When I'm not enough
I've been listening to the book "Rising Strong" by Brene Brown. She is brilliant! She is raw and she teaches me so much about what's really going on in my head and my heart. She helps me find the language to explain the emotions I experience. Her book is not on grief but as I listen to her book, I realize that some of my suffering with grief isn't even about the loss of Isaac. Some of it is about me.
I'm an overfunctioner. Yep, that's a thing. Apparently, Brene is too. So I'm among good company! Being an overfunctioner can be great. You receive a lot of praise, you get a lot done. But at the end of it all, you still aren't satisfied. Because if you aren't doing, then you are failing at over-functioning! Ha! One great thing about Isaac is that he would help me to see how ridiculous I can be at times. He would help me to see that even though there was merit to getting it all done, getting it all done wouldn't make me happy. I would never be able to get it all done and rest later because there would always be more to do. Before Isaac died, I felt like I was learning how to let go of my to-do list and be present. So when Isaac died, it made me so mad because now I need to function at a higher level. On one hand, it's good that I can do it. On the other hand, it perpetuates a behavior that can get unhealthy real fast. People tell me, "You're so strong," or "If someone can do this, it is you." Sometimes I don't want to be strong. It makes me feel like hard things happen to me because I am strong. I've since realized that I'm looking at it wrong. The truth is that if I wasn't strong, this still could have happened and I'd just be a mess. But I'm still not happy about it.
In her book, Brene talks about realizing that she is uncomfortable with her own need. As she talked about this I just started to cry. I realized how much I shame myself for needing. The other day, some friends had us to dinner. They were so sweet and had called my friend to see what I liked to eat. They got presents for the kids and me. I was so grateful but I felt so dumb because I hadn't even thought to bring them a treat for Christmas. As I listen to Brene's book, I realized that I didn't just feel dumb. I felt like a failure. While it's good to be polite and be thinking of others, I realized that it is hard for me to accept people's help or generosity without feeling the need to give back. I feel like I've been taught to do my part, always give. And while that's good, it's also not good. Because the truth is that somewhere deep inside me, I don't believe that people will love me if I don't give back. If I don't have time, or if I forget something, there is a part of me that feels that I have failed. That expectation is so unrealistic. And it leaves me feeling like I'm not enough, that if I'm not the giver, then I have no value in the relationship. And I'm more needy than I've ever been. This shame has probably made me judgmental of others when I thought they weren't giving enough or being polite. If I feel that I can be perfectly giving, then I probably expect that from others too. That's not fair. None of us are perfect.
After Brene had already had me crying about being needy, she decided to lay it on thick. It felt like she opened up this little door in my heart that I locked a long time ago, probably in high school. It was almost like she started opening the door and then said, "Rebecca, what's in here?" Then she said:
"...most girls raised in this state are taught the opposite of integration. We're raised to compartmentalize. We're raised to be tough and tender, but never at the same time...we're taught how to be tough and sweet. And, of equal importance, we're taught when to be tough and when to be sweet. And as we get older, the consequences of being tough and independent when you are supposed to be tender and helpless increase in severity...but as we get older, the consequences for being too assertive or too independent take on a darker nature: shame, ridicule, blame, and judgement...When that day comes, we start to get the message, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that it's best that we start focusing on staying thin, minding our manners, and not being so smart or not speaking out so much in class that we call attention to our intellect. This is a pivotal day for boys too. This is the moment when they're introduced to the white horse. Emotional stoicism and self-control are rewarded. Displays of emotion are punished. Vulnerability is now weakness. Anger becomes an acceptable substitute for fear, which is forbidden."
And that's when I realized how much shame I feel about who I am. I had never admitted that I was ashamed of myself because I don't do "bad" things. I don't commit crimes. I'm not mean. But I'm smart. I'm ambitious. I talk a lot. I have opinions and I don't hesitate to share them. I'm talented. And in subtle and not so subtle ways, I've been taught that these things were why I didn't marry at a younger age. In college, I wasn't skinny enough. I wasn't blonde enough. I wasn't sweet enough. My grades were too good. I was a teaching assistant for a very difficult writing course. And, I cared too much about getting married. I was supposed to move forward with my life, but not too much because "no man wants to be with a woman who is smarter or more ambitious than him." I learned that I had to have an answer ready to the question: "Why don't you think you are married yet?" I learned that people would think there was something wrong with me the longer I stayed unmarried. And the worst part is that I started to doubt that I had real faith in God and His plan for me. I'm not sure that I ever doubted God. What really happened was that I felt shamed for being single. Being single seemed to send a signal to everyone else: "She isn't worthy of love. You should try to find out what's wrong with her." And you know what? That's bullshit! I'm callin' it. A person's marital status does not determine his or her worth. All the best things about me, the things that make me love myself, the parts of myself I enjoy, were made out to be the very things that made me unlovable. How awful! And that saddest part is that this didn't just happen to me. This happens to a lot of women, and men!
This new knowledge of the shame I feel, helped me to realize why I felt angry that Isaac's death left me alone. Because once I realized that his death made me single, I feared the shame. I feared the way people would judge me if I never remarried, or if I remarried too soon. It didn't matter that I wasn't rejected in a divorce (the shame from that would probably be even worse). I knew that single=shame, and I never wanted to feel that as intensely as I did before. But now that I know what it is, I don't have to accept it. I'm done with being the person everyone else wants me to be. I'm going to talk because I have ideas to share. I'm going to be ambitious because I have things to do. I'm going to be tough and tender. I'm going to be spiritual and inappropriate at times. I'm going to be a good homemaker and a good worker. And, I'm going to trust God and know that I am worthy of love for all the parts of me.
Maybe that is why I enjoyed my marriage so much. Isaac gave me permission to be me. He didn't shame me for being smart or talented. He never shamed my body. He loved all of me. The truth is that I didn't have to wait for Isaac to love all of me so that I could love all of me. Grief has broken my heart open, and now I can see all the scar tissue, anger, hurt, and resentment. With God, I'm going to heal all the parts of my heart. Not just the part that misses Isaac. I have people to forgive, things to let go of, and parts to reclaim. These are the things that will make my heart whole. I almost wrote "whole again," but that would be a lie. My marriage made my heart full. It will take a lifetime, and maybe more, before anyone of us could be perfectly wholehearted. But I will never get there if I won't look at all the places in my heart.
Before I finish this post, I want to share a few bits of advice on how to interact with single people:
- Never ask, "Why do you think you aren't married?" You are implying that there is something more wrong with them than with you or any other married person. Think about it. You know plenty of screwed-up married people so this question inaccurately blames the single person as though something makes them unlovable.
- Value a single person for the individual he or she is. You should do the same to married persons.
- A single person has the right to long for a romantic relationship without being accused of being or acting desperate. Single people aren't stupid. Just because they haven't been married doesn't mean that they don't sense the connection, companionship, and sexual intimacy that they are missing out on. So don't make them feel silly or desperate for wanting that.
- Don't assume that the single person has an addiction, problem, or personality trait keeping them from marriage. The truth is that a lot of married persons have these problems too. Single people are the same as married people. The are just pre-married people.
- Realize that your discomfort with a person's marital status is your problem. Families might need to grieve. You may have expected to had grandkids by now. You may have expected to raise babies with your sister or best friend. Most likely, your single friend has already grieved the loss of these expected shared experiences, but you have probably failed to recognize your own need to grieve that these things haven't happened and may never happen in the way you had hoped.
- If you are close to a single person, ask him or her how you can support them. Some may feel like a third wheel and others might want to be included. Some might want you to set them up on dates, some might not. Some may want to talk about their dating life. Ask the individual so you can know what is helpful and not helpful.
If you've done these things, don't worry, we all have. As a society we've bought in to these beliefs. I've been guilty of some of these behaviors too. But we can stop doing this now. We can start treating every person as an individual worthy of love and belonging. All of us at times feel like we aren't enough, and it is the worst feeling in all the world. Let's not perpetuate that when we can do better.