How many times have you heard someone say, “People never change . . .” Research shows that the more often we hear an assertion, adage, or even a lie, the more likely we are to belief it’s true. When it comes to an individual’s ability to change beliefs and behaviors many factors come into play. However, one constant remains. Whether it’s significant or minute, individuals are in a constant state of personal evolution. And part of this natural evolution is our mind’s ability to take in new information. Then, depending on how open we are to change, we accept shifting insights and perspectives, create new beliefs, and adjusting our behavior to match these new beliefs. Therefore, one downside to publishing thoughts, feelings, and opinions is that in time a once firmly held opinion can often begin to look more like, Hum? Not-so-much . . .
No Big Surprise:
During the 5-6 years since I first penned the post below, I’ve learned a few things about myself, not to mention co-dependency. And while the bulk of my original post remains accurate and painfully true, none of the reasons listed were the true catalyst(s) behind my exit from the world of writing.
What Has Not Changed for Me:
Nothing compares to the rush I feel when devising a plot for the very first time. To the miracle of experiencing the story flowing from my heart and mind without bidding and/or effort. Or the sound of my characters chattering endlessly inside my head. Mentally cheering for them as they stumble, fall, and then get back up again. Even the endless task of writing, editing, rewriting, and editing some more is a balm to my soul. The opportunity to reimagine key aspects of my stories excites me much more than it probably should.
Tripping Over Cognitive Dissonance into a New Reality:
So why did I stop? As it turns out I wasn’t as co-dependent with writing as I was with those individuals who shared my orbit at any given moment. Although no one ever directly said as much, I was implicitly—and at times, quite explicitly—taught from birth that as a female I am responsible for everyone else’s feelings, needs, and happiness.
The Unwritten Rules for Females:
#1. It is a female’s lot in life to satisfy everyone else’s needs—emotional, physical, and otherwise—ahead of her own.
#2. If she deigns to take care of her own needs—even the most basic ones—ahead of those of others, then she is selfish. No question.
(Selfish: definition: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others: arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others.)
#3. Apologize for everything, regardless of whether . . . well, just regardless.
#4. If a woman is not constantly consumed by serving others, her life has no meaning.
#5. If serving others doesn’t bring a woman lasting happiness and joy, then she must be doing something wrong. She should try harder.
#6. Therefore, she should keep trying until she gets it right . . . Whatever “right” looks like.
And so it goes that if I wasn’t “fixing” and/or focusing on and/or attending to the needs and happiness of those around me, I was taking up space I didn’t deserve to occupy. Which also meant that no matter how enjoyable, meaningful, or soul-filling writing was for me, I believed I wasn’t “allowed” to engage in my craft until everyone else was taken care of first.
Que The Hamster Wheel:
What’s left out of our social conditioning is how the needs of others are insatiable. Endless. Constant. And how even if you do manage to temporarily satisfy those in need you still end up feeling guilty, selfish, and even ashamed when taking time away from service to engage in something that benefits only you. An indulgence that only you love. That brings joy to only . . . you.
For TEN years I got up early and stayed up late, rushed through the housework, grocery shopping, cooking, yard work, carpool, exercise, parenting, civic duties, and so on . . . constantly on the lookout for chunks of time where I could squeeze in writing without causing even a moment of disruption to the lives of those around me.
To say that this was exhausting—mentally, physically, emotionally—would be so far beyond an understatement I don’t think there’s a word to describe how overwhelmed I felt.
The “Cherry” that toppled it all:
Adding to the toxic complexities of the writing industry, plus social conditioning, were the constant, not so subtle, insinuations regarding what it meant to be a “real” author. Although I was traditionally published by small presses, if I wasn’t represented by an agent, not being paid a substantial advance on my work, not packing a bag for a book tour, much less having my novel included on some A-list celebrity’s book club list, I wasn’t a real author. Therefore, I was wasting my time. And by extension, everyone else’s.
In sum, if writing was not making me famous, wealthy, or adored by the masses, then my writing was not contributing, financially or otherwise. In any substantial or meaningful way. So, what the hell was I thinking? Why was I inconveniencing everyone around me by wasting so much time on writing??
Mad face . . .
To be clear, my family, friends and other random humans were not shallow, self-centered, monsters. Nor was I a spineless doormat. More or less. Like me, those around me had fallen victim of the insidious nature of our social conditioning. A systemic programing that values the esteem of others over personal worth. The pursuit of wealth and possessions over balance and quality of life. One that places an unwavering trust in the powers-that-be over trusting one’s heart and soul. The “they” who have their own best interest in mind. Not yours, nor mine.
This is where the dissonance comes in. Rather than descend into the menacing black hole of questioning what it truly meant to use my feminine powers for good, and then reframing my priorities based on authenticity, I retreated to the safety of time-honored, albeit soul-crushing definitions of the female role that had been reinforced since my birth. Then, frustrated and exhausted by my inability to “do it all,” I gave up, took the less existential route out of my suffering, and devised a graceful exit from writing. One based on the industry roadblocks, barriers that were legitimate, substantive, and didn’t require me to change any of the “rules” I had followed for over 50 years. Hence, the blog post below.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Unlike Bernadette, the denial of my creative grounding did not include the FBI or nearly being committed to the “looney bin.” Narrowly escaped by stowing away to the South Pole, where my footing was regained. However, like Maria Semple’s character, I did sink into my own version of an existential crisis of the soul. One from which I haven’t completely recovered.
My Trip to the South Pole and Back Again:
It has taken me five years and who knows how many hours of therapy, as well as work with many brave female clients, to only begin to integrate a new set of rules for myself. Rules that more closely resemble an emotionally healthy, balanced, and fulfilling approach to being female.
The New Unwritten Rules:
#1. Women are only responsible for their own happiness and wellbeing.
#2. No matter how many ways she tries, a woman CAN NOT make another person happy, nor will she miraculously become happy herself by trying. At least not in any authentic or meaningful way.
#3. Happiness dependent on another person’s happiness will not last for the giver or for the receiver.
#4. A woman does not need to apologize unless she knowingly hurts another person. Or she recognizes after the fact that she has inadvertently harmed another.
#5. Taking responsibility for another person’s feelings—over and over again—with the expectation that doing so will finally, miraculously, make a lasting difference is the very definition of insanity. Permission to stop trying harder.
#6. While putting another person’s needs and/or happiness ahead of your own might feel good in the moment, when unreciprocated, this behavior ultimately leads to resentment, anger, burnout, and a lost sense of self.
The Truth “They” Don’t Want You to Know:
It is emotionally and developmentally unhealthy to do for others what they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. I will even go as far as to say that co-dependent behaviors only serve to hold other individuals back. It teaches them that they can’t trust their own instincts and/or abilities. And that failure and missteps are unsafe and/or unacceptable. Thus, robbing them of the insights and growth that comes from suffering, vulnerability, problem-solving, asking for help, overcoming, and learning through personal experience.
What we CAN and MUST do for others is support and encourage them, belief in them, extend a hand when they’ve fallen. Sit with them as they cry. See them. Validate their feelings without “fixing.” Openly take responsibility for our actions. Learn how to offer genuine, appropriate apologies. And most importantly, allow our hearts and souls to be our guide. We don’t need any power-that-be to dictate what it means to be selfish, much less how to be a decent, emotionally healthy human. As living, breathing, feeling humans ourselves, we were all born with an innate sense of how to nurture and care for one another.
A Healthy, Whole Heart:
Therefore, taking responsibility for my own happiness means that although my writing may never make it onto a celebrity’s “book club” list, or featured on The Today Show, or buy me a bougie house at the beach, I’m allowed to spend time doing what I love.
I don’t know what writing will look like for me going forward, or how long it will take me to complete my current WIP(s). What I do know is that putting the needs of others ahead of my own doesn’t make me a better and/or happier person. Nor does constantly sacrificing my wants, needs, and interests for another’s create lasting meaning, purpose, or dare I say, worth.
In order to wholeheartedly pursue the endeavors that fulfil me, while showing-up for those around me in a truly meaningful way, I need to take care of myself first—body, mind, and soul. Which includes creating appropriate boundaries around the ways in which I respond to and support those I love and care for. This is the only way I can glean the emotional stamina and resilience needed to create authentic meaning and purpose.
A life worth living.