As a Sagittarius rising and a Myers-Briggs INFJ, I’m fascinated by the idea of discovering my true self, the person I was before the world changed me. In yoga we talk about this a lot. In fact that’s one of the many functions of yoga, to reunite you with your innermost self, your truest self (that is, in fact, what the word “yoga” means). In consequence, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what it means when people respond to the parts of you they don’t like. That is, after all, why we fail to be our true selves, because we are ever and always trying to present to the world the parts of us—and only the parts of us—that are most palatable. We shove everything else aside and hide it in locked rooms inside our own psyches. Such is the source, at least according to some psychologists, of neuroses (see Marie-Louise von Franz’s The Problem of the Puer Aeternus).
It is often the case that I take the issues that conflict me the most and pour them into my novels. Doing so offers me the opportunity of placing the issue outside of my own mind where I can look at it and examine it in a little more detail—or at least from another perspective. I seem to be doing that now as I work tandemly on Guileless and Fearless. The first is about a young woman who is intent on challenging the limits of her own understanding. Growing up with four brothers, she is constantly aware of what it is she is missing out on in the way of education. At the same time that her father manages those limits, he also berates her for what she lacks. Her brothers think of her as silly and trivial and without a mind of her own. She has lots of opinions, that’s not the problem. Or maybe it is exactly the problem, for it’s the opinions they object to. Opinions without the facts to back them up, as we know, make up a great deal of the fodder of debates these days. But also, sometimes, it’s not what we do or don’t know that’s objectionable, but simply that we have opinions that challenge others. That there ought to be more than one voice in a marriage, more than one voice in a family or an institution, whether its religious or civic or commercial is something most of us would not debate. And yet … there are lots of people for whom the threat of losing the power of consensus feels extremely threatening.
In Fearless the heroin is not “accomplished” enough to please those who have stewardship over her future (or soon will have, at any rate), and yet she does have talents, we all do, but they are those that aren’t easily shown off in a ballroom or at a dinner party. She can play a little, sing a little, paint a little, sew a little, but she is a remarkable storyteller. Anciently, and even in today’s world, that’s a laudable skill, but at that time, it had no real use. It did not prepare her for marriage, did not prepare her to entertain, and offered nothing to the improvement of her domestic life. If she were a man, it might be a marketable skill, but a marketable quality in a woman was something to despise in the Victorian Era.
And what about now? There’s this huge, erupting conversation about what is acceptable for some people to do and not others. The hypocrisies, for instance, in what men can get away with (“he didn’t know what he was doing; he was drunk”, “boys will be boys”) versus what is acceptable in female behavior (“she had it coming”, “what did she think was going to happen if when she drinks/dresses like that?”) run rampant in our subconscious paradigms. While I find the disparity heartbreaking, I find the conversation (that we are having it) fascinating.
During my yoga teacher training, one of the books that was required reading was Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. Ruiz talks about domestication as the training we receive as children regarding how we are expected to interact with the world. We say “yes, please” and “no, thank you,” we sneeze into our elbows and cover our mouths when we yawn. We drive on the right side of the road, and we don’t take things that don’t belong to us. We use utensils when we eat (mostly) and refrain from kicking and hitting. And while all that is useful and even necessary, there are other things that are not
I’ve spent many years being indoctrinated with the idea that the reward for good behavior is the approval of others. Having been raised by an alcoholic father, I fall very firmly into the co-dependent category of human behavior and existence. I know how to be subtle. I know how to play small (despite the fact that I’m nearly 6′ tall). Religion was my friend because, as someone who is overly concerned with being a good person, I had this convenient checklist, and if I did all the things, that meant I was a-ok.
The problem comes when you finally take the mantel of responsibility upon yourself for trying to sort out who you are. Those who held the ropes and the rule books up to that point will have something to say when you threaten to step out of line. Those shame words and their accompanying narratives are used to put us back in place. Things like, “if you’re angry you’re not happy”, or “you’re being judgmental”, or “she’s gone off the deep end”. Think about it: Why do we have lawns? Why are houses only painted in solid colors and not in stripes or plaid? Why are some colors suitable for automobiles and not others. Why is it not o.k. to sing in public? Or to dance? Why are men supposed to have short hair and women never supposed to have tattoos?
Life is bizarre, and, truly, so many of the rules do not even make sense. But rules keep ups predictable, as do boxes and categories and judgments. We are all living in a state of fear, pretending we have it figured out when we don’t.
None of us has it figured out.
I was also taught that happiness looks a certain way, and if we are not happy, it’s a judgment upon our righteousness, on our worthiness, on the value of our existence. What’s interesting is that I’ve learned of the value of emotions and not just the “nice” ones. The value of anger, for instance, to inform you when a boundary has been crossed; the value of grief to help you get in touch with the well of emotion all around you (and the support and connection that brings); the value of fear to show us how to survive and to teach us how to value what is most precious. All of these emotions can be misused; of course they can, but the healthy expression of them is not something we should shame. But we do. Toxic positivity is real … and it’s unhealthy. Not only is it disrespectful of people who are struggling with depression, or loss, or any of a million other obstacle that may very well be no fault of their own, it invalidates the complexity of the human experience.
THERE ARE NO BAD EMOTIONS. Though there are certainly improper ways to act out on those emotions. Emotional intelligence is to everyone’s benefit. I think what the last few years has taught us is that too may people (particularly in the U.S. where the rate of trauma is so high) lack empathy. Sorrow, grief, and anger, are inconvenient emotions. It’s much easier to shame someone into the appearance of complaisance than to actually sit with them and help them sort out what it is they are feeling. Heck, we can scarcely sit sill with our own emotions! There are real problems in the world that are not going to get better by watching the news. That doesn’t mean we need to be upset by them, but we need to be willing to search inside for or own unique gifts and find the ways in which we can contribute. Neither is it realistic to expect that we are doing anything other than betraying ourselves when we sit by and smile and nod along when someone does something harmful or when our boundaries are betrayed. Such is the exact opposite of self-love.
I’m a passionate person, and while that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I actually really like that about myself. It gives me the energy and motivation I need to write, to work for a purpose, to try to make the world a better place. It gives me the hope and courage to love, even after I have been disappointed and hurt. It is the joy in my existence, the energy that keeps me moving forward. It’s why, despite the difficulties and hardships of the last year, I have so much to live for and so much work to produce. And I have been.
I’m at a point in my life where I believe that the purpose of life is to heal from our traumas and find our true selves so that we can rise above hardship and offer our unique talents to make the world a better place. The more I’m allowed to express myself, the more I’m able to respect my own boundaries and maintain them, the more I am able to share who I am and who I am becoming with the world, the happier I am. But that journey does and should look different to everyone.
Blessings, and I’ll be back at the end of the month with some more fascinating research.