We disappoint ourselves in two ways. One is the usual small disappointments - failing to follow a new food plan, or a workout schedule. We don’t work hard enough, or we work too much. In these small disappointments we’re basically refusing to accept our own humanity. We want to be perfect and we’re disappointed when we fall short.
But there is another disappointment, when we make truly shocking mistakes born of not knowing ourselves, when we find ourselves to be a surprise, a mystery to ourselves. A bad mystery. And we are scared then, wondering who is doing these things? Is this who I am?
If you’re like me, and you have ever found yourself doing things you didn’t think possible, you don’t have to simply hate yourself for it. You can grieve for your mistakes and you can feel the enormity of what you are risking or losing through these choices, but you can also approach yourself as a mystery. We are vast, the saying goes. We contain multitudes.
It’s a dream to think we will always be our best selves. Or even be reasonable at all.
Anyone who’s ever raised a child can recognize the feelings of a toddler lying on the floor weeping when they don’t get their way about some VASTLY RIDICULOUS REQUEST. Like, “I want to hold the knife myself!” or “I want to run into the road, WHY WHY WHY are you not letting me run freeeeeeeee?”
When that happened with my son, I gained such respect for all the ways we hem ourselves in and keep a lid our emotions as adults. All the ways we want to run or hit someone or scream at the top of our lungs and what a truly admirable job we have done learning how to get through a trip to the mall, or grocery shopping in the days before Thanksgiving, or talking to the cable company without breaking down. It’s remarkable that we don’t scream-cry more often.
We are filled with grief and terror when we find ourselves acting out a self we didn’t quite know was there.
My experiences have led me to regard myself as an iceberg moving through the world, with only the smallest bit visible to others, and to myself even. An iceberg floating through the world. All that mass under the surface can do real damage. Can destroy my life and my family.
I don’t know why we make the terrible choices we make sometimes, except to say that we’re human. We don’t always make sense. We’re not robots. We are mysterious, mountainous, iceberg people.
Anyone who’s ever come through addiction knows that there are ways you can disappoint yourself that are beyond belief. Earlier this week, the elevator broke in the fancy restaurant downtown and as we walked down 15 flights of stairs we came upon a woman in the middle of an opioid overdose. She couldn’t stand, like her body was melting.
My aunt said, “I can’t imagine. I just don’t get it.” And I said to myself, “Oh, I get it.” Opioids aren’t my experience, but I know how I fell into the unimaginable in my addiction and how it has happened in sobriety, too. I have found myself falling, unable to stand under the weight of my own choices, and both wanting to and not wanting to get back up. I have come to over and over again, standing in some new bar and had to look around me to see Who am I with now? What’s happening?
These mistakes seem to happen so fast, and the mystery is so thick, it’s all I can do to keep up. I can feel like I’m on a moving train. I have fallen into a mistake at times when I could only see in retrospect that it wasn’t just one mistake, but a whole string of bad decisions. An endless line of wrong moves that landed me into a pit of my own choices. But choices so mysterious to me that they didn’t feel like choices at all. Just surprise.
I see evidence of this iceberg self in all the ways I confuse myself. In the people I should like, but don’t. In the people I shouldn’t like, but do. In the ways I should clearly take one action, but instead take another. In the ways I seem to self-sabotage, or not live up to my own best standards, or even to my own lowest standards sometimes.
I know I’m not alone when I say I have truly shocked myself.
But I’ve found that we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend that we are our own most ideal selves. When we make plans based on the mistaken, foolish notion that we will always act in our own best interests, we are planning to fail. We won’t always behave logically, with airtight forgiveness, compassion, and love.
We aren’t perfect, and planning to be perfect doesn’t make it so.
But we CAN plan to be imperfectly perfect. Perfectly human. In all our strangeness, with our idiosyncrasies intact and our inconsistencies acknowledged.
The best we can do is admit these shortcomings, to ourselves at least. Admit these habits that hamstring us at times. Admit these real mistakes. When we look into our pasts, we can often find good reasons we do the things we do, even when we can see that they don’t serve us anymore.
We can pause and try to treat ourselves with all the love and compassion we would treat our best friend. My best friend is a woman who I trust infinitely. I don’t care what she does, because she’s built up a lifetime’s worth of trust with me. Even when she’s not at her best, I’m on her side. I know she has good reasons for it. I trust her.
So this is where we are. We make mistakes. Costly mistakes sometimes. And it takes a while to get back to ourselves when we find that we have truly lost our own center.
I can come back, bit by bit, choice by choice, to my own center.
I can get some feeling of ground beneath me again. And I will have more respect then for that iceberg self beneath the surface. I will pay attention to how it moves inside me and I will try to make choices that work with myself rather than pretending that I don’t exist.
I can stop pretending that instead of the flawed me that I am, that I have another perfect self I can work with. And I can forgive myself for being human. Right in the middle of humanity. Not the worst and not the best. Just right in the middle of the pack. And that can be good enough.
It has to be.
Because perfect is a myth. Good enough is all we’ve got. Good enough is just that - good enough. And I can love myself in this, too. In my good enoughness. In my imperfections.
I can let myself be loved by something greater than me.
By God, or the Universe, by my Higher Power. I can rest there, and try again, tomorrow. With more compassion and a better understanding of who I am, of what I’ve got to work with. Because we are all we’ve got. Not some other, ideal self, just this self. Flawed and whole and human.