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What’s Your Number?

                    The Enneagram with Riso-Hudson Type Names

There I was, in the midst of an argument, with yet another person I cared about, and despite the hurt and pain I was trying to express, the message that was being sent back to me was one I had heard over and over again.

The verdict is in and let’s just say that I’m A LOT. There aren’t many other ways to word it. I’ve been described as difficult, judgmental, bossy, argumentative, and every other variation of intense you can think of my whole entire life. I’ve been told that I’m fun to mess with because of how large my reactions are and fascinating to watch because of how expressive I am. I’ve written about this in a general sense before as well as in relation to being a woman, but it wasn’t until the past few months that I have gained a bit more perspective through a tool called the Enneagram.

Moving through much of my young life, I did not perceive myself as intense. I was just me. When people used this word to describe me, not only did it hurt, I couldn’t understand it. If anything, I thought what I was experiencing was normal and the rest of the world seemed muted somehow. As I got older, I began to understand that, yes, given all the feedback I was receiving, I must be intense. But with that acceptance of my intensity, came the belief that it was bad in some way. I thought I had to find my remote and figure out a way to mute things as well. I thought my intensity meant I couldn’t be a good woman, a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, a good colleague. More than that, I feared it meant I would never be a good wife, a good mother. Being me caused arguments, it hurt people, it overwhelmed people. I began to consider my personality a major character flaw, and beyond that, a barrier between me and the things I wanted in life.

Then a few years ago, I heard about this tool called the Enneagram. I did not pay much attention to it and then a few more years past before I ever explored it again. When I did, I explored it superficially. That’s when I convinced myself I was a 2. For those of you who don’t know the language of the Enneagram, being a 2 means you are nurturing and always ready and willing to help and serve others. I thought this was a perfect fit. I had been a special education teacher and therapist for goodness sake! How much more nurturing can you get?! That’s when people who were more familiar with the Enneagram stepped in and told me there was simply no way I was a 2. And why was that exactly? You guessed it… Most of the explanations boiled down to the fact that I was far too intense. So what did I do? I grounded in my heels and insisted I was a 2. That is, until a friend gifted me the test and I got a very different result, one that essentially all of my friends who knew anything about the Enneagram had predicted. I was an 8, the powerful, confrontational type.

So, basically, I was being told something I had been told my whole entire life. The only thing was, this time it was different. This time the words that had been used against me, weren’t being used as insults. I wasn’t being told to abandon my tendencies in order to change into somebody different altogether. Also, the more I read, the more it became clear that my experiences were shared with others. No longer some random person thrown out there with a set of unfortunate traits, forced to figure things out on her own, I had a point of reference… A way to grow that didn’t require I become someone else, but instead opened the door to become a better version of myself, closer to the person I was made to be. What opened my eyes even more, was learning that life for females of my type can have some additional challenges as some of the traits we exhibit are viewed by our culture as more valuable in men and more often inconvenient or inappropriate in women. I was seeing both my flaws and my gifts in a new light and it was beautiful.

In this season of life, the Enneagram is a way by which I am growing in my understanding of who I am, learning to love myself, and seeking opportunities to grow. If you are feeling in a rut, maybe it could be that for you, too (you can take the $10 test here: https://www.wepss.com/buy.asp). But this post isn’t an ad for the Enneagram, so if that’s not how you decide to go about your exploration, that’s fine, too. I think the bigger lesson to be explored is how can you learn to listen well to the feedback people are giving you that will help you grow, while weeding out the feedback that is used to hurt you and tear you down? How can you better understand yourself as a way to become more and more like the person you were born to be? What will it take for you to get to the place where you see that everything you always thought was wrong about you can be redeemed, purified in the most magnificent ways that leaves you wholly you and yet somehow beautifully transformed?

I’m never not going to be a lot to handle. All that I am will still overwhelm people. Just this week a friend told me she could never date someone like me because her head would explode. We both laughed, because she’s not wrong, and she said it in love. I can be just a tad much. I will probably still steamroll people sometimes and have to apologize for hurt feelings. In fact, it hardly seems a week can go by where I don’t ruffle somebody’s feathers. It would actually benefit me to turn the volume down just a little bit every once in a while. Not every situation requires a megaphone. These realizations don’t feel like attacks anymore though. I am intense, but I don’t know who I would be if I wasn’t. The other great thing about having a really strong personality, is you always know who really loves you because those who don’t love you think you are way too much to stick around. While I have been coming to pieces of these realizations for a long time now, it feels far less superficial this time around. I finally feel ready get deep down below the surface and clean out some of those crevices I’ve long been running away from. The Enneagram has been a gift to me and I hope if you haven’t already, you find such a unique gift of self-exploration sometime soon, too.

Recommended Books (The Road Back to You & The Path Between Us)

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In recent years, there’s been a beautiful, growing recognition of the challenges and hurts that are so deeply mixed up in the blessings of Mother’s Day. Many have lost their mothers, some didn’t have a nurturing mother to begin with, others are estranged from mothers or children, even more long to be mothers, but circumstances have prevented it. Not everyone gets to have a celebratory Mother’s Day and while on our good days, we are happy for those who do, for many the tenor of Mother’s Day is lament, not joyfulness. For me, there’s not necessarily a tragedy associated with Mother’s Day. At this season in my life, I don’t long to be a mother and my relationship with my mother is marked foremost by love.

These stories of heartache and sadness aren’t yet mine to tell. As always, I do have a story of my own though.

It was about 10 years ago that I got the news. I was told I had PCOS, a cluster of health issues that among other things, might some day make it difficult for me to have children. For me, there was somewhat of a sigh of relief. It explained why my acne had always been so bad no matter what the dermatologist prescribed me to treat it, it gave me at least one reason for why despite being incredibly active and eating healthy, hitting my goal weight or size would likely never be a reality, and finally what I didn’t yet know was it would make sense of why I started losing my hair a few years later. Also, I was one of the lucky ones… I had a doctor who listened well when I told her about what was going on with me and figured out what the issue was. Everyone else I had known or read about on the internet hadn’t found out until after experiencing sometimes years of unsuccessful attempts to have children. Plus, having children was irrelevant to me at that time. I was 21 and wasn’t thinking too much about it and I felt confident by the time I was ready there would be some sort of medical advances and maybe it would be a moot point.

Several years into the journey, I was in a friend’s wedding and the woman who was doing my make-up and I began talking. I was telling her I wanted very full coverage to make sure no one would see the blemishes and scars on my face. She shared with me her struggle with acne and her recent discovery that she had, you guessed it, PCOS. Of course in return for her vulnerability, I told her about my experience as well. She told me how scared she was. She wasn’t in any rush to have children, but she wondered if she should try and make it happen before her chances got worse. She asked me, having known for so much longer than she had, how I dealt with the fear. Optimistically, I shared my confidence that doctors couldn’t predict whether or not we would have children from this one feature alone, that we couldn’t increase the likelihood of having children by worrying about it, and that if we weren’t ready to have children, we should enjoy this time without children and simply cross that bridge if and when we came to it. With more years having passed now, I think about how flippant and lacking compassion my answer must have seemed. Despite her being younger than me and her diagnosis being newer, she had somehow managed to work through the denial and into the reality of the situation faster than I had. While I don’t think my energy would have been better spent worrying about something I could not and still cannot predict, I could have made some lifestyle changes that I have made in recent years (with great results, I might add) much sooner. As it turns out, a decade into the journey, virtually no medical advances have been made and most doctors still have no clue what PCOS is (check out this super science-y, but fascinating article if you want to know more: Why Doctors Don’t Understand PCOS).

So why am I sharing this now? A piece of me just feels like it is time. First, it feels like time from a cultural standpoint. We do not put nearly enough money or research into women’s health in our country. With a maternal death rate in the U.S. that is rapidly increasing and the highest of all developed countries and women who are far more susceptible to poverty, and therefore, far more likely to have a host of medical issues and lack of healthcare, I do think the implications of this gap are endless and the need to take action is imperative. However, it also feels like time from a personal perspective. I’ve felt so much shame for so long about my face and my hair. Honestly, some days I still feel a lot of shame. I cover up with make-up and head wraps and I dodge questions about my change in diet, as if I somehow brought this fate upon myself. I sit with my students and I tell them that those who really love them will see past the superficial to what’s inside while covertly doubting if others can see past my flaws. I comfort others as they give voice to the fear of if they will ever have children, while shrouding my own fears in secrecy.

Words cannot express enough how thankful I am to not have children this Mother’s Day. But to say I’m not fearful that I’ll never be wished a “Happy Mother’s Day” would be a lie. This is the first Mother’s Day when false optimism or secrecy and shame hasn’t worked for me, and I’m guessing that could be a sign of growth. There’s no point in worrying about a future I can’t control, but I don’t think there is a point in living in hiding or denial either. I’m naming the future I hope for and the fear that comes with it and that makes this feel like my most optimistic Mother’s Day in a long time.

IMG_9429It was the morning after Thanksgiving and I was at a special 2 hour Zumba class that my favorite instructor was leading. As I was dancing and sweating up a storm, I had this flash of thankfulness, which was appropriate given the holiday weekend. I was thankful for the chance to sleep in, thankful for a healthy body that allowed me to move so freely, and thankful for the opportunity to wake up without much thought and go to Zumba class. I surveyed the room and recognized that many of the women likely had to worry about childcare or leaving family members behind in order to make the sacrifice to be there, others had to leave class early due to various responsibilities, and even more couldn’t make it. I breathed a deep sigh of contentment for being just where I was. Less than a week later, I completely removed myself from all online dating sites and apps for the first time in ages.

I always thought I would be married by the time I was 30. It makes sense that I thought this. It was really the only path that was presented to me for a woman growing up in the context I grew up in. When you grow up in small towns or religious settings, people marry young. It’s the cultural norm. Even if you leave this context, the overarching societal norm is that eventually you will settle down, you will get coupled, you will have kids. That’s the way it is “supposed” to be. How else would you ever find true happiness, fulfillment, love, etc. etc. etc.? I went to undergrad at an institution where the unspoken (or quite often, spoken) rule was “ring by spring.” That’s how it was “supposed” to be. You were supposed to meet a nice person in school and you were supposed to start your married life together soon after. The underlying assumption that was subtly communicated was that if you weren’t married by 25 or so, there must be something wrong with you. Regardless of the specifics, if you were a woman who wasn’t married by her late twenties or early thirties, you have to be too much of something or not enough of something else. In my case, I was too picky, not pretty enough, too opinionated, too independent, and too smart. Yes, these were the messages I fed to myself, but I need to set the record straight, these were messages that were spoon-fed to me by others long before I believed them to be true. And being too much and never enough, I remained single long past my expiration date… This meant I got to experience the “joy” of hearing the variety of myths coupled people LOVE to share with single people: he’ll show up right when you stop looking, you’re too cool to stay single forever, maybe once you get (blank) in order you’ll find someone. You name it, I’ve heard it. If these “rules” actually apply, why are there some many desperate, disastrous couples getting married?!

For every myth there is about how to change your single status, there is another myth about people who choose (or don’t choose) to remain single. “Single people are selfish: they only have themselves to think about and therefore, they only think about themselves.” Now without giving myself too much credit, that could not be farther from the truth about my circumstances. I work at a job where on any given day, I could have an issue arise with any number of the thousands of students I’m responsible for. Whatever they walk in with, stories of sexual assault, years of child abuse, time spent in the foster care system, suicide attempts, panic attacks, abandonment, I have to be ready to hold it. I have to step outside of my own worries and cares and embrace all the tears, the anger, the hurt. Then, when the work day is done, I have to step back inside of those worries and cares and still manage to care for all the people that I have been entrusted to me in my life. Selfishness is not associated with a marital status. Believe me when I say, selfish people are selfish people no matter what stage you throw them in. “Single people aren’t busy.” Why don’t you try to say that to me when I was finishing grad school and working a full time job for 40+ hours a week while simultaneously completing 20+ hours a week of my counseling practicum at the hospital? Or maybe try that one on me now while I am working at my job and also volunteering hours at the counseling center to meet the 3000 hour requirement needed to get my license. I get it, some people attempt this kind of schedule while simultaneously having a family, so yes, I suppose in that scenario, a married person would be busier than a single person. But once again, busy people come in all marital statuses.

So if by some miracle you manage to laugh your way through the myths and the “advice” you’re bombarded with as a single person and come out unscathed, what are your options?

I’m finding being single in my thirties far more enjoyable than it was in my twenties. So what does that mean? Does it mean that I never want to be married? Does it mean I don’t want to have children some day? To me, the answer to those questions is simple… Of course not!!! Since when does contentment and thankfulness with what you’ve been given preclude you from being content and thankful if someday you happen to be given something else? I realized something recently, which is I have wasted a whole lot of energy being in a place of discontentment about something because everyone else was telling me that I should feel discontentment about it. It seems whenever I am with single people they are heartbroken about their singleness and whenever I am with coupled people, they are trying to convince me how incomplete I must be without what they have. The problem with all this information I am being provided is that I don’t believe it. My wholeness and satisfaction doesn’t come from whether or not a boy likes me, my happiness isn’t wrapped up in “achieving” the husband, picket fence, and 2.5 kids. I don’t believe the deepest love is found in having a child. I also think I have accomplished some pretty cool stuff, like being the youngest in my family, but the first to get a graduate degree, discovering a career I love, and having some of the most amazing friends. I’ve gone on trips and I’ve learned to dance. I’ve mentored and been mentored. I’ve read, and written, and learned. I’ve given of myself and received in return more love than I could ever imagine. My life is full. Sure, it has dark spots. I’ll never be the rainbows and butterflies type; I see the world for what it is, with all of it’s brokenness. But still, my life is full.

Getting married young works for a lot of people. That’s not my personal journey, but I don’t have a problem with you if that’s yours. Can you be happy for me even though our stories are different? Can you believe me when I say I don’t see my singleness as a death sentence? Can you support me for as long as I choose (or don’t choose) to be single? Can we celebrate each others’ successes, mourn each others’ losses, carry each others’ burdens? Can we laugh at what’s funny, cry at what’s sad… vent when marriage is hard or singleness is hard without believing it means one wants a divorce and the other is desperate? Happiness doesn’t come easily to me and I have a lot of things in my life that could give me cause to be unhappy, but as strange as it is to say it, I find myself pretty happy right now. So please, PLEASE, let me enjoy it. Let me live loved and full and joyful. After all, this is a celebration, not a funeral.

2 Years Max…


As I’ve shared many times, I was an anxious kid and continue to deal with quite a bit of anxiety. As I am getting older, I am coming to terms with different aspects of my anxiety and where it comes from. Recently, I have noticed that my anxiety and my identity might be more intertwined than I previously realized.

This month marks 2 years I have been living in my apartment. While to most my age, this would seem a rather ordinary landmark, for me it is somewhat of a feat. I haven’t been able to sit this long before. Since I graduated from college, I have lived in 3 different cities, rented 5 different apartments, and held 5 different jobs. In fact, other than school, I have shown a complete inability to sustain any aspect of life for even 2 years… not a goal, not a career path, and certainly not a meaningful relationship. While hitting this 2 year mark seems that it would indicate growth, rooted-ness, or even increased contentment, instead it is riddled with anxiety and unrest. And here’s why…

I’ve never been truly comfortable anywhere or with anyone. I used to think this meant there was something wrong with me, but as I dig deeper, I am learning there is something entirely different going on here. When I walk into a space, I never know what I am going to get. As a kid, other kids might insist I was adopted because I looked so differently from my mother, call me Brillo head or state I had pubic hair on my head because I had a fro, or children and adults alike would just blatantly stare. In college, it was hearing racial slurs because I was in the presence of people who didn’t know I was half black and constantly explaining my racial make-up. Then in adulthood, it’s people still attempting to ignore my blackness and/or whiteness to make themselves feel more comfortable, not include me because I don’t look quite right or get all the pop culture references, or include me because then they get to up their diversity quotient. In fact, it is so tiring, that I can’t believe I am just now realizing how stressful it is to not be able to walk into a job, or a church, or a store, or wherever it is you want to go without someone touching your hair without permission, making an ignorant comment that directly impacts you, or just downright making you feel like you don’t belong.

Believe me, I get it, my fair skin and mixed identity come with SO many privileges, beyond that I have the privilege of having both an undergraduate and graduate degree, excellent health, no disabilities, and the list goes on and on. I’m not afraid to own that. But… what I am coming to terms with as well is that I am not afraid to own that most of the time, in fact all of the time, I feel uncomfortable. Not with myself (though for a very long time that was the case) and who I was created to be, but more so the world and whether or not it has the capacity to receive me. I’ve reached a decision. It doesn’t… and I don’t have a clue as to what to do about it. Now, as evidence of that, here is the time when people chime in, “you do belong!” Except for the older I get I don’t know what’s worse, the people I don’t know being unbelievably hurtful or the people I do know and love making me feel crazy for sharing what has been true time and time again about my experience. Whether it is friends, family, colleagues, or acquaintances, people are so uncomfortable with me being uncomfortable that they engage in tactics that make things even more uncomfortable for me just to ease a little of their discomfort. It is so confusing to be a little kid who is constantly being told you are “just like the rest of us” when all the while how you are being treated could not be farther from “the rest.”

All that to say, I don’t think the answer is moving and changing jobs every year and a half. I also don’t think the answer is holding people at arms length as I have often done. I do think sometimes the answer is saying “no” more boldly to situations in which I already have some awareness that I will not be received well. The answer can also be honesty when I’ve been hurt and refusing to be gas-lighted when I genuinely express that hurt. Part of the answer is certainly continuing to celebrate myself and fully enjoy and honor mixed-race spaces whenever I have the chance to be in them, regardless of how infrequent that may be.

I wish I could provide a happier ending. I wish I could be oblivious enough to think that there are more mixed people now and the world is becoming more welcoming of us. I especially wish I could believe that children of mixed-heritage were born into families that love and accept all angles of them and are leeched of all racist tendencies upon first glimpse of the beautiful child. I’ve lived too much of this uncomfortable life to buy into any of those fantasies. This, however, I do know to be true… discomfort will not kill you and it certainly can’t rob you of the joy of moving forward, that is if you don’t let it.

Cheers to the 2 year mark.

The Other Side of Regret

IMG_8348When I was in school as a kid, at the end of each school year we had a program. Families would watch as their children collected awards from their teachers for their accomplishments throughout the year. One year in particular sticks out to me. My nana gave me an old Felix the Cat necklace. Felix wasn’t exactly “en vogue” and beyond that as a child who was very particular about her clothing and jewelry, I was quite bothered that the necklace didn’t match my outfit. I feigned excitement to the best of my ability. She asked if I wanted help putting it on and I told her I would wear it later and balled it up and put it in my pocket. When later my nana became very sick and eventually passed away, I remember crying inconsolably, devastated about her death, but fixated on the necklace. “I should have worn it,” I cried, “I should have just put it on and made her happy!” It was the last thing my nana ever gave me and I hadn’t even kept track of it. Honestly, to this day I have no clue where Felix the Cat is. Did I throw it away? Did it get lost?

My mother attempted to comfort me, telling me my nana loved me whether or not I wore the necklace and knew I loved her. Despite the comfort offered, I’ve always felt a bit guilty about what happened with the necklace. Wearing it wouldn’t have cost me anything and as I think on it now, not wearing it and not keeping track of it feels like a pretty big loss. My grandparents all died in a 5 year window before I even exited my teens. While my vibrant memory allows for some reminiscing and recollection… I’ll always remember the softness of my nana’s skin, her smell, how she said, “See you later, Alligator,” the way she waved goodbye at the front porch until we could no longer see the house as our car drove away, her laugh… I’m sad to say I don’t always remember much about my grandparents. I also never got to have some of the beautiful relationships I see my peers have with their grandparents as adults. I also witnessed the grief of my parents at a very young age as I watched them mourn the loss of their parents in their own ways. With all the years that have passed and how young I was when they died, I remember how sad I felt to lose them, but the sadness from the actual loss has dissipated. And yet, there’s still that necklace. The sobering reminder that you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. The image of what regret looks like, fully believing that something is a good idea in the moment, but feeling the sting of your poor choice in hindsight. I’ve grown and changed a lot and certainly the necklace doesn’t haunt me daily. I know I was just a kid doing the kind of thing kids tend to do… Having no real concept of time or love or loss.

A moment’s decision can change your life. It can wreck you in the worst ways or give you so much joy you never look back. You can’t always know the weight of your decisions in the present, but in reflecting, you will feel its heaviness and it will change you. I hope I will always remember that necklace. When I speak from a place of judgment, lash out in anger, live into negativity rather than change my attitude, make a joke at someone else’s expense, or any of the other numerous ways I basically make regret a guarantee…

I do believe my mother’s words. I know my nana loved me and I know she knew how much I loved her, even despite everything with Felix the Cat and that’s what blows me away. In the midst of regret, there is love. There are still consequences for our actions, there will still be pain, but then there is also forgiveness, warmth, and grace. So much grace…

In seasons of hardship and confusion, may I remember the brevity of life and the heaviness of responsibility for my words and actions, but may I also always remember the love that catches me on the other side of regret.

 

31

I was looking back over my pictures from my recent visit to Hawaii and this one caught my eye. When I saw it, my initial response was, “Yikes, my age is really starting to show!” Each wrinkle, spot, and bead of sweat seemed terribly glaring. My reaction to this photo matches my reactions to several things these days…

A few years back, I was going through a tough time and things started to feel pretty dark. I decided to take a chance and join a mindfulness group for people dealing with depression and anxiety. It was during this group, that I realized I spend a lot of time in my head with my thoughts running on auto-pilot. Before this experience, I had known the power of thought on an intellectual level, but I had never fully translated this information to a personal experience. The group allowed me to identify that when I am doing poorly, without even noticing, I can spend far too much time having imaginary, angry arguments in my head or perseverating over situations, mistakes, or conversations that had long since passed. This was not only an invaluable lesson for me, but it made the work I would someday do with clients that much more powerful. I wouldn’t just be preaching the practice of mindfulness, I would be speaking from experience as I had benefited from it myself. I knew what it was like to be overrun by what felt like uncontrollable, unbearable thoughts and then experience the freedom that comes with acceptance and being fully present.

For the past couple of years, I have been feeling a bit discouraged about my chosen career path. I did not research as diligently as I probably should have before moving to California and I had no idea how tough life still was for clinical counselors in this state. It is uncertain if this knowledge would have ultimately changed my decision about the move, but it still would have been nice to know what I was getting myself into. That’s why it was so therapeutic for me to attend the American Counseling Association Conference and Expo that was just recently hosted in San Francisco. To be surrounded by so many people who share such passion and knowledge of my field was a gift. Beyond that, it was a reminder that I chose this path for a reason and people are doing incredible things with degrees like mine all over the country (even though most people have no clue who we are and what we do in California). During one of the keynotes, Jessica Pettitt, made a statement that was perhaps the most poignant for me and has stuck even though some time has passed. The statement was, “being mad at someone for doing exactly what you thought they would do is dumb.” I went to the conference to learn skills to bring back to my clients, but what I found was a reminder to myself. I’ve spent a lot of time being mad lately. Mad at people for their actions, mad at God for His seeming inaction, mad at life for the ways I felt it was supposed to go, but it hasn’t… Now, I don’t have any objection to anger. Over time I’ve learned to express it quite freely and believe its expression can be a powerful source of healing. However, constant or entirely unfounded anger is just wasteful of both energy and time. It could become very easy for me to get stuck in that anger… to feel I’m entitled to that job, that house, that relationship, that church, that family… I could wallow in sadness and bitterness for ages, but I think I’d like to try gratitude instead.

Let’s bring things back to that picture… I’m pretty angry I’m having another birthday next month and I’m even more angry that my face looks like it’s having a birthday next month. However, if I spend my time fixating on every line and wrinkle, what I’d miss is the beauty of the fact that I physically, mentally, and financially had the capacity to do a trail run in Hawaii. Who complains about a trail run in Hawaii?! So while in reality there are a lot of things to be hurt, angry, and sad about, there are also unlimited things to be thankful for… the friends who text me to check in no matter how near or far they live, the ones who call and say they are here for whatever, whenever I need them, the community of people that share my faith and pray for me or spur me on when I’m confused or feel like giving up, those who value my opinion and ask me for support or advice, the job that pays my bills even when it doesn’t fulfill all my dreams, the landlords who love on me in ways I would never expect, the chances to travel for work and for pleasure, and the kind words from those who know me best that remind me of who I am and what my value is… Thank you. You know exactly who you are. Yes, you… And I just want to say that in this season when there is a whole lot to be angry about, you are one of the fabulous reasons there are countless things to be thankful for.

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Let me set the scene for you… It’s Christmas morning and a young Caitlin is waiting to open the final gift. The most special and desired gift was always saved for last in my family and this year, I felt sure it was going to be a good one. My sister and I had been incredibly clear on what we wanted the main event to be. I watched as my sister opened up her gift. It was a Puppy Surprise… I knew it. You know, that toy from the 90s that allowed you to experience the joy of birth over and over again as the expectant mother stuffed animal produced her tiny, tender offspring through a Velcro slit in her stomach. If my sister got her Puppy Surprise, I knew what was coming my way. It was going to be a Kitty Surprise. I was sure of it. A grin was plastered to my face as I tore open the wrapping. Boy, was I wrong. Much to my chagrin, what I ended opening was a Beary Surprise. What on earth was a “beary” anyway?! Shouldn’t it be called Cubby Surprise or something?! What was worse was that the mother bear stood upright instead of lying on her stomach like the other versions of the toy. Apparently, in order to accommodate for this slight variation, the makers had decided to put the Velcro slit in the mother’s back. IN HER BACK! My young mind found this anatomical error to be very disturbing and did what any young child lacking any and all impulse control would do. I threw a fit. It turns out the stores were out of Kitty Surprise, which had been quite popular that Christmas and there was nothing my parents could do. So instead of being able to enjoy a happy, heartwarming Christmas morning as a family, my poor sister and parents had to endure my tantrums, which lead my mother to do what any sensible mother trying to teach her child some impulse control would do, she took that bear away. Of course, this action was immediately followed by another fit, which as you can imagine, didn’t help my cause any. Eventually, after things calmed down, maybe hours later, maybe days later, my Beary Surprise was returned and at some point I remember getting to a low-grade level of fondness for the toy.

I wish I could say this was the only time such an event occurred, but unfortunately this scenario played out many, many times over. It turns out I was a notoriously difficult child to buy gifts for (I’ve been told this characteristic remains). Along with the Beary Surprise there was the Storyland change purse debacle, the bunny with the broad embroidered smile my mother stitched together with love, and last but not least, a very large quantity of “Smile Jesus Loves You” paraphernalia (it is likely my mother was trying to subliminally coach her very difficult, miserable child to smile more). Some of these items were returned after a time, others were gifted to those who would be more grateful, none actually taught me to be thankful for what I was given…

I’m getting to a point in my life where I can honestly say, I have never, and I mean never, gotten what I actually wanted. In fact, these past couple of years have been littered with things, that if given the choice, I would have gone out of my way to avoid. Life is rough sometimes in a bunch of little, confusing ways I can’t even put my finger on and other times in fat, giant ways that no one can even begin to sugarcoat. Ways I can’t work my way out no matter how much I scheme or strategize. All the things I don’t want just sit there piled up, and much like with my Beary Surprise, the only option I’m left with is to see if it’s possible to muster up even a low-grade level of appreciation for them while trying to sprinkle in a little gratitude for the things in my life that I guess aren’t that bad.

Now everything I’ve just shared is completely and totally true. But I need to share another story about not getting what I want to give you a little context. I spent WAY too much of my young life pining after this one particular guy. We were obnoxiously terrible for each other. He really loved ego massages and my young self with my poor boundaries was absolutely great at giving them. I, of course, was oblivious to this flaw and was really convinced, that if he just wanted me as much as I wanted him, my life would be made. Clearly, since I’ve already stated pretty overtly that I never, ever get what I want, you know how the story ends. At that time, it was heartbreaking. Now, with the clarity that only comes with age and experience, I recognize that a life in which I got what I wanted in that situation would have resulted in my own personally handcrafted nightmare. You see, as it turns out, I am absolutely terrible at wanting the right things.

I want french fries and cheesecake instead of the food that will nourish my body. I want instant and immediate pleasure when patience and perseverance will prove to be more valuable in the long haul. I want ease and wealth and praise and power in doses that sometimes even disturb me. Worst of all, a lot of times, I want precisely what I know I can’t have and when it looks like there is a small possibility that it might become available to me, I don’t even want it anymore.

Slowly, I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t even want what I want at all. I’m exactly who I am because my life hasn’t been easy. It’s been frustratingly messy in fact. Funny thing is, it’s in my messiness and brokenness that I’ve found in the cracks and crevices my truest joys. If I’d never felt the loneliness and lack of belonging that created such a shadow over my youth, I don’t think I’d have the same power to make people feel so valued and loved. If I’d never experienced the heartbreak of failed relationships and unmet expectations, I know I wouldn’t be so effective in supporting others through the burden of pain and loss. I’m not going to lie to you now and say I’m thankful for the difficulties that season after season keeps throwing at me, but I can say, that I think I’m better because of them.

My senior year of college there was this “25 Things List” fad that was going around Facebook. You were supposed to write some things that were true of you and then challenge friends to do the same. Number 24 on my list read:

“I have an INCREDIBLY difficult time letting go of those I love. My relationships mean more to me than just about anything. Basically, I will drop everything in order to help a friend who needs me. I never forget about people or how it felt to be close to them. I think someday this will lead to my downfall…”

Apparently, I was reasonably self-aware in college, because this statement continues to prove true in my life. I’m loyal to a fault and it has become a big problem.

In the past 8 or so years, people I cared about truly have been my downfall. I don’t know when it started, but at some point in my life I began building the people I really loved and respected these pedestals. In my mind, the pedestals (and people) were nice and shiny and high. It felt good to show them off to others, to look up at them beaming at my good fortune. How wonderful it was to have been honored to know so many perfect people. The problem with this, however, is there are no perfect people and people rarely if ever stay up on their shiny pedestals. Sometimes they choose to come down, sometimes it shatters beneath them, always I’m left with disappointment.

So there can be a few really big problems with loyalty. The first is that not everyone is worth being totally loyal to. I’ve let many people use and abuse me over the years whilst I made excuses and buffed up their pedestals to the best of my ability. People might warn me of the unhealthy patterns I’d fallen into or the poor boundaries I was engaging in, but I’d convince myself that everything was ok. I thought I just needed to support these people a little longer, defend them a little harder, correct them a little more, hide the ways they’d done wrong from more people. Of course, this never worked and then the guilt disguised as “loyalty” would start. If only I’d said or done something differently, maybe their behavior would have changed, maybe, just maybe, they would have become worthy of the pedestal once again.

Another problem with loyalty is it only works if you are being loyal to something real and not a figment of your imagination… and as it turns out, I’ve had a wild imagination over the years. I’ve created these people in my mind that will never hurt me, that won’t let me down, and that will never fall from grace. This makes me sad for a couple of reasons when I look back. One, it means I may never have gotten the chance to know who these people really were, and two, it means I spent a whole lot of time and energy worrying about trying to be worthy of something (or someone rather) that didn’t even exist. You see, if in your mind, you know someone who is the prettiest person, the coolest person, the funniest person, and that person isn’t you, you will never measure up. So as it turns out you are never good enough for you and when everybody comes crashing down off their pedestals, no one else is good enough for you either.

I wish so much that I hadn’t taken so long to stop putting others and myself in these impossible positions. Perhaps if I’d started breaking down these pedestals of co-dependence long ago and instead started building some healthy boundaries, I wouldn’t be here learning the same hard lesson in yet another set of important relationships. I’m encouraged though. I suppose some people never notice or acknowledge their patterns and attempt to move away from them. I suppose I’m happy I’m 29 rather than 99 when God is lovingly moving me into a place where I have to finally learn this lesson. Plus, the fabulous truth is, the more I stop trying to control other people, the less the disappointment is able to control me.

Can you accept you?

Version 2

It’s strange the memories that stick out in our minds.

One of my most vivid memories hails from 1990s. The event took place at one of the more exciting places in southern Maine for pre-teens in those days. There was a small roller-skating rink semi-close to my home called Happy Wheels, and truth be told, it was one of my all time favorite ways to spend a Saturday. All the rest of my friends and family had switched to using roller blades long before me, but my fear of speed and nervousness regarding anything with wheels had me clinging on to my skates for dear life. So while the people I was with would always have themselves rapidly strapped into their blades, I always lagged behind at the benches tying my laces. I also lagged once I got onto the rink (due to my aforementioned concerns about speed and wheels) but I LOVED the music and didn’t mind to be skating alone.

This particular afternoon, Changes by 2Pac came on and I was overjoyed. It was a fabulous song, and even better, it sampled The Way It Is by Bruce Hornsby, which had always been a family favorite. I got really into the music and started flapping my arms as I attempted to skate dance and pick up my pace. I’d made about one rotation around the rink, when I noticed something in my peripheral vision. There were a couple teenage boys making fun of me. I caught them mimicking my chicken-like arm movements as they pointed and laughed. I tried to be strong and ignore it, figuring I couldn’t keep them that entertained for much longer, but after the mockery continued for a couple more laps, I caved. I skated off the rink and didn’t get back on. My mom was concerned and kept asking me what was wrong, but I brushed her off with excuses about my feet hurting and feeling too tired to skate. For a while I didn’t want to go back to Happy Wheels. Eventually, I did. It was nearly impossible to live where I lived and not end up back there. Honestly though, it never really held the same magic for me as it once did. I never told my friends about the event (though at some point I revealed my experience in pieces to my family). I feigned excitement about returning to the rink and giggled and gossiped with other girls about who they would do the couple skate with, but I never quite skated quite so hard or as vibrantly as I had since Changes.

Now around 20 years have past and I still feel a little bit sick and sad when I think about that moment. Maybe I always will. The memory doesn’t stand alone though. It is just a small piece of a long string of self-preserving moments. I’ve spent so much time doing my best not to attempt something if there is a chance I will fail. Making sure to say the right things, to be strong, to be good… Even when I would do wonky things or wear quirky outfits, I’d be sure to always apologize for, defend, or make fun of myself before anyone else had the chance to.

Sure, I’m strong, respectable, interesting, and have a firm sense of justice… Try as I might to veer from these things, most of these descriptors are just core to who I am. However, what I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize, is that I never had to hide or excuse the soft, gooey part of me that wrestles with concepts like confusion, inadequacy, and imperfection, which are also such a strong part of my core.

I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had in recent years to work on acceptance. Accepting how I’m feeling and not judging myself for it, accepting prayers, help, or support, accepting failure… More than anything, accepting God’s love for me and accepting myself as human rather than some sort of robot who successfully completes every challenge with a smile that makes it all look so easy breezy. What acceptance has helped me realize is that if I could go back and talk to that girl flailing her arms to the music of the roller rink, I wouldn’t tell her to tough out the song, flapping her arms even more wildly, giving her mockers spiteful glances that communicate, “Ha, you couldn’t bring me down! I’m having fun anyway!” anymore than I would tell her to sit down and miss out on the magic of Happy Wheels. I think I would let her cry and tell her it makes sense to feel hurt to be a young girl being made fun of by teenage boys. Then I’d put in a special request to the management requesting they replay Changes and I’d take her by the hand and say, “It’s gonna hurt, we’re gonna look silly, we might even cry, but let’s go ahead and flap anyway.”

Do You Love Me?

When I was very little my mother bought me the book Mama, Do You Love Me? as a reinforcement of the fact that, yes, she did love me AND was willing to go to great lengths to make sure I got that love drilled into my young heart and head. As far back as my memories go, I remember strongly ascribing to the idea that I loved people with a depth that far surpassed their ability to love me. This came from both my belief that I was far too challenging and intense a human being to actually be lovable and my belief that the very intensity that made me unlovable, ironically, caused me to love on a more outrageous level than others seemed capable of. Goodbyes seemed harder for me, I never tired of those I cared for even after they had long become annoyed by me, and the wounds of rejection never seemed to fully heal. This theme was repeated over and over throughout my life (oftentimes due to being a self-fulfilling prophecy more than anything else) in a variety of ways. I frequently engaged with (maybe more accurately, I subconsciously sought out) people who did not have the capacity, desire, or sometimes both to love me in the ways I needed and wanted and cried my eyes out when they did precisely what they were always going to do and I used each friendship that went awry as more evidence and fuel for my beliefs.

Through years of wrestling through this with God and trusted ones, I can now on my good days view myself as quite loved and lovable. I wish more than anything though that I could say I’ve been fully freed from the chains of this myth. However, when things go wrong, it’s still sometimes the very first place my mind seems to go. A friend stops responding to calls, texts, and Facebook messages, a conflict occurs with someone I’m close to, there’s a dry spell in my social calendar… All of it can make that voice come out and lie, “You know why it happened… You know why they don’t love you…” It doesn’t help that some I believed have known me and cared for me most have been quick to point out my “intensity” just before they disappear either temporarily or permanently. This will likely be one of those lifelong battles for me. Funny thing is, I think this battle is shared with more people than I ever realized.

Does anyone else who works in mental health ever notice a theme in your clients? Well, I’m pretty sure I ended up with the exact caseload I was supposed to have because there is a STRONG theme among my clients right now and it was out in full force this week. So many feel completely and entirely unloved, unwanted… As if it would take just one mistake, one screw-up, for everyone in their life to say “Forget it… You’re not worth it. You were never worth it. You’ll never be worth it. We never wanted you. No one will ever want you.” And there with them I sit as they cry and they don’t know that I’ve cried the same tears, that so many of my other clients, too, have cried the same tears. No we didn’t feel unloved for all the same reasons, but we all felt it. The mistakes we made, the way we were, at some point, someone made us believe the lie that those things were unforgiveable… insurmountable…

As I’ve mentioned before, birthdays are rough for me. Mostly for all the reasons I noted in my past post on birthdays, but also for another reason I’m far more embarrassed to discuss. I used to view birthdays as a way to gauge just how loved I actually was. This was particularly true in my high school, college and early post-college years. I can’t believe I am admitting this, but I would actually look back and compare how many Facebook wall posts I had received from year to year and if the number had increased or decreased and if I had managed to get more or less posts than my peers had received on their birthdays. If my post number was “low,” if I hadn’t received “enough” cards, if it appeared no one had sought to make that day particularly “special,” it must mean I wasn’t all that loved that year, that others had once again succeeded in being more lovable than I could ever be. For that reason it seemed so incredibly perfect that on my birthday I provided tissues and empathy to those who are still in the struggle, those who still believe that something as magical, as mysterious, as meaningful as love could ever be measured. Those who still believe there might not be enough love for them, that someday love could run out.

I’ve learned a little something about love in the last few years. There’s this great quote from the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower… “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I’ve gotten a lot better at accepting true love and rejecting the counterfeits. I’ve gotten better at pursuing it, too. Now, I don’t wait for disappointment and then cry about it; I tell others what I need and if they can’t give it to me, I go and get it for myself. I cry out for love from the Source that always gives it immeasurably and unconditionally. I don’t hope for someone else to plan the birthday I want; I plan it for myself. I seek to give the kind of love I want to get. I try not to wait for a reason. If I love you, you’ll know. You won’t need to question it. You won’t need to ask. It will just be there, sure and true. Yeah, people still drop off for reasons I’ll never know or understand and I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me. I still love them, though, perhaps in way that is less “intense.” But I’m finding as I go that there is always more than enough love to go around. The more love I accept and give, the more love seems to multiply.

So… Who do you love? Do they know? Who feels unloved around you? Do you have any extra love for them? Are you feeling loved enough? If not, do you have the courage to pursue it? To accept it? I hope so, because no matter who you are, where you are, you are loved and you are lovable. Take it from me. I promise. I know.