Let’s harken back to a simpler time, March 2017 to be exact, the last three paragraphs of this post to be more exact. I told you that I knew self-doubt spirals were coming but that I also trusted my path. It’s all still true. I still trust my path. But the doubt is very real. This post is to own that doubt still exists and it hurts, but it’s okay.
It crops up occasionally. I want to be honest about that. I wish I could tell you how utterly easy and delightful life is once you decide to veer off the beaten path and take deliberate steps to craft the life you always imagined for yourself, even when that life flies in the face of everything you so carefully planned and everything those around you profess to value. I unfortunately can’t tell you that.
I can tell you that the good days outnumber and outweigh the bad days. In fact, I don’t have too many days that are wholly bad anymore. Some bad moments, yes. Some bad afternoons.
I want to get into a few things that happen once you step off the path of least resistance, once you get uncomfortable and start taking action toward the new vision (for me, the old vision that I abandoned in my 20s because of fear and am finally returning to).
The old fears still exist and we must keep confronting them all the time. Sometimes you read a self-help book or you journal and have a realization and you think, yes, that makes sense, it resonates, that’s totally me. And your brain is tricked into thinking you’ve fixed it because you’ve recognized it. But unless you’re doing the constant work of letting go of the part of you that you don’t want anymore and cultivating the quality you do want, it’s not going to go away. And, what’s more, even if you are doing the work, it will keep cropping up in unexpected ways, trying to worm its way back into your life, to remind you how important it used to be to you.
Here’s an example from my life: I have pretty much decided that I don’t want to be an academic when I finish my degree. I have done a lot of work around this and feel confident deep in my bones about it. My heart feels good when I think about doing other things, and I feel constricted and sad when I think about spending my life as an academic. Fair enough.
But for so long, for so many years, I imagined myself as an academic and I imagined the prestige that would come with it. How easy it would be to say to people, “I am a professor.” The easy respect and status that comes with that title is something I came to fantasize about and crave and associate with my identity. And now I am learning to imagine a future and a self without that. Most days, I feel very good about it. But sometimes, the old fear rears its ugly head. I hear about fellowships my peers are getting or articles they are publishing or other Impressive and Respectable Academic Things they are doing, and I freeze. I wonder, am I choosing right? Am I totally insane? What if I’m wrong? What if I’ve made the wrong choice? Maybe I should try to publish more. Maybe I should be thinking about my CV lines. Spiral, spiral, spiral.
I told my therapist about this on Monday. I laughed because it’s funny how we can feel so sure about stepping off the path of the clear steps and the easy prestige–we can feel so confident that we’ve eradicated the fear that we’re wrong–and then there it is waiting for you. Not even in an unguarded moment–it was in a moment when I asked myself, I wonder if it will hurt to recognize my peers’ accomplishments and sit with the knowledge that I’ve chosen to forego that route.
My therapist compared these moments of confronting our old fears and realizing we haven’t totally eradicated them to a snake shedding its skin periodically. Each time we confront the thing that we thought we were past, we grow a little more. Because after I had a little self-doubt spiral, I assessed. I always assess. Do I still trust this new path? And my answer was the same: yes. I need to build a life for myself that makes me feel good in my soul. And the academic route still isn’t going to do it. But giving up the rewards and validation I imagined it would bring me is proving to be something I am going to keep wrestling with. Every time I wrestle with it, I am shedding another skin, growing into a new one. Feeling temporarily secure again in my intentionality.
Here’s another example: this blog. Writing this blog always feels like a huge risk. I have no idea who reads it or how it affects their judgment of me. And if you’ve been reading my archives, you know approval is one of the things I am working to let go of. Writing and publicizing this blog has been a way for me to practice courage. Because I worry what my peers think of me, every time I post something on here, I am putting a stake in the ground to prove to myself that I can say things out loud and take a position knowing full well that some readers will be totally on board and some will think, She is an idiot.
And again, I told my therapist about this fear I’m working on, and she asked me whether I perceive or know that some people judge me negatively. I said I didn’t know. She asked, does it matter? And I didn’t know. But I thought I should say out loud that even though I post in this blog as regularly as I can, sometimes I still go cold with fear, wondering who reads this and what they say about me as a result. I think about Pam Beesly in The Office on beach day saying in front of everyone how she did the coal walk and how she misses Jim, and then everyone in the office the next episode is like, wow, you got really personal there, how embarrassing for you.
I am Pam on Beach Day. Because so much of my identity in the past has ridden on my insistence that those around me perceive me in a certain way–rigorously intellectual, rational, a rule-follower, right–and this blog basically blows up that house of cards. It is me giving up control of how others perceive me. Here, I admit vulnerability and lean into self-help themes and woo-woo spirituality…just soft shit that makes me feel good.
But does it matter if certain people lose respect for me or think of me differently? Ultimately, it does not. Because I wanted to stop living my life, making decisions, and hiding out of fear of the response from the stands. I wanted to stop tiptoeing around trying to blend in and not be seen. This blog was one tiny step towards showing up honestly in my own damn life. And it has been
Because I realized I can say what is in my heart and the sky doesn’t fall down. The earth doesn’t stop rotating. But I feel So. Much. Better. And I am learning to live with the feeling that I may not be liked or understood by every single person I know. They say once you step onto the path of radical authenticity you will lose some people. People will disagree with you, people will see what you’re doing and react defensively because they are still too afraid to do it themselves, and whenever we see someone doing something different from us, we wonder if our own choices are right. I get that. (Literally: see above example.) But I had to learn to be okay with it. And I’m still working on it.
Finally, one last example, and it’s kind of random: I’m a 32-year-old woman, turning 33 later this year, and I am unmarried and childless. If you only knew how often I confront this fact and wonder if I’m Doing It Right….oh, man. In the social media-saturated world we live in where reality gets distorted and the mundane everyday fades away under the glare of MAJOR MILESTONES and IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENTS and GOOD NEWS, it is easy to forget that life is mostly made up of the everyday, the behind-the-scenes as we now might call it. It’s easy to forget that we are still valuable and worthy and loveable even if we aren’t hitting the milestones that we thought we were supposed to, that we were conditioned into thinking we should.
Every time a woman around my age posts a cute Pinterest-worthy picture with a due date scrawled in loopy cursive and a tiny pair of shoes, I wonder. I am happy that women are fulfilling these dreams, especially because I know so many women who have miscarried–the struggle to conceive can be a lonely road filled with heartache and deep, terrible pain. But still, I wonder if I am Doing It Right because I haven’t had kids yet. Because I haven’t wanted to have kids yet. I ask, does that make me wrong? Behind? Defective? Maybe if it were as common for women to post regularly on social media something like, “Another year and I still did not have a baby!” and then get 200 likes and congratulations, I would worry less about the quantitative validation our peers get for doing things we’re not doing. But man, those likes feel so good.
Even though I have recognized that marriage and children were never part of a dream I had for my future, even though I feel that on a deep, emotional level, it doesn’t mean I don’t still doubt. Because sometimes it feels like everyone else is doing it and I’m the high schooler at the party fearing social rejection because I don’t want to smoke the cigarette.
So I want to end by claiming that doubt is good. It can be affirming. Because when we doubt, we question. And if we didn’t question, we wouldn’t grow. The only reason I found myself living a more joyful, fulfilled life is because I doubted. I doubted that feeling depressed every day and feeling like work wasn’t interesting and feeling shitty all the time were things I wanted to feel for the rest of my life! And it was hard because I’d been conditioned to thinking that it was fine to feel that way. It was normal. Most people hate going to work. Most people feel low-grade anxiety and dissatisfaction all the time. So I trusted that I was normal because I felt these things. But then one day, I didn’t trust it anymore. One day, I doubted that feeling lowkey shitty all the time was the only way. I wondered if it could be different.
And it is. But I still wonder. I still doubt sometimes. It forces me to confront the things I keep thinking I’ve solved. It forces me to consider if the path I am forging through a wilderness is right. And I have to keep answering those questions and doing the work myself.