Giving Myself Back: An Ongoing Lesson in Leaning in to the Dark

On a recent morning I went to a yoga class to hit back at the headache creeping up through my shoulders. Sometimes I prefer beginner’s yoga classes because I don’t feel the pressure of performance. I am familiar with the poses, and how to modify or challenge myself with them. But another distinct part of that truth is that I get far fewer funny looks in a beginner’s class. I fully recognize that this world isn’t built for me and that I have to navigate that. The truth is that I am not just the “inner beauty” that I’ve heard myself referred to. I am also a vessel that holds that in, of knit together skin, a puzzle of bones and muscle and fat beneath it. And it doesn’t meet standards that many people believe it should. So the morning when I took a yoga class and the two women behind me started talking, snarking, and giggling pointedly at me I started that familiar fall into myself.

Their ridicule was a reminder that I don’t belong in this world. I don’t meet the aesthetic values we place on people. With every dip toward the floor, I was gathering myself in a pool of self-loathing.

That loathing morphed into anger as I thought about all the things I wanted to do in that moment: say something back, just get up and leave, or casually throw up the finger at them during a transition to the next pose as if they were a car that cut me off.

The headache that had begun the dismount as I had brought awareness into my body and breath (the reason I went in the first place) came back thumping at the base of my skull as I lost focus.

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I talk a lot about “being in the mess” of things. But the truth is that I want desperately to curate this version of myself that is much more interesting and evolved and literate and NOT messy. Or at least messy in only specific very controlled ways. Often this head-self doesn’t match the reality. Instead of pursuing those things I claim as hobbies (sun-dripped sanctuaries of novels, writing, yoga, and knitting) I watch soap operas on Netflix or read another trashy magazine filled to the brim with celebrity gossip in a desperate moody act of trying to disconnect from myself.

I’m coping, I tell myself, in defense of lazy self-care.

There was one night not so long ago when I barely had time to even think about yoga during that critical panic when I was barely above water. ALL my school work was due, I had too many unanswered e-mail in my inbox, I had several major events for my internship coming up, and the bills were piling up unopened on the dining room table. That was the night I took an accidental bath.

A familiar headache like that one the morning of the yoga class had been brewing in that little witching cauldron behind my eyes. I could feel the roil of panic flipping over in my stomach that I’d soon hit that unreachable point of migraine. I thought if I took a shower that I could ground myself, roll my forehead against the tile, trace the grout in little staircases with my fingers, let the water smash into my skin and be safe from the ferocity of stress.

I often feel guilty about my waste of resources doing this, but when you are at that point of near drowning you are grabbing on to the nearest things that keeps you upright. At certain times in my life, a long shower has been a life preserver. Those minutes spent in that process have a perceived sense of safety from the things pursuing me.

There is something about being naked and alone that also gives you an opportunity to be especially self-critical. The shower is a place where I can gather all those things I think about myself (whether or not others do) and scream them back inside my head. I can throw all of the grenades of self-doubt and failure that I’m facing right at myself. And no one can tell me differently. I don’t have to suffer a barrage of “That’s not true” or “I’m sure you’re fine.” or even hear criticisms from the lips of others. I can be mean, I can be critical. I can hate every part about me that I perceive is wrong.

While I waited for the water to reach that point of just a tick into punishingly hot, I don’t notice that the sound has dulled because the tub is filling up.

When I finally did bother to pull back the curtain, my first instinct upon seeing a nearly full bathtub was panic. Fight and flight kicked in simultaneously and I felt a familiar shiver of adrenaline start to shake into my hands. There is a visceral collapse of my nerves. The moment of facing an over-full bathtub was as if the safety pins and glue that I haphazardly inserted to hold me together up to that point gave up. I’d been used up by a constant pull in every direction and the strength of self-hatred and exhaustion that rides in on to the coattails of being spread too thin

I was too tired and stressed and undone to lace up my sneakers and play the games of self-deprecation in my head. I thought if I could bruise myself most deeply the hurt would not make much of a mark. So I turned off the water, let about a quarter of it slip down the drain with a gurgle and got in.

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I have been relentlessly self-critical for being less than that curated version of me. Instead of pushing back on it, I constantly and continuously blamed every source but my own unwillingness to accept myself.

I yielded to a bath that night because I felt as though I had nothing left.

It boils down to the message that I am not good at yielding to grace for myself.

I have a propensity for this. I over-apologize. I struggle to emit a sense of confidence. Often this expresses in a way that can be frustrating to others. I deny that I am drowning while my lungs are filling with water. When it feels like the world is falling apart my first instinct is to go about it quietly. I don’t always do a good job of informing others or making it known that I am taking charge and figuring it out or that things are falling apart. I am good at having an even keel when things are exploding around me.

Something happened that night when things fell apart. It was an undoing. I had blown up the balloon too large and the latex had burst and all the hot air and spit couldn’t be held in anymore.

Coming out of that bath I am not necessarily completely clean but I am clean. Absolved of my own self-doubt, self-denial…at least for the moment I don’t hate as profoundly spaces that pucker and bulge. The hills and valleys, mountains and molehills of me are still present, I’ve embraced them as a part of the process, but they no longer something to rest all my hatred on.

Joan Didion tells us…“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves–there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”

Don’t confuse this with vanity. Sometimes I think we are conditioned to believe, especially if you grew up female, if we are not constantly self-flagellating we are actually full of ourselves. The art of the humble brag has taken over our collective conscious as an appropriate way to deal with our vanity. Taking the power back doesn’t mean living in a fantasy world of self-aggrandizement and the permanent ego trip that the humble brag is encased in. Self-respect is about being willing to cop to those faults in a way that is focused on the process of realizing our best selves. It is about saying I am worth continuing on this journey and facing honestly whatever comes into my path.

Don’t confuse this with ignoring genuine critique
. The best mentors I have had are the ones who gave me the best criticism, ones who gave me space to make mistakes but maintain availability and open communication. We are going to screw up, and the people who will critique you well are as much your safety net as your own confidence.

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I watched the first drops of rain paint the sidewalk into a mirror from a coffee shop window. I still hadn’t made it yet through the panicked darkness of struggle and unknowing. In that coffee shop, I wasn’t even close to where I wanted to be: drinking cups of milky lukewarm tea in between tutoring clients and without regular full time work. Things came up, plans changed… my body was especially uncooperative, betraying my sense of self. I was spending most of that time in my own headspace being relentlessly disappointed in myself on some days and conversely confident in my abilities and thus horribly jaded on others. In that moment I had done more than I ever thought possible and still had a million miles to go.

It is this precise moment in time, the stickiness of lagging momentum, the point where everything feels fruitless, that we can learn best from.

These are the periods where the unknown has virtually enveloped us and where our hope lies in poking a hole in the stifling dark to catch our breath. Sometimes we use this time to spend out our physical and emotional capacity and it winds around the legs of the chairs and tables. Other times we zip it up with a toothy smile and false confidence, or tuck it underneath the brim of a baseball hat. None of us has the same capacity for reacting to crisis, when the ends are not just frayed but disintegrating — we can’t predict how much a person can handle

I think that this is where this lesson ends, in the space where things are changing but not changed. I’ve been writing, thinking, reading a lot about the lightness and darkness in the world. Somewhat recently I wrote about how I don’t know much of anything and presented the three things I do know. I’m going to add another thing to that list:

A human being possesses inherent worthiness. It isn’t about anything you deserve, but what is true. What that worthiness means is something we can and have debated over. I feel as though our culture has been talking about worthiness a lot lately and especially about who deserves what. I am starting to think that worthiness and understanding each other starts with ourselves and our own recognition of self.

There is so much that remains mysterious to me in the world, but I am hopeful that by giving myself back, and urging you to give yourself back, that we can then expose those threads that connect us. By acknowledging that our existence makes us worthy, then other’s existence does too. And just maybe, instead of criticizing or judging or patronizing the rest of us in the struggle if we throw out one hand forward and another behind in the darkness, we’ll all make it to the light.

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