Glennon Doyle Melton talks and writes about the super hero capes that we all create and wear to protect our soft, vulnerable selves from the harsh world. Hers are bulimia, alcoholism, addiction. These substances never helped her feel better, but they kept her from being seen in her vulnerable, complex glory and that was what she wanted. It took pregnancy to get her sober and to help her realize she just had to show up and do the next right thing, every day, and that maybe the problem is with the world and not her. If you haven't seen her TEDx talk yet, watch it here.
I never saw myself as experiencing addiction. In fact, I felt a little plain and boring and I bought into the way that we glorify and demonize the tortured geniuses - slightly jealous of the artistic capacity of those who are so deeply feeling but also so very glad I had my shit together.
Now I see that this is one of my superhero capes - the veneer of having my shit together.
I am a perfectionist. I have a vague sense that I'm being held to very high standards, and my biggest fears are disappointing people and violating social expectations. When I do everything I need to do to keep myself well, I can let go and luxuriate in the messiness of my good intensions that often go awry.
Like, a few weeks ago I noticed my new neighbor's garbage cans had been knocked over in the storm the night before, and even though the kids were buckled in their carseats I got out of the minivan to set the cans upright because I am a HELPFUL NEIGHBOR. Then a herd of little dogs came charging toward the gap in the fence and I realized the cans were down on purpose and I sheepishly introduced myself and then helped knock down the cans again while my neighbor held back the yipping herd.
Since I was having a good day I thought, "Huh. Maybe I should offer our baby gate to plug that gap in the fence instead, because surely they will need to use the garbage cans for some other purpose sometime soon." Had I been really struggling, my inner dialogue might have gone, "Wow, you looked like a moron there. Why would you think that would be helping? Now she is going to think you are a weird busy body neighbor."
At my most vulnerable I have a deep dark belief that I am only lovable when I do things the right way, whatever "right" means. At my worst I obsess over how people will react to almost anything I do or write or create.
My perfectionism is equal opportunity and has shamed me for things like forgetting to send a thank you note, receiving extensive feedback about the need for more narrative cohesion on my first long paper in grad school, or hearing that a former colleague thought it odd that I was still home with my nine month old son. My perfectionism expresses itself in physical ailments and hours of late-night panic and rumination and sometimes very intense sob sessions.
I also wear the superhero cape of independence. I'd rather stay home alone than be the girl who doesn't realize people don't want her around but just invited her to the party out of pity. As an HSP and a trained researcher, I gather evidence about whether the people in my life really do like me and whether I'm asking more of them than they are asking of me. I'm always happy to offer help and be useful, but my stomach feels queasy over just the idea of calling up a friend on an average day to say, "I need you. I can't get through this alone."
The problem with the perfectionism and the fear of disappointing people and the need to prove that I'm independent is that these are all illusions that prevent me from truly connecting, from letting people see me as I am and show their soft vulnerable selves too. When I fall apart over every little piece of feedback from my spouse, I signal to him that he is not allowed to speak his truths with me. When I make sure I am always the friend who is helping and never the one asking for help, I signal that everyone else must be doing something wrong because I have my SHIT TOGETHER, DAMMIT.
When I became a mother, it gave me a chance to stop obsessing so much over myself as a product. I'm not the end goal any more, and that has freed me up to get out of my own head and start paying better attention to what is happening around me. If I had unlimited resources and didn't need to consult with my partner I would just keep having kids because with each child I have felt my empathy grow and my pride taken down a notch. If I were an octo-mom I suspect I'd be the next Mother Teresa.
We are all just doing the best we can to navigate this brutiful world, and if I'm feeling lonely or disappointed with myself or ready to curl up in a ball, chances are other people I know are feeling that way too. It doesn't mean I'm doing anything wrong and it doesn't mean they're a mess. What it means is this world is overwhelming and vicious and full of indescribable beauty and pain and grace and it's okay to admit all that and say, "I need you. I can't do this alone."
I may look like I have my shit together because I've somehow managed to make it through life without any major trauma and because I'm privileged and because I've collected a lot of great people in my life who share the burden and help me through it.
But I'm not perfect and neither are you, and that's ok.
Let's invite each other over for dinner even if the house is a mess and the dinner is take out and we let the kids fall asleep in front of the tv while eating handfuls of fruit gummies that don't really have any fruit in them, just so we can remember what it's like to build each other up and laugh and breathe together.
Let's check in and ask, "How full is your bucket today?" and really listen to the answer and maybe answer truthfully when our bucket is feeling mostly empty.
Let's stop going on Facebook to connect where we're reminded of how perfect all our friends' lives are (but aren't really) and instead call each other to say, "These kids are making me crazy and I feel like I'm doing everything wrong and I am deeply afraid that I'm ruining their lives and mine. I need you to remind me I can do this."
I need you. I can't do this alone. Let's do it together, shall we?