When asked "Tell me about yourself", most of us will list our occupations, credentials and commitments as if a job or the fact that we have children is what gives us legitimacy as human beings. We explain how we fit into our homes, schools and societies. We highlight our contributions and connections as we try to deliver compelling evidence of our value.
Growing up, a combination of nature and nurture taught me to be useful. This could mean being funny and lighthearted, or doing well at something so as to become conversational fodder that reflected well on others. It could mean working hard or without complaint, or just staying out of the way. Whether these were attributes that those around me actually wanted or needed, I can’t really say for sure. But my young mind was constantly evaluating my worth based on the reactions I’d received from those around me. I developed a sense of what I thought made me valuable and harshly held myself and others up to these fabricated standards.
I still don’t know exactly what to say when asked to tell another person about me. I know this is often used as a conversational ice breaker or to be friendly, but it’s a terribly difficult question for me to answer truthfully. I have learned that I am not my job, but it is a convenient way to package myself. I have learned that I am not my personal relationships, but it can be clarifying or interesting to others to declare my marital status or to explain how children fit into my life. I have learned that I am not my hobbies, but these can be how I show others my individuality. If I am not my job, the people in my life, or how I would spend a free hour, then who or what am I and why am I here?
I would really love to say when asked "Tell me about yourself" that I am that part of your heart that sings good morning on a bright and sunny day. I am the warmth of a hug with a loved one. I am the calm of knowing it’ll all work out. I am part of everyone and everything, and everyone and everything is a part of me. That’s me and that’s you, and this is our shared value.
Whether it came from another person or from the constant internal commentary of our own minds, we have all been told to Cheer Up, in one way or another. At times, this might be the gentle push out of rumination that we need or it can be the lifeline we cling to just to make it to tomorrow. Oftentimes, however, it only serves to needlessly compound our suffering.
The habit of denying our pain is developed very young. We were learning how to fit in and along the way, we were taught about cry babies, to just grow up and of course, smile. When given such directives from another, it often seemed born out of frustration or anger. However when we peel away at it, just a little, we see that it was their own suffering that spurred them to offer such harsh and unyielding commands. These orders were given in an effort to ease the burden of their own helplessness when confronted with another person’s pain.
When we deny our difficult or painful emotions, we compound the belief that we are not acceptable by adding to our laundry list of what’s wrong with us. We then cling to the comfort and familiarity that the projection of competence affords us. We neglect our suffering, which gives it no choice but to grow and invade other parts of our lives. We yell at someone for a minor mishap. We neglect our bodies by over or under nourishing them. We try countless ways to distract ourselves from the epic meltdown within.
Some days, putting on a smile is the only tool we have, and it’s okay to use it with awareness. In doing so we honour the inherent suffering in being human and give ourselves permission to acclimate to it in whatever way feels the safest and most genuine at the time.
With time and compassionate practice, we might find we have more space for our pain. The good times become even sweeter as they are no longer tainted by dismissed suffering. Now that is something to be cheerful about.
Without being completely aware of it, we are often looking to one another for some kind of social cue. A smile can send out the message that we are friendly or that we are happy. Laughter says that we are free of stress. A straight ahead stare sends the message that we are in no mood to interact. While this exchange of social signals can be helpful at times, it can also be deceptive. For example, we see someone not smiling and suddenly our brain can go down any number of paths: What’s their problem? What did I do wrong? Am I boring them?
Throw in behavior on top of subtle facial tweaks and we are really in for it. The causes of behavior multiplied by the infinite interpretations of that behavior equals emotional chaos. We feel so out of control when someone’s demeanor or behavior does not meet our expectations of them. It is exhausting trying to behave in a specific way that will elicit the kind of responses we crave. Toss in some manipulative tendencies and the water gets even murkier. Through frustrating trial and error, we learn that it is impossible to control, coerce or love someone enough into responding to us the way we would like them to.
And exactly what is the response we are looking for? Acceptance. Always. When you boil it down, it is always acceptance.
We are social creatures and therefore how we treat each other matters. But we cannot base our self-worth on the world’s reaction to us because these reactions are so inconsistent. A smile does not always mean safe. An avoided gaze does not always mean dismissal. We cannot spend our precious time here dissecting every interaction to ascertain our worth. We must believe in our worth at all times. We must know that we are acceptable as we are. When we truly know this, the need to have it validated by others in a specific way is weakened.
This kindness to ourselves then becomes a gift to those around us. The people around us are free to be who they are in the moment, as we no longer need them to contort themselves in ways that we think reflects well on us. Our children can be a bit unruly, a good friend can be sad, our coworkers can be preoccupied...when we fully love and accept ourselves, we no longer require others to spend precious time and energy trying to be who they think we need them to be. They can just be themselves. Relationships become easier because we have put down the unsolvable algorithm of what we need others to do in order to make us happy. We have found our happiness in our self-acceptance, as we are, in this very moment.
When we realize we have made a mistake, our body physically responds as if we cannot stand our own humanness. In addition to wanting to vomit or pass out, our internal critic begins to fully endorse our own self-disgust. Oh I can’t believe you did that again! Don’t you know better by now? How could you be so stupid?
In a weird way, I think it’s our mind’s way of trying to help us. It’s trying really hard to figure out the source of our pain and discomfort, and then once it identifies it as being rooted in a mistake, it works double time to fix it. But the fix that the inner critic can provide is one rooted in the idea that because we make mistakes that these are somehow a part of us, and need to be extracted. Unfortunately the mind’s attempt to exorcise our imperfections straight back to hell is neither kind nor effective.
It is so hard to accept our humanness, especially when it leads to a misstep. Maybe we said something thoughtless to a friend, or maybe we plowed into the back end of the car we were tailgating. Maybe we completely forgot a deadline. Maybe we ate that third cookie even though we were supposed to be on a diet. Maybe we fell for someone’s poor treatment of us, again.
Making room for our mistakes is acknowledging that mistakes are part of being human, and that we still have worth in spite of them. This is not about staying stuck in unhealthy habits, letting poor behavior slide, or getting away with anything. In fact, when we make room for mistakes, we also don’t fight so hard against the repercussions of our missteps. We are able to put down the defensive strategies of lying, manipulation or even isolation to avoid the pain of the mistake and its consequences. When we make room for the lessons our mistakes have to offer, we can see them for the teachers that they truly are.
When I don’t listen to the fear that is actually underneath the refrain of falling short, I can try to fill that horrible emptiness with attempts to ensure my place in the pecking order. It’s not something I am proud of but it feels right to own it. I have the ability to let my fear of being chucked aside guide me down paths I have no desire to be on. The habit of sizing up those around me and bringing them down is easy, and sometimes even fun. But it’s not me.
We hurt others to build ourselves up and out of our pain. Sometimes a snide remark towards my partner will slip out or a judgmental thought about a stranger will parade across my brain. If I give myself a moment, I’ll know that what spurred such nastiness is something so different from whatever the surface criticism was directed at. It’ll be a manifestation of my own fear building up and seeking some sort of relief. And for a split second I do feel a little better. A little smarter, a little more forethinking or organized, a little bit more right and maybe even a little bit better than another person. But actually better? No, not at all.
All this kind of behavior does is leave wounds to both deliverer and receiver. We can become closed off or learn to always have claws at the ready. We become precise in how we cut others down, all in an effort to not feel our own fear of not being enough.
Fear is here to stay. It is hard wired into us to keep us safe. The only thing that will help is asking what does this fear actually need. And as delicious as it can feel to badmouth a coworker or turn yourself into the martyr that has to do all the dishes again, I can promise you that neither of those nasty little chewies is what your fear is actually asking for. It’s asking for some reassurance that you are going to be okay, and that you are perfectly acceptable as you are. You can put the whip and the bitch bat down. Anger and cruelty is not what you need and it’s not who you are.