do the absolute best work I can do. Not for my boss, not for a promotion, not for fame and fortune. I do it because it is the only thing I can tolerate from myself. Not perfection or grandiosity, simply the best I can do. Each day, I want to leave work knowing I worked hard, didn’t slack off, didn’t shove things under the carpet, and didn’t betray my values.
Each day, I come home to my partner of ten years and give her the best I can. I am honest and respectful. I am patience and generous. I still have my three-year-old moments (we both do), but Fey and I both go to sleep each night knowing we did our best.
And How’s That Working for Ya?
Oddly enough, when I started cleaning up my own house, I discovered the return of my courageous, plucky self. I found that I could speak up at work, in a respectful tone (when I remembered) without fear of retaliation. I found that I could begin to ask for what I wanted without feeling guilty. And I discovered, to my utter amazement, that all those friends I thought I had lost when I was going through my Long Dark Teatime of the Soul were still out there—older, wiser, and still very much the people I once loved.
By giving up on fear as motivation, I found opportunities peaking their heads through the window again. Maybe not in massive droves, like in the 90s, but more and more frequently. I found inspiration to write again—not just fan fiction (where I had made sort of a name for myself), but original work.
And at work, I found peace again. I may lose my job tomorrow, and that would suck. But I will know that I did everything I could do to be the best I could be. And I will know that the universe is not scary and paranoid and horrible like the post-9/11 fear-mongers wanted us to believe. The universe is abundant. The universe is exciting. The universe is full of adventures, just waiting to be had.
And I’m ready for a few new adventures. What about you?
There is a little slip of paper I have taped to my desk with a quote on it from Martha Graham:
“There is a vitality…a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
I read the first chapter of Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” today and had to reach desperately for that Martha Graham quote. The writing in this book is so clean, so real and present, that it sort of blew me away. Of course, the first thing any writer does when they read really great fiction is to compare it to their own work.
I truly believe my 45th year is going to be about finding my own expression–that quickening that is translated only through me into action. “It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.” I should have that tatooed on my wrist.
I wonder how artists do it, all the time? How does an actress get through her day without looking at others and thinking that other actresses do it better? How does a sculpter fire that piece without thinking another sculpter could have been more true to the subject?
Is it simply the lot of the creative soul to constantly self-judge? Or is there some way out of this quandary?
“It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
It is my business to say my peace, whether in fiction or nonfiction. It is my business to tell my truth, and never worry that my truth is somehow less important than that expressed by others.
We only have a short time on this planet. Why not tell the truth? Why not be brave? Why not live like an artist, creative and passionate and honest?
There is nothing to be gained in comparison. Comparing my writing to Alice Sebold’s is like comparing a penguin to a volcano–both are important, interesting, natural…but they’re nothing alike.
If you read this, and you’re feeling the urge to compare yourself to someone else, please just stop. Stop for a second, or a minute, or as long as you can resist. Don’t kick yourself if you fall and compare again. Just pick yourself up and try again.
Don’t close the channel. Keep it open. The universe needs every expression of truth it can get.
Peace to you,
Last week I posted about negativity and the systematic self-sabotage we engage in when we allow it to destroy our peace of mind. Today, I want to discuss an even more insidious threat to a joyful work experience—exaggerated modesty.
Blowing Your Own Horn
So many of my early childhood memories involve being accused of bragging, blowing my own horn, or just plain showing off. I was saddled with the twin burdens of “enormous potential” and “minimal social skills.” As a child, I never quite grasped the social niceties involved in life—I innocently thought if you knew the answer to a question, you answered the question. I also thought if you knew how to do something that needed to be done, you did it. If you were born with a talent, you used it.
It took a while for me to learn that there were times to admit you could do something or that you knew something, and there were times when admitting such things was a sure-fire way to social rejection.
Nobody Likes a Know-It-All
Somewhere along the line, I internalized the myth that if you’re too smart, too talented, or too clever, not only will people hate you, but you will be ignored in favor of people “who need more help.” Decades before I understood the concept of “learned helplessness,” I had figured out that if you were precocious, the teacher either set you up as an example for the rest of the kids (aka, Instant Unpopular Kid) or sat you in a corner with next semester’s text book so that you could teach yourself while the “slower kids” got the teacher’s attention.
At home, it was not much better. No matter how many A’s I brought home, I never got as much attention as when a sibling would get a high grade, merely because I was expected to bring home good grades. I was also punished for Bs and Cs, while they were merely expected with my siblings.
They’re Not Trying to Destroy Your Life, Really….
Did teachers and parents try to pit kids and siblings against each other in a battle for attention and praise? Of course not. Most of these adults had the best of intentions, wanting to build up self-esteem for struggling kids and keep the ones who excelled interested and challenged.
Unfortunately, that usually wasn’t the result. Instead of strong, challenged, engaged adults, we wound up with several generations of adults who either feared being stupid or hid their abilities under a basket for fear of being rejected. This policy of impossible expectations for some and significantly lowered expectations for others cheated all out of the chance to fully explore our abilities.
Your Boss is Not Your Teacher
It’s funny how similar the modern office environment is to fourth grade. You have the Teacher’s Pets, who always seem to get special treatment from the boss. You have the Show-Offs, who are obviously bucking for promotion and don’t care who they step on in their mad dash to the corner office. You have the TroubleMakers, those snotty wisecrackers who barely stay one step ahead of termination but who always seem to have an aura of cool around them. And finally, you have “The Rest of U”s, those employees who aren’t stars and who aren’t losers—the ones who show up, do what’s expected and no more, get their paychecks and go home.
Very quickly in the office environment, each individual is sorted into their category. The Teacher’s Pets and Show-Offs get the raises and the promotions, while the TroubleMakers and The Rest of Us hang around, grousing and complaining and gossiping.
Nice Guys Never Win
Perhaps the most damaging and insidious myth about success is the one that claims Nice Guys Never Win. Women especially internalize this myth—anything even remotely resembling ambition is reserved for Bitches and Users. Taking credit for the work you do and the skills you have is bragging. Blowing your own horn is for Show Offs and those Other People—not of “Us.”
By clinging to that desperate need to be liked and accepted, ingrained in us as children by well-meaning teachers and parents, most of “Us” tolerate situations we’d never dream of tolerating for someone we loved.
Helping Everyone But Myself
For decades, I’ve been the Go-To Gal for resumes and letters of recommendation. No matter where I’m working, it doesn’t take long for people to realize I’m darned clever with the written word. So when a coworker is looking to beef up their resume for an internal (or sometimes external) job posting, their resume usually winds up on my desk. And more often than not, it leaves my desk infinitely better than it arrived. I can’t count the number of recommendations I’ve written for people who eventually went on to outrank me in the same company. I just have a talent for seeing people’s strengths and then putting them into a cohesive, persuasive format.
The 1990s gave us a TV show called Charmed about the magical Halliwell Sisters (aka The Charmed Ones). These gals were smart, sexy, and massively powerful witches. Oh, and yeah, one more thing—they couldn’t use their powers for personal gain. Sounds like the story of my life.
A few weeks back, I was given a self-review sheet to fill out for my annual review. I remember looking at it and thinking back on all the things I’d accomplished in 2010. Then I thought of all the times I’d made others look great, and it hit me like a freight train that I never did the same thing for myself.
For my entire work career, the words of my teachers and well-meaning adults haunted the back of my mind. “Don’t show off,” they whispered in my ears. “You have gifts they don’t have—you should help them instead of blowing your own horn.” I stared at that paper, and the voices just got louder. “It’s cheating. You can make anyone look good—if you did that for yourself, you’d have an unfair advantage.” I blinked several times and put the paper away. But the voices didn’t stop. “Who do you think you are, anyway? Nobody likes a bragger. You think you’re so smart, don’t you? Sure, you do a lot of work, and you’re really good at it, but you’re supposed to do a lot of work and be really good at it. It’s easier for you—there’s no real value in it. It’s not like you have to try that hard—you just know how to do it faster and more efficiently.” Blah, blah, blah…
It’s Not Bragging if It’s True
Fortunately for me, I have my own personal life coach in my partner, Fey. Our sessions usually take place in the car, driving around enjoying the natural beauty of Kentucky in the summer. Fey could tell I was concerned, and asked me to tell her what was going on.
When I voiced my fears and doubts to her, she patiently tried to put things in perspective for me. It went something like this:
“But Fey, I’m really good with words. It feels like cheating when I use it to help myself.”
A long pause, mercifully free of eye-rolling, then Fey started:
“If an athlete with great natural abilities wins awards and prizes, is he or she cheating?”
“If a singer with a remarkable voice sells a zillion records and becomes a superstar, is he or she cheating?”
Well, duh, no.
“So, Deb, why exactly is it cheating for you to use your writing abilities to help you get a better performance review?”
Um, because it’s bragging.
“It’s not bragging if it’s true.”
We’re Not in Fourth Grade Anymore, Are We?
That night in the car with Fey, I came to a profound realization. We’re not children anymore. We’re not at the mercy of our teachers and parents and peers anymore, are we? Even if people still grouse and gossip and roll their eyes, there is just no reality in which being ashamed of your abilities is cool.
The only thing we ever really have to answer to is the voice in our head, the one that asks what you have done today, what have you accomplished, what did you do to make things better?
I’d like to say I just got over myself and took a full-page ad touting my abilities to the world. But I’m not there yet. The lessons of the past are hard to overcome, especially the ones that left you mocked and ostracized and shamed by your peers.
But I did manage to take that self-review and fill it out as if it were for another person, not me. I was honest. I left nothing out. I put everything in the best light I could, maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses without ever once being dishonest. I didn’t think about who’s feelings might get hurt—why would anyone get hurt by the truth? I didn’t think about who would think I was bragging—it’s not bragging if it’s true.
When I finished, I read the self-review, still seeing it as somebody else’s story.
And it was pretty good.
Making Peace with Your Gifts
At some point in the game, we all have to make peace with our gifts and our struggles. In the work place, we can’t afford to think like school children anymore. We have to be adults and take
responsibility, not just for our mistakes but also for our victories. We have to get past that school-yard mentality that says “different is dangerous” and “smart is for losers.”
There is no special pass to Heaven for workers who suffer in silence. There is no great reward at the end of the road for hiding your light under a basket. All there is is resentment and a mediocre career.
I don’t think I will ever stop helping others tell their story in the best way possible. I don’t think there’s a limit on the amount of success that is available, and helping my friend to succeed does not hurt me in the least. But I’m not a Halliwell, and there is no punishment for using my own abilities for personal gain. I can still be one of the good guys, even if I do brag…just a little.
Peace to you until next time,
I’ve been in Corporate America(TM) for a zillion years, mostly at Drone Level with occasional forays into leadership. And if there is one thing in the universe that smacks more thoroughly of Corporate America than The Team-Building Activity, I have yet to see it.
Recently, our team meetings have expanded to include one of these little gems each week. Mostly they’re harmless, stupid, or just plain time-wasting. But every once in a while, one will come back with surprising returns. Like this morning’s activity, The Positive Word Game. Simply put, each team member anonymously submits a single positive adjective describing all of his or her team members. These words are collected and given to the team-mate, who then reads them aloud in the meeting.
My words were as follows:
My first reaction was, “Dramatic? Who says I’m dramatic? I must know who considers me dramatic, and why?” (Okay, the dramatic part probably applies.) Actually, viewed calmly, all of these words apply to me.
So why was I shocked, stunned, and even a little hurt?
I think this is where a person’s self-image and their outward image come into conflict. You see, I see myself as all of these things (except Dramatic–dude, I am SO not about the drama. Seriously. I’m a Drama-Free Zone.), but they are not the primary traits I see in myself.
The words I expected to receive were more along the line of:
So how is it that my coworkers see such a different side of me than I see of myself? Are they not looking? Am I not showing that part of me? Or is it that the corporate atmosphere tends to stifle these more human characteristics in favor of less “touchy-feely” traits?
And is this life I’m living, these 40 hours a week I’m spending in the corporate landscape, actually changing me? Is it smoothing away my quirky edges in favor of a more analytical personality?
I’m absolutely sure this was not the desired intent of the team building activity. But there you go. My life, in fifteen minutes.
Till next time, loves.
I just finished reading Anne Lamott’s remarkable book, Bird by Bird, which was sent to me by a dear friend who is also a writer. I’m not sure where she got the idea that this book would resonate with me–it’s not like I have sent long, needy emails to everyone I know, begging for reassurance that I am not a complete hack and that my writing is not, as I have been known to describe it, “worthless drivel perpetuated by a slug with delusions of grandeur.”
No. Not me.
Reading Lamott’s book was a godsend for me. Not only did it give me permission to be completely mad (which I assume most people who identity as serial writers are), but it gave me permission to write, even if I never become a Rich and Famous Writer.
What a glorious release it is, to know that I am a writer because I write. Because I choose to express my understanding of this admittedly disturbed cosmos through words. No agent, editor, publisher, or bookseller can tell me whether or not I am a writer.
After finishing the book, I did a couple of things. First, I handed it to my beloved partner Fey, so she could get a glimpse into what she’s dealing with. The madness, the insecurity, the complete and utter intellectual neediness–these are all part of the game when you’re with a writer. But the glorious observation, the joy of being able to express things in a way that’s wholly unique–these are the flip side of the equation.
After securing from her a promise to read a chapter a day for me, I then went to my abandoned diet book and started reading. I’d given up the whole idea of writing a diet book because, a) I gained back half the weight, and b) I’m not An Authority on anything. But reading the first chapter, I realized I had something to say, and I was saying it in a funny, honest sort of way.
Finally, I started a new blog, called Ten Thousand Soapboxes, where I could publish some of my essays. I have not abandoned fiction, because I feel I spin a fairly good yarn. But I am not going to limit myself to what I write anymore, just because that is what I think it takes to make me An Important Writer.
The only important writer is the one who’s writing.
Everyone else is just taking up space on the book shelves.