I was in a meeting earlier this month and we were talking about how we are often our own worst enemies. That is certainly true for me. I am harder on myself than most people in my life probably are on me, and I’m certainly harder on myself than I am on most people I love. In therapy, we’ve identified this as my critical self (as opposed to my integrated self that is connected to wisdom and truth instead of fear and shame). I’m assuming that voice will always be a part of me because I’m human, although its role in my life is changing and shrinking.
Elizabeth Gilbert says “The parts of yourself that you do not love are terribly vital, because they demand that you dig deep- deeper than you ever thought you would have to dig – in order to summon compassion and forgiveness for the struggling human being whom you are.”
I’ve spent so much of the last 2 years learning how to be kind to myself in what I believed were my failings and really were just the realities of me being human in a messy, broken world. My sexual pain disorder and all the havoc that has wreaked on my marriage. My body breaking down and getting sick more times last year than it ever has. My emotional capacity for relationships and just trying to get through the day to day. I throttled back in so many ways because I had to, it was the only way to survive.
This week, I realized I had been away from my job for 6 months. I’m grateful to have had this season and I’m realizing that I am not in survival mode anymore. Still resting and recuperating, but in not so dire and desperate of a place than I was back in May. I don’t have stay throttled back to survive anymore.
So often I thrive on intensity. I love the way it makes me feel. I’m often an all-in or an all-out girl. If I choose it, I CHOOSE IT. I recently attempted to watch a few Marvel movies, realized how much stuff is missing in between random movies because all the story lines are so interconnected, so out of aggravation, I decided to watch all the Marvel movies in chronological order. I love intense, deep conversation in relationships. I don’t love that people in my life are suffering but I don’t mind being in the trenches with them because the authenticity of connection that can be found there is life-changing.
There are also consequences on sustaining yourself on intensity. Shauna Niequist talks about “being strung-out on the drug of efficiency” and that she “worshiped at the alter of my to-do list, ignoring the cry of my body and soul like they were nothing more than the buzz of pesky mosquitoes.” When I read those words for the first time a few years ago, I knew they were true for me and I knew I also couldn’t leave the season I was in to get the deep rest I so desperately craved.
So it’s another Both/And. Finding the value in intensity and the goodness that can be found there, but learning that you cannot live there all the time. I’m reminded that when I went to counseling, I thought I was going to conquer my vaginismus, to claim victory over it. Instead I learned a completely new way of being. Of relating to myself, my relationships, and how I see the world. I learned the value of self-compassion, that there is peace to be found outside of the intensity as well. That I can be my own worst enemy by demanding intensity in every are of my life and of myself.
I keep coming back to this question: Is soft and gentle enough? A month ago, I sat on a couch with my best friend and cried about how being with myself in this season still feels so new. I’m learning to relate to myself without all of my fire, without a consistent source of frustration and agitation. I’m trying to figure out motivation where anger and exhaustion are my fuel.
Who is this softer Nicole, who is slower to speak, slower to say yes and commit, slower to produce? Is she just as stunning and exceptional? Is she just as wise, just as strong? My critical self tells me that I am less of all of these things, and yet my integrated self is convicted of the truth that I’ve let the old be burnt away and I’m waiting for new things to grow. The roots are already there, I can feel them, and there are shoots beginning to sprout up.
My anger was also my fire that protected me, kept me safe. I know the fire is still in there if I need it, but I’m not keeping it on a constant burn. Which means I can take new risks. New risks as I pursue my dreams, new risks in my marriage…. and that’s really scary when you believe that it’s the constant fire that makes you who you are, makes you special.
I know that keeping that kind of fiery momentum, though I needed it for the season I was in, is what got me to this point beyond exhaustion. It’s why I’ve spent the last 6 months resting and recuperating from the deep burn-out I had been experiencing, and quite frankly I’m still recuperating and probably will be for some time.
So what if in my marriage, I intentionally choose vulnerable, not-easy conversations and interactions and intimacy without kicking my intense I-Make-Things-Happen attitude into gear? What if going in soft and gentle, listening to my body AND mind AND heart for wisdom is the key?
What if I pursue my dream by not making things happen on my timeline, but continuing to allow rest and slow and small to fill me up and heal me, trusting that new goodness is growing in me? Can I believe that I’m not giving up or being lazy but trusting in the timing of what’s ahead before I drown myself in the weight of “Too Much” again, that I’m releasing the first draft of the timeline that I make that normally is loaded with unrealistic expectations?
So where are you your own worst enemy? Where are you the hardest on yourself? What things do you subconsciously, or even actively, avoid because it feels too vulnerable? I’ve come to realize that where we’ve been hurt the most or experienced the most pain is where it’s hardest for us to take risks.
For me, in this season, that’s two-fold. My marriage and my sexuality are still really hard to take risks in because of how much they’ve been pulverized in the last 8 years by these diagnoses. The other, that I’m coming to realize, is how I see myself in what I would consider a “work” space. My work, myself possibly as an employee, a creator, what I have to offer the world that has value and someone would consider paying me for. That part of who I am feels vulnerable too. The timing makes sense. My last job started a month after I got married; I’ve been carrying both important, heavy loads for almost a decade.
Shauna Niequist opens her book Present Over Perfect by talking about “letting yourself be loved, in all your imperfect, scarred, non-spectacular glory.” This is the season of my life, letting myself be loved (by others and myself) in all my imperfect, scarred, non-spectacular glory. I haven’t made the last 6 months look spectacular by producing anything to prove to people that I’m really going to achieve my dreams, or that my marriage is miraculously the best it’s ever been. And that’s more than okay. I can love this version of me too. One that’s not fiery and intense all the time, one who is soft, gentle, tender, who has a smaller capacity, and moves more slowly. Shauna says it so well: “Now I know that the best thing I can offer to this world is not my force or energy, but a well-tended spirit, a wise and brave soul.”
I’ve sustained myself on my force and energy, now I’m cultivating that well-tended spirit to become a wiser and braver soul. And the funny thing is, I know my force and energy isn’t gone. That fire I have is God-given. It’s safe enough to leave the fire off right now to focus on something else, so that then I can learn to have that fire back in a different way, a wiser way.
Even with the holidays coming, when it’s so easy to get swept up in the swirl, I choose to keep finding rest, to set limits, to pause long enough to experience deep joy. I’ve so often been my own worst enemy when I’m not performing “the way I think I should.” What if the gift I give myself this season is permission to be free of that, to just show up fully present and be a human in all my imperfect, non-spectacular glory? And maybe by doing that, I can make more room to take risks in the areas that mean the most to me. It’s a gift idea you might want to think about for yourself too because in this culture we could all use a little more joy and a little more peace.