No Matter What They Think

Yesterday my fifth graders participated in a Living History Museum at school. It was a project they’ve been working on for some time that started with a question: what historical figure (who’s had an impact) would you like to know more about? They did research, prepared display boards about their chosen person, and then they were tasked with writing speeches to deliver AS the historical figure.

blue-sky-camels-desert-71241My daughter chose Marie Curie. This is not a surprising choice for her as she is quite the scientist. She was excited to play an important female scientist for her project. My son, who has always been really into ancient history, chose Ramses II (sometimes called Ramses the Great), an Egyptian pharaoh. Again, he stayed true to form in his choice.

I watched them both struggle with finding the information they needed. I quietly observed as they tried to find stories that would make their presentations particularly interesting. I listened to them practice their speeches (from afar – no peeking allowed). Everything was going swimmingly, until we got to the costume phase.

My daughter had no problem. She looked at a bunch of photos of Marie Curie, noted that in all of them she was wearing a lot of black, that she wore dresses and that she wore her hair in a bun. She was able to abstract an idea of what she should wear that would give the overall effect, and that she already had in her closet. Easy peasy. You have to know what’s coming…

My son didn’t seem to register that costumes were part of this whole thing. He caught on eventually as his classmates began to talk about their preparations. I kept approaching him for a conversation about what he might wear. The problem with an ancient historical figure is that there are no photos. There are guesses, approximations. My son really doesn’t like guesses and approximations. He also wasn’t thrilled to discover that much of what was available to us in the way of guesses looked like dresses to him. Being an 11 year old boy can be a rough road.

After he rejected a few of my homemade notions, we ventured out to our local Party City, the only source for costume type items when it’s not Halloween. He was visibly horrified by his options. I attempted to logic him out of that. He became downcast. I got impatient. His sister played helpful clown for us (and I mean that in the best way) by demonstrating some truly ridiculous options. As he withdrew, my daughter and I assembled some pieces that we thought would reasonably approximate the ancient ruler. He finally rallied a little to examine what we’d chosen. He agreed that we had done the best we could with what was available and was even enough of a sport to try some things on before we left to make sure it would all work out, but the energy about the project had left the building. He was visibly upset about the whole thing.

Later, when his sister was elsewhere, I asked what was bothering him, why he’d gone from SUCH enthusiasm about this whole thing to seeming like he’d rather do just about anything else. “It’s the other kids Mom; they’re all going to laugh at me.” And I saw it in his face, the fear that idea creates. The sentence sort of echoed in my head. It really is at the heart of most of our fears, isn’t it? “They’re all going to laugh at me. They’ll hate it. They won’t like me. Nobody will want to be/play/spend time with/work with/marry/date me.” Rejection. Dismissal. Humiliation.

So we talked. We talked about why he chose Ramses II. We talked about his character. We talked about how excited he had been. We talked about the historical figures the other boys had chosen (“All of their people just wear suits. They all picked famous businessmen.”). I reminded him that he chose someone interesting to HIM. I reminded him that he chose someone he wanted to know about. I reminded him that he gets to be who he is and be interested in who he is. And then, just for good tween measure, I threw in the fact that probably most of his classmates would feel awkward and silly in their costumes too. They would all be nervous about giving speeches. “Did you like learning about Ramses?” The answer was a resounding yes. He liked learning about ancient Egypt. He liked the historical figure he chose. It was all about the laughing.

I comforted him. The Mom in me nervously assured him that people wouldn’t make fun of him as they would likely look silly in one way or another, but I knew that might not be true and that it also wasn’t the point. It was just that moment.

So I tried my best to do the other things he needed me to do. I tried to let him get it all out – all of the fear, all of the worry, without talking him out of it the whole time or making him feel silly for having it. And then I tried to make him feel good enough, wonderful even, for being exactly who he is.

It worked well enough. He put on his full costume (which I’d show you but both of my kids have recently banned us from sharing pics). My seminarian and I went to school at the appointed time so we could see the presentations. They were great. All of the kids were dressed up and had obviously worked very hard.

When I went to my young man and pressed the button that was supposed to animate his historical figure I was delighted to hear a fact-filled and really funny speech. I was so proud and he was all smiles. I asked later who his favorite was (he said: “You mean besides my sister?”. He replied, of course, King Tut.

acid-citric-citrus-997725He was who he is. He got scared. He was afraid people would not like it or him and would embarrass him, humiliate him. None of that happened (although it could have). But he got to the end of the day proud of himself and thoroughly engaged in his learning. It was a thing of beauty and a great demonstration for this light worker that the fear is never enough reason to stop being who I am, no matter what all of the other kids might think.

Being Home

I’ve just spent most of the weekend with friends. Because it’s a long weekend here in the U.S. we accepted invitations to parties on both Saturday and Sunday nights. Whoa – I know, pushing the introvert envelope a little, right? There was some overlap to the guest lists too, so we saw a whole lot of some folks.

alcohol-bar-blur-313715Both parties were really lovely. The weather, which was threatening to bring us monsoons, held off in our little area so we were able to enjoy our hosts’ decks and slightly more country than where we live vistas. My daughter got to feed my friend’s chickens, and that was really fun to watch. Overall it was a lovely time.

So, what? The so what for me is that in the past this would have been exhausting. Completely and thoroughly exhausting, not just because of the wine (which was definitely present and I am a little slow for it this morning), but (in my understanding) because of all of the people. I am a self-classified introvert and all of the signs suggest that I am absolutely right about that. And so in the past I assumed that it was that introversion that made these gatherings tough for me: difficult to be at, hard to enjoy, a struggle to engage in, so really attended out of obligation rather than enjoyment. So THAT’s the so what. I really had a lovely time AND when my seminarian woke from his lie-in this morning I asked if he wanted to try to schedule something with friends. He looked at me a little askance and I asked: “Peopled out?” he grunted yes into his coffee.

I am an introvert. I still need alone time to recharge. I still need quiet time to feel my best. I still have to balance my group scenes with my solo flights, but something is different and I think it’s actually a big so what.

I think the difference is in the amount of work I had to do to be there.

You see, in the past I would have started worrying about these events well in advance.

I would have worried about what to wear.

I would have worried about what dish to bring.

I would have worried about who else was going to be there and if there were enough “comfortable people” for me to cling to.

And as I cycled through these worries, I would have doubled back and worried about them again.

I likely would have changed my mind about what to wear a few times ahead of time.

I likely would have changed my mind about what to bring a few times ahead of time.

And then I would have gone through those changes again while actually getting dressed, while actually cooking.

I might have tried to time my attendance to ensure I would be there when someone else was or wasn’t.

It was a lot of mental effort.

And I think ALL of it was because I just wasn’t comfortable being myself, at least not with any old body. I had my safe circle, and that was it. That circle was very small. And so when I was with people outside of the circle, it took a lot of work. The work was in checking myself. Checking myself for fitting in. Checking myself for not saying too much or the wrong thing. Checking myself for not coming off in a way that I wouldn’t be happy about later. More often than not this meant me not saying very much, because let’s face it, that’s a whole lot easier than all of that checking.

alone-clear-sky-clouds-691919Now, now I fit in. I fit in with myself. I’m not sure when it happened, but I know there was a lot of coaching to get there. And all of that work, all of that rethinking, all of the stories I rewrote, they have finally all added up to being at home. I am at home in myself. I am at home in all of the rooms. I am at home with all of the people. I am not just allowed to be myself, but obliged and ready to do so. And while that is scary sometimes, it is now so much less work and so much more rewarding than the other way.

I want to invite you somewhere. I want to invite you home, to the place you will always belong. If that sounds really appealing but you can’t find that spot on your GPS, I’d love to help you create a roadmap. Home is calling. Are you ready to go?

The “If…. Then…” of Relating to Other Humans

“If I don’t take care of this…”

“If I don’t get it right…”

“If I decide to just be myself…”

“If I choose what I’d actually like to do…”

“If I say what I really think…”

“If I wear the clothes I want to wear…”

“If I hurt his feelings…”

“If I do anything less that A+ work…”

Then what?

What if they don't like meThen they will all find out who I really am? Then they will all find out I’m not perfect? Then they can choose not to like me anymore? Then they will know the thing I’ve always known, inside, that I’ll never fit in, I’ll never be good enough, that I’ll never be safe just being myself here. Then they will know and I will know that they will know and that will be so painful.

But my dear darling THIS is already so painful. I know because I was a master of the double life. I discovered early in my teenage years that my grades were the barometer that my parents used to discern whether or not I was “okay” in the world. If I kept my grades up, I could get away with a LOT. And the longer I kept my grades up and did all of the things that a high-achieving student would do, the more trust they gave. More weekends away, fewer questions about my destination and my company, more really bad explanations for things accepted without further question. I had parties (big parties). I smoked cigarettes in the car. I skipped classes. Even now I’m uncomfortable writing this because there are family members for whom some piece of that might be new information. I took full advantage of the freedom that was given to me.

And the whole time, and for many years after, I was stunned by the fact that nobody was calling me on it, that nobody was catching me, that nobody actually KNEW what was going on and tried to stop me. I had built a double life. I was really good at it. I tried to fool them, and it worked. So yay! Yeah, not so much.

Not so much because the whole time that I was enjoying my secret life, what I really wanted was for someone to know me. I felt so lonely (maybe just in a 17 year old girl way, but it seems deeper, even in retrospect). I so wanted to be all of the parts and have it be known, even if there were consequences. I so wanted to ditch the fear that if they found out they wouldn’t love me anymore. My double life made me complex and cool to my friends and still allowed me to win gold stars with my family. I got all of the “awards” I was looking for and it just didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter because what I was hung up on was how they felt about me. All of my secrecy and all of the entertainment I provided for my friends was to ensure that they all felt good about me. The entire “If… then…” world that I had built up failed to acknowledge the depth of feeling anyone had for me (like they actually love you kid, even if you screw up or aren’t cool). And to make matters worse, not one bit of all of that effort did anything about how I felt about myself.

imposter sydromeIt’s easy to see this in a teenage story, because we have myths about how insecurity is a natural part of being an adolescent, that somehow just dissipates as our bodies mature. But the truth is that for many of us this “if… then…” way of relating continues long after we reach the age of majority. We make so many decisions based on how other people will feel about us. We act in ways to shore up public opinion, as though we will appear on page 6 if we get it wrong. We fear that we will be fired if we make the smallest error at work. We’re sure that our upcoming presentation might be the breaking point when everyone will find out how unqualified we really are. We just know that if we relax and show our true selves that we won’t have any friends left. If… then…

I’ve been deconstructing some of my if then thinking over the last couple of years. And I want to tell you a few things about that:

  • I’ve never been fired, even when I make mistakes or tell the truth.
  • I still have friends, maybe even more friends, certainly deeper friendships.
  • I’m not so very tired after every social engagement. I’m still an introvert, but I’m not working so hard all of the time.
  • I feel free to try new things, risk things personally and professionally because I’m not so worried about what everybody else thinks.
  • Paying more attention to what I think of me has been the greatest gift I could possibly give myself.

Are you living a double-life? Maybe yours doesn’t have house parties and hidden cigarette butts – maybe yours looks more like putting things off until you’re sure you can get it perfect; maybe yours looks like constantly putting your own needs on the back-burner so you won’t seem selfish; maybe yours looks like waiting for the other shoe to drop at work, at home, with friends. Aren’t you tired of it all?

What would happen if you just decided to be a little more yourself? Dipped a toe into the water of telling the truth and doing what you want? Maybe it’s time to find out.

Miracles Big and Small

“Shhhhhh,” I say.

“We’re right here,” I remind.

“Maybe you could hum a different song?” I suggest.

“Alright, alright, take a breath and then tell me; it sounds awesome,” I interrupt.

You don't have to fit inI hear myself making them small.

I hear myself asking them to shrink for my comfort.

I hear myself limiting them, insisting that they be aware of how others feel, asking them to read the room.

I hear myself asking them to mind other people’s business rather than relying on other people to tell them when enough is enough.

I hear myself making them fit in better.

And then I stand back and I just look at them.

They are miracles. They are miracles of science. They are miracles of nature. They are miracles of stardust and happenstance, extraordinary timing and good fortune. There will never be another like either of them, much less both at the same time but two minutes apart. “I see two butts Julia. Which shall I take out first?”

They will never be again. They will never be just as they are in this moment again. Perhaps I can do more to face my own discomfort, to inquire of it and release it so that they can just be and grow strong in trusting the universe to hold the magic that they are in every single minute.

I will try harder to let them be as big and miraculous as they are, even if sometimes it takes my breath and makes me cry in the best possible way.

I will try harder to show them that it’s okay to be big. It’s okay to fill a space. It’s okay to trust that others will be themselves. It’s okay to feel like a miracle.

It's okay to be bigAs for you? I want you to know that you can be big too. You can fill a space without shrinking or apologizing. You can repeatedly sing the theme to The Pirates of the Caribbean if that’s your thing. You can pirouette across my kitchen and land on me with a hug because you are a miracle. You will never be in this moment, just as you are, again. Trust me with your bigness and I’ll try to do the same; we’ll spray glitter all over the place.

xo,

julia